The Noisy Water Review

Haiti's Garden of Bloom or Gloom?

Marianne Brudwick

681 miles southeast from Miami, Florida, the sun sets on a Caribbean island where you would expect to feel the tropical breeze, sand between your toes and your body unwind as the heat of the day dies down. Instead, a Haitian woman vendor puts her few belongings away for the night, prepares her meager meal, then lays down to rest, amongst the garbage-filled pit that seems to grow up around her feet like weeds in a neglected garden. The smell, danger, and risk of disease are part of her everyday life. Klarreich (1996) writes about Haiti's environmental health hazard in her article, "In Haiti, Trash on Streets Becomes the Norm," quoting Olivier, a Haitian woman who said, "We live just like the animals that feed off the garbage we're sitting on." Olivier is just trying to make a living by selling bananas along the side of the road like many others. Jobs are difficult to come by. Klarreich believes the garbage crisis is due to the economic crisis in this country. Unfortunately, there are thousands of poverty-stricken Haitians affected by what she calls this "health menace." But just who is responsible for this ruination?

The problem of growing trash on this island quickly became known to me when I visited with a group of ten other people in March, 2012. My prior cultural awareness was limited by local news reports and testimony of friends until I actually experienced it firsthand. Once there, I was shocked by how anyone can live in such an impoverished state. I questioned why there isn't a system in place to control the trash? Why doesn't the government do something to help prevent disease and organize a system to pick this up? I had never really given garbage much thought before. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my ethnocentric attitude was characteristic of a middle-class American citizen, guilty of assuming others think like "us" or at least, others should think like us since we seem to have our act together, right? But in my naiveté to know the facts, I failed to consider what happened to Haiti to bring it into this disparaging state. Perhaps the problem is bigger than the garbage itself. My research has led me to address environmental health hazards related to the garbage crisis in Haiti and how they came to be, presenting statistical information to compare their culture to that of the United States and what prospects of hope exist.

An insightful look into Haiti comes from author Tracy Kidder, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Mountains Beyond Mountains (2004). He journeyed into the depths of Haiti with Dr. Paul Farmer, Chief Strategist and Creator of Partners In Health. Kidder describes the Haitian culture, their desperate needs and what the "blan" (white man) has done to them. For instance, Farmer often spoke about the Peligre Dam along Haiti's largest river, the Artibonite. Similar to the dams along the Nu River in China, the project's intention was to improve irrigation and generate power but came at a greater expense to the environment and community. The project's money came from the U.S. Export-Import Bank and was planned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Built in the mid-1950's, it was believed to be a "gift" to Haiti. Unfortunately, the people in the area where it was built did not receive electricity or water to compensate for their land. The ones who benefited most were American-owned agribusinesses downstream, the tiny, wealthy Haitian elite and foreign-owned assembly plants that existed in Port-au-Prince (37, 38). Kidder was exposed to the hopelessness of these people who, as Farmer said, "are a fastidious people...they blow their noses into dresses because they don't have tissues...and have to apologize to their children for not having enough to eat" (40). He explains what he refers to as "white liberals"; prosperous, influential spokespeople of different skin color who believe, "all the world's problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don't believe that. There's a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It's what separates us from roaches" (40). Kidder's comparison of the U.S. individualistic mindset to the true needs of Haiti's collectivistic society leaves a noticeable ravine between.

According to a Newsweek eLibrary article entitled, "For Haiti, No Relief in Sight" (Interlandi 2010), Haiti suffers from a broken bureaucracy. Their history of corruption and mistrusted leaders is decades long. Just within the last twelve years, the Bush administration directed a ban of foreign-aid from reaching their government because of its dislike for their leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Instead of distributing aid to their government, the United States trusted the non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, to use and distribute aid to help the people in need. Other countries followed suit and the arduous workers of the native land naturally followed the money, going to the NGOs for higher-paying jobs. Unfortunately, because of this wave of new influential power, the public sector weakened; health and education crumbled even more and corruption became rampant while the NGOs increased in numbers. A good intention turned bad again.

Non-profit organizations are quick to help impoverished nations such as Haiti, known as the poorest country in the western hemisphere (Worldbank). According to Global Finance Magazine's website, Haiti is currently the 20th poorest country in the world, listed as having $1,358 GDP per capita, with a population of about 10 million. On the other hand, the United States has a GDP per capita of $51,248 and is listed near the top as one of the wealthier nations in the world (2011). Interestingly, more than half of United States citizens volunteer in some capacity but would rather not have the government help take care of the poor (Jandt 216). Much of this work is done through non-profit organizations. Despite the fact that the United States citizens pursue goals saturated in self-interest, the underlying belief introduced by Adam Smith, founder of economics (1776) was that the good of the society would be promoted in the process. This concept, explained in Introduction to Economic Reasoning (2009) became known as the "invisible hand" (37). I have to wonder at our intentions of helping other impoverished areas when we are a nation built on self-interest. Are we honestly trying to help a hurting country get on their own two feet again, or is our giving a way to make us "look good"? Is there a better way to help a nation help themselves?

Along with corruption and projects such as the Peligre Dam, other disasters have only added to the garbage pileups in this fragile country. The January, 2010, 7.0 earthquake left this poverty-ridden country in an upheaval. 1.3 of the 1.5 million people that were displaced (worldbank.org) have since left the makeshift camps and relocated. 11 million cubic meters of debris have been removed, but even as I saw firsthand, bouncing along the Port-au-Prince roads in 2012, much work is still left to be done. Most of the mountains are barren, though they used to be lush in forestry. Ninety-eight percent have been cut down since the early 20th century to be used as fuel for cooking, leaving little land to be farmed and adding to the desertification (Wikipedia). The World Bank (2001) estimated that, "around 54 percent of the population lived on less than US$1 a day and 78 percent on less than US$2. Haitians often resort to gathering water from 'garbage-filled' rivers to supply their households with water for their daily needs, including cooking and drinking when water becomes too expensive or they do not have access to a clean water source” (Sentlinger).

In Shahafi's article, “Effects of Waste and Dirtiness on our Health and Wellbeing,” health and well-being are the primary concern for every human being. The Haitian's right to it is taken away because filthy conditions not only lead to many diseases such as cholera, but also exacerbate health costs. Healthcare centers produce medical waste if left unchecked, known as clinical garbage, which is extremely harmful to humans as well as the ecological system. Ordinary garbage including food items spoil easily, creating air pollution and causing even greater damage to the environment than non-food garbage from cans, glass, and plastic (Shahafi).

Bettighofer explained how Haiti currently handles their garbage, learning through his work as a volunteer with Solidaridad, an NGO working in fifteen countries on four continents. He says there are two bodies of people in charge of Haiti's waste management. Townships are responsible for bringing garbage to the roadside and the central government is responsible for collecting and disposing it. The collection service, directed under the Ministry of Public Works, Transport and Communications only picks up a fraction of the garbage. As the garbage piles up and waits for pickup, serious hazards to the environment increase. Along with sanitation issues, bacteria spreads and beaches are contaminated, in turn harming marine life. Burn piles are common, as I can attest to, releasing a high amount of CO2 in the air (harmful to respiratory systems) due to the toxic smoke from plastic contaminants made to withstand hundreds of years of life in our world. It's not that the Haitians don't want to recycle. I drank from several recycled Coke bottles on our trip and saw people walking long distances with a plastic container in hand, hoping to get their fill of clean water for the day. Bettighofer states that there are no current recycling "systems" such as in the United States. However, several initiatives have begun to initiate change. Such projects include using demolition rubble from the earthquake to build new houses and sidewalks and instigating collection centers that accept recyclable plastics for cash. Still, much remains to be done.

Why not build a waste incineration plant? This idea has been considered by a United States company (Crawford). Of course, it requires high costs due to the elaborate garbage incineration system and amount of technology needed. The percentage of moist organic compounds is so high that an additional auxiliary firing is necessary, further increasing costs to which the country would need to commit.

Could entrepreneurship be an answer? The government has attempted to use money given from other countries for cleanup but has come up short. Bayrasli (2011), a Forbes contributing writer, discusses comparisons and potential improvement for Haiti. China, Turkey and India have had some success with letting trash collection become a private enterprise. In order to have an economic ecosystem, there needs to be a higher level of order and consistency to maintain a clean environment. To quote Bayrasli:

In Istanbul, for example, that garbage is picked up and mail delivered even in the poorest neighborhoods reflects a level of not only physical but psychological mobility... Struggling to get around Port au Prince, let alone in or out of it, highlights the important place city planning and design have in an economic ecosystem. Haiti’s rugged topography makes that a harder task than normal. It does not, however, make it impossible. Unfortunately, the country’s politicians just might.

Valuable lessons can be learned by watching others develop systems that work in similar impoverished environments. Bayrasli sees private enterprise as a possible solution for Haiti, despite the lack of governmental support and believes it would improve the quality of life.

Hardship pleads for help and creative solutions. Determined to help Haiti, The Phoenix Project has broken ground to find a solution through a massive building creation (Project Phoenix). The creators, Morad Fareed, a real estate developer and Boby Duval of the youth charity L’Athletique D’Haiti came together at the Clinton Summit in 2012. Both were high level, competitive athletes who share the passion of teaching discipline and teamwork through sports. They quickly created a partnership with a global mindset to build sports facilities in impoverished countries, including work recently begun in Haiti (Inhabitat). Their vision includes, "...directly impacting impoverished communities and the lives of children globally through creating bold, innovative sporting facilities." Their inaugural project, the Phoenix Stadium (capacity of 12,000 people), is being built in Cite Soleil, an area within Port-au-Prince well known for crime. This environmentally conscious project is supported by native Haitian Robert Duval, a Haitian human rights activist and world-renowned architect, Carlos Zapata. The stadium will not only host professional soccer teams, but also help local youth, providing a safe, clean environment in which to learn teamwork, sports discipline and host a soccer academy. One of the project's goals is to create green, sustainable facilities based on natural resources, such as constructing the facility out of the rubble, once considered useless. It will house elementary and middle school dormitories and include a composting/recycling plant. Even the landscape is considered sustainable, containing edible gardens and a small lake with tilapia fish.

Other, smaller scale projects sponsored by NGOs have been successful at fighting garbage from different angles such as the Global Handwashing Day (Wikipedia), where events including a soccer tournament combined with food, music, dancing and prizes have been held in Port-au-Prince. About 8,000 schools in Haiti have been reached through this project, teaching and interacting with kids and adults about the importance of hand washing for cholera prevention.

Is creating a sustainable environment only a concern for the rich, developed countries who can afford to pour money into protecting the earth's resources? Jandt refers to global health saying, "scarcity of resources and natural disasters are hurting the poor, making care for the environment a moral responsibility for all the faithful" (205). Money is a necessary component of environmental care but how does it get into the right hands to make the most effective changes when a country has had a history of undependable government leaders and an inner circle of corruption? There is no question the Haitians want to see a better, cleaner environment. Many others have tried to approach the problem from the outside, but the best solution it seems, would need to come from within. Haiti is not without hope to become beautiful and clean once again, but it will take collaboration of like-minded people working together for the betterment of their country.

Presenting Haitians with sustainable solutions is the fertilizer needed to transform them from a garden of gloom back to a garden of bloom. As front-line workers, Engineers Without Borders (Shaott) understand that creating sustainability in a third world country doesn't mean handing them a tractor. They cannot afford the gas or maintenance. For outsiders to help, technologically simple solutions must be considered, given what little they have to work with so that once outsiders leave, the community can maintain the equipment, build their own, new systems and spread technology amongst themselves. Pride doesn't come from a foreigner dumping a basket of goods at your doorstep, grateful though you may be, but rather from producing something from your own hands, your own personal sacrifice of love and labor, working as a community toward a common goal from within your native borders; then you take collective ownership in celebrating the rewards to call your own. Haiti is a unique community consisting of hard working, fun-loving, exuberant people with a strong heart. Though ruination has reigned in Haiti this last century, I believe restoration will grow from within so its flowers will bloom again.

Works Cited

Bayrasli, E. (2011) Designing An Entrepreneurial Haiti. Retrieved from <http://www.forbes.com/sites/elmirabayrasli/2011/04/04/designing-an-entrepreneurial-haiti/>

Crawford, M. (2013). Turning Trash Into Treasure. Mechanical Engineering, 135(5), 42-47.

Global Finance Magazine. (2014, March 14). Retrieved from <http://www.gfmag.com/component/content/article/119-economic-data/12537-the-poorest-countries-in-the-world.html#axzz2w07oHa8j>

Inhabitat. Retrieved from <http://inhabitat.com/>

Interlandi, J., Yarett, I., Cornblatt, J., Barry, J., & Tuttle, S. (2010). For Haiti, No Relief in Sight. Newsweek, 156(20), 44-49.

Jandt, F. E. (2013). An introduction to intercultural communication: identities in a global community (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Kidder, Tracy. "4." Mountains beyond mountains. New York: Random House, 2003. 37,38,40. Print.

Klarreich, K. (1996, January 25). In Haiti, Trash On Streets Becomes The Norm. Christian Science Monitor, 6.

Project Phoenix (2014). Retrieved from <http://project-phoenix.org/>

Rohlf, W.D. (2011). Introduction to Economic Reasoning. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2011. 37. Print.

Sentlinger, K. (2014) The Water Project.org. Retrieved from <http://thewaterproject.org/water-in-crisis-haiti.php>

Shaott, J. (2014, March 19) Engineers Without Borders Create Sustainable Technology To Improve Third World Countries. Northern Illinois University Today. Retrieved from <http://www.niutoday.info/2013/03/25/engineers-without-borders-create-sustainable-technology-to-improve-third-world-countries/>

Shahafi, H. (2011) Article, "Effects of Waste and Dirtiness on our Health and Wellbeing". Retrieved from <http://www.af.boell.org/web/113-309.html>

Wikipedia (2014). Retrieved from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiti>

Worldbank (2014). Retrieved from <http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/haiti/overview>

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