Saturday, August 18, 2007

On the approach of Hurricane Dean

As Hurricane Dean prepares to batter Haiti's southern coast this evening, I recall a time in the country when I witnessed firsthand the terrible devastation that tropical storms and hurricanes can wreak on a place so heavily deforested.

In May 2004 I traipsed through the Haitian countryside to bring back the words of survivors of flooding that had killed hundreds along the Dominican Border. My observations then were captured in an interview with Melissa Block on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered program, which can be listened to here. Then, in September 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne devastated Haiti, and the Artibonite Valley in particular, killing some three thousand people and leaving some 200,000 homeless. At that time, Haiti’s Caribbean partners in CARICOM (of which Haiti is the most populous member), stood around with their hands in their pockets, refusing to lift and finger to help their Haitian brothers and sisters in their moment of greatest need, and leaving it to United Nations forces in Haiti to do what it could to provide aid.

A year later, in May 2005, I returned to Fonds-Verettes, one of the scenes of some the worst flooding in May 2004, to find that precious little had changed. The article I wrote on my visit, for the valuable journalists’ support organization Panos, is included in its entirety below.

Now, in August 2007, as Haiti has a stable, democratically-elected government in place that has reengaged with its Caribbean and Latin American neighbors, and a peacekeeping force of nearly 6,800 soldiers, one hopes that solidarity will be more forthcoming should, heaven forbid, Haiti need the aid of its neighbors again.

In the more long-term view, as well, one hopes that over the next several years the government of Haitian President René Préval and the international community will be able to seriously and in a sustained way begin to address and reverse Haiti’s environmental decline, thus giving a breath of life to the country’s long-struggling peasantry and helping to avoid the disastrous results of storms such as we have witnessed in recent years.

I wish them all very well and they are in my prayers as I sit here in Paris this evening.



More Than A Year After Devastating Floods, Haitians Still Look for Conditions That Spawn Change

Panos Caribbean/CERN

By Michael Deibert,
31 August 2005

FONDS-VERETTES, Haiti, 31 August 2005 (Panos) - Below mist-shrouded mountains largely stripped bare of trees, amidst a clutch of tarp-covered market stands pitched beside an immense field of boulder-sized rocks, Elise Rousseau, 44, stands with her sister and stirs a pot of boiling marinade patties, remembering the terrible flood that swept through this small town over a year ago.

“About midnight, the water started rushing in,” she says, her voice choked with emotion, as a persistent drizzling rain descends into the valley where the village of Fonds-Verettes lies. “Our houses were swept away, everything we had was swept away. Everyone was running, but they had no idea where they would go. My daughter was sixteen years old and she drowned.”

In the village of Thomin, a rough 30-minute drive down a trickling stream bed from Fonds-Verettes, the story is much the same.

“Many, many people died here,” says Louis Cantel, a 67-year-old farmer, as he stands surveying a field of corn cut through at various points by a similar violent swath of rocks and stones, deposited as the waters swept by in May 2004. “From here all the way to the frontier, those who didn’t die, their goats, cows and chickens were all washed away.”

The rains of May 2004 in this remote, mountainous region where Haiti straddles the Dominican Republic, killed over 900 people in the two countries, the vast majority of them Haitian peasants caught asleep in their shacks or market women who worked the two border crossings at the frontier.

Though subsistence farming forms the backbone of the lives of Haiti's poor, rural majority, one only needs to take a look at the imposing hills surrounding Fonds-Verettes, green and brown, but nearly devoid of trees, to realize the dire environmental problems confronting the country as it tries to feed its 8 million people.

“We have a serious environmental crisis in the country, for sure, but one with several causes,” says Camille Chalmers, director of the Plateforme Haïtienne de Plaidoyer pour un Développement Alternatif (Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development, or PAPDA), an organization which promotes grassroots developmental initiatives on behalf of Haiti’s poor.

“But the first cause is misery, people are born here with a lot of desperation and their sole source of liquidity are the trees.”

Over the past 50 years, 90 percent of Haiti’s tree cover has been destroyed for charcoal and to make room for farming, with the resulting erosion destroying two-thirds of the country’s arable farmland. With little left to hold the topsoil when the rains fall - often torrentially after prolonged spells with no precipitation at all - it rushes in torrents down the mountains, carving gullies and carrying crops and seeds along with it, sweeping vital minerals into the country’s rivers to be deposited, uselessly, in the sea.

Though these conditions have made the valleys set between the steep hills of the Caribbean nation’s countryside prone to flash floods (similar flooding around the northern city of Gonaives killed some 3,000 last September), residents say they have little choice but to remain where they are.

“It’s dangerous to live here, because we know that the water could always come back,” says Thomin farmer Gerard Pierre Paul, 40, as he eyes the clouds from beneath a straw peasant’s hat. “But we don’t have any money to put our houses on top of the mountains.”

Haiti’s tumultuous political situation - which saw the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide amid an armed rebellion and street protests against his rule in February 2004 - has repeatedly, scuttled any efforts at reforestation or other programs to help people in villages like Fonds-Verettes. The rate of hunger in the country is now ranked as the world’s third highest, surpassed by only Somalia and Afghanistan, and the country’s literacy rate hovers around 60%.

“Haiti is a country that’s in chronic crisis, and it’s a low-boil crisis, so you have any major incident, whether it’s a natural disaster or a man-made, socio-political one, and things go under very quickly.

"For the people who suffer most, it’s been a very rough year,” says Abby Maxman, Haiti country director for the aid organization “CARE”, speaking in the group’s headquarters in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

An interim government headed by President Boniface Alexandre and Prime Minister Gerard Latortue took power in Haiti after Aristide’s departure. But, beset by an armed urban campaign of violence against police and civilians launched by Aristide-aligned street gangs in the capital, the administration has largely appeared to be too busy trying to put out political fires and cling to power until legislative and presidential elections this November, to spend much time on issues such as environmental degradation and land reform.

“There needs to be a serious and sustained investment in Haiti countrywide by the international community to insure that we just don’t come here to respond to an acute crisis, because it’s the low-level crisis that keeps everyone unstable,” says Maxman. “We can’t just look at the elections as if that’s end game. That’s the beginning of it, of the real process for getting Haiti on a track for development.”

The problem of the tenuous existence of Haiti’s rural poor is further complicated by the fact that governments based in Port-au-Prince, usually a remote entity for peasants living hours away on rumbling roads, have often viewed any kind of organizing by the peasant masses with suspicion if not outright hostility, and have responded in kind.

In the 1950's, the military ruler Paul Magloire displaced thousands of peasants to build the Peligre hydroelectric dam near the Dominican border, but those evicted, like the people of Fonds-Verettes, from their land, never saw any of the electricity the dam was supposed to produce. A few years later, the dictator Francois Duvalier formed the Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale (VSN) militia, which became popularly known as the Tontons Macoutes after a Kreyol expression (the name translated as “uncle knapsack”) for a boogeyman, in part to keep an eye on the restless provinces.

In 2002 Aristide, in contrast to the agrarian reform policy of his predecessor, Rene Preval , who governed from 1996-2001, bulldozed some of Haiti’s most productive farmland on the green and fertile Maribaroux Plain in the northeast of the country, to enable the Dominican Grupo M company to create a “free trade” zone. In practice this meant that workers were assembling Levi Jeans from 7 in the morning until 7 at night, having a single 45 minute break to eat lunch and use the bathroom. Compensation was 432 Haitian Gourdes (around US $12) per week and unions were not permitted.

But PAPDA’s Camille Chalmers, for one, refuses to give up hope that Haiti’s environmental degradation is irreversible. PAPDA itself was formed in 1995 in response and opposition to a clutch of economic reforms - including rapid trade liberalization, privatization of key state enterprises and financial deregulation - that the first Aristide government agreed to, in order to facilitate his return from exile after being ousted for three years by a military coup. Growing up in such an environment has made the group, like Haiti’s peasants, no stranger to overcoming adversity.

“We need to have a system of cooperation between the peasants and people in the cities to address the planting of trees and the use of charcoal,” Chalmers says. “We need an aggressive strategy of cooperation to plant trees and an administrative system that will make that happen.”

Meanwhile, in Fond-Verettes, a steady rain is falling, and the market women pull underneath their fragile shelter.

“It’s not just the floods only,” says Pastor Destine Charles, a 34 year-old Fonds-Verettes native who has formed an organization, Kote Pa-M (“Where is Mine?” in Kreyol), to help alleviate poverty and unsafe living conditions of those in the area. The road near the market stands has now turned into a steady gurgling stream and the clouds have descended low over the valley.

“People don’t have houses, access to water, nor hospitals. We have a lot of children that don’t have access to schools. We want to ameliorate our situation but we need help.”

No comments: