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17549: Hermantin: Haiti: `The world doesn't have any idea how bad this situation is getting' (fwd)
From: leonie hermantin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Haiti: `The world doesn't have any idea how bad this situation is getting'
December 7, 2003
PORT-AU-PRINCE--The floods that blight the seaside slum known as God's
Village arrive with a vengeance, even on days when the rains are light.
Waves of coffee-colored mud slide off the mountains into canals heaping with
garbage. Sewers overflow and stone walls topple. The waters rise above
sandbags and the rusting auto chassis that line a canal. Drowned pigs, dogs
and rats float in the fetid mix -- a reddish-brown swirl seeping into the
sea as though the very land is hemorrhaging.
"The mud, it comes fast and hard, but this one isn't so bad -- we've had
much worse," says Boss Nirva, wading through the muck that swamps his
shanty. "It didn't even rain hard here. This is the consequence of what
happens in the mountains up there, the lack of trees and all. We're always
at the mercy of the floods."
In Creole they are called lavalas -- "cleansing floods" that rush down from
the mountains like an avalanche from June to November. But the floods no
longer cleanse in Haiti, an eroding nation whose very soil is vanishing
beneath its people's feet.
A quest for fire has destroyed trees and forests, turning once-lush
mountains into yellowing, naked rocks. Rivers and lakes are dying, and tons
of mounting garbage and contaminants are breeding disease.
Perverted by poverty and environmental destruction, the natural cycle that
once nourished the land is spiraling out of control.
By every measure, Haiti's 8 million inhabitants are living in a state of
profound ecological crisis, an ongoing catastrophe little noticed by world
leaders preoccupied by wars and conflicts in much larger lands.
Less than 1 percent of Haiti remains covered in forest. In the last five
decades, more than 90 percent of its tree cover has been lost -- an area
three times the size of the Everglades. The resulting erosion has destroyed
an estimated two-thirds of the country's fertile farmland since 1940, while
its population has quadrupled.
The United Nations calls Haiti a "silent emergency," noting its vital
statistics rival those of sub-Saharan Africa:
Haiti has the third-highest rate of hunger in the world, behind Somalia and
Its people have less access to clean water and sanitation than residents of
Ethiopia or Sierra Leone.
Its malnutrition rate is higher than Angola's, and life expectancy is lower
in Haiti than in Sudan.
A greater percentage of Haitians live in poverty than citizens of the
The links between environmental and health problems in Haiti are complicated
but undeniable. Yet few nations are working closely with Haitian officials
to help solve them. Even the United States, Haiti's largest benefactor, has
suspended aid to the government because of concerns about fraudulent
elections in 2000. And almost no one believes Haiti can solve its own
"The world doesn't have any idea how bad this situation is getting here;
nobody's paying any attention to Haiti," says Alain Grimard, a senior
diplomat with the United Nations Development Program based in Haiti. "And at
the heart of it is the very severe environmental crisis in this country. The
Haitian case is really quite unique in the world now; you have too many
people living on land that can no longer support them."
A STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE
Despite more than two decades of rampant deforestation, Haiti has stayed
afloat with billions of dollars of international aid. The Haitian exile
community from the United States and elsewhere sends an estimated $800
million every year in cash, food and clothing to relatives on the island.
"If you stopped that food aid overnight, the population would probably be
cut in half to 4 million," says Simon Fass, author of Political Economy in
Haiti: The Drama of Survival. "The rest would starve to death.
"You have a society in which everyone is trying to get out. But nobody wants
them to get out. Yet nobody wants them to starve. If it were someplace far
away, like Somalia or Ethiopia, then that would be fine. But it's too close.
So what you end up with is a sort of `Haiti World,' where everyone stays
alive on welfare from abroad."
Most of that $800 million comes from Florida, the promised land for
Haitians, many of whom risk their lives every year to make it to U.S.
shores. In the last decade, Florida's Haitian community has more than
doubled and, with 267,000 legal residents and about another 230,000
undocumented, is now the largest recorded outside Haiti. Many immigrants
maintain strong ties to home -- a connection that could lead to a major
Haiti-to-Florida exodus in the event of a natural or political crisis on the
"When you get on that boat, you're just praying to God," says Louis Boilo,
40, who came to Delray Beach in Palm Beach County from the Artibonite Valley
town of St. Marc seven years ago. "My boat was so overcrowded, and it was so
dark, I don't know how many people were on it. But when you see shore,
you're just so happy and thankful to be alive. You're in Delray."
The harsh environmental and economic conditions driving Haitians to leave
can be traced through the nation's complex 200-year history of political
turmoil and class conflicts. The legacy of slavery -- followed by
international isolation and a succession of corrupt, predatory governments
-- has created a culture where few have faith in government or large-scale
enterprises, such as environmental-protection initiatives.
Despite international efforts during the last 20 years, and a U.S. invasion
in 1994 that restored President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after a 1991
coup, Haiti has been unable to nurture democracy, economic growth or
sustainable environmental programs.
Crop harvests are shrinking, malnutrition rates are growing and the
population has outstripped the land's ability to sustain it. One example:
The production of rice, a key component in the Haitian diet, has fallen
dramatically during the past decade. One in three Haitian children are
malnourished, leaving many with telltale reddish-orange hair.
Famine-like conditions plague many parts of the country. Eating weeds and
bark to stave off hunger, once an off-season practice among poor farmers, is
common year-round. Many have turned to eating clay, a folk remedy once
common among pregnant women.
"Who knows when the end point will come, when it all just collapses?"
Grimard says. "Every year the situation grows so bad you can't see how it
will last much longer. Last year we forecast different crisis points -- the
price of oil, the price of food -- and things have surpassed those."
But while Haitians are resilient, survival has its limits.
"People don't want to leave here, but in the end we have to eat, we have to
survive," says Liberus Mesadieu, a schoolteacher and farmer who lives
outside of Bombardopolis, a small town in the country's bleak northwest. In
this region, farmers are so desperate that they are digging up the roots of
long-gone trees to make charcoal -- the only crop that brings a steady
While Mesadieu is acutely aware that uprooting trees is threatening his
ability to raise other crops, "the choice is between a tree and my
children," he says.
"Which would you pick?"
NATURAL CYCLE CRIPPLED
Haiti's problems begin in the mountains.
The storms of the Caribbean darken the sky nearly every afternoon during the
rainy season. Purple clouds swell like bruises around the peaks, and cool
breezes scatter the garbage that fills city streets.
As night falls, torrents of wind and rain sweep over remote villages and
vast mountainside shantytowns lit only by slender veins of lightning. The
heavy drops hit the soft soil hard, sending water down barren slopes so
steep that peasant farmers must hang by ropes to till tiny plots of land.
Water -- both as bringer of life and herald of death -- informs the
proverbs, poems and folklore of the Haitian people. Every year, dozens,
sometimes hundreds, die in floods triggered by storms that do little damage
elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The flash floods are a powerful metaphor in this former slave colony, where
rebellions have often emerged in the rugged mountains and fallen down upon
the cities. The floods give their name to the nation's democracy movement,
the Lavalas Family, which brought Aristide to power and ushered in the
country's first freely elected government in 1990.
With nothing to absorb the rain -- no trees, shrubs or terraced hillsides --
water and topsoil wash over the stunted crops. The runoff sweeps into deep
ravines that erosion has carved through the mountains, filling rivers and
streams with silt that is carried out to sea.
Haiti's geography compounds its environmental problems. The country,
one-fifth the size of Florida, has few plains and is more mountainous than
Switzerland. The terrain rises from sea level to peaks of 5,000 feet in just
a few miles, creating a variety of micro-climates.
Tropical islands, under natural conditions, typically have a thick veneer of
topsoil and foliage. That top 10 percent of the soil contains most of the
nutrients that nourish plant life. But in Haiti, that layer has largely
vanished. With 99 percent of its natural tree cover gone, millions of tons
of topsoil are washed away by the rains annually or left to fry under the
An estimated 400 small rivers and streams have silted up and disappeared
over the last two decades. Twenty-five of the country's 30 watersheds are
bare, with just 10 percent of rainfall penetrating the ground -- a quarter
of what is typically needed to replenish water supplies and aquifers.
Occupying one-third of the island of Hispaniola, Haiti was once so thick
with magnificent timbers in deep, rich soil it was known as the "Pearl of
the Antilles," the string of Caribbean islands. Now it ranks last in the
world for access to drinkable water, according to the Centre for Ecology and
Hydrology in the United Kingdom. The northwestern part of the country is an
expanding desert, with cacti and vast dusty expanses that resemble Arizona.
With the natural cycle crippled, the country's ecological devastation
affects every aspect of politics, culture and economy.
The erosion has turned the nation's highways into muddy roads with only
occasional sections of pavement. It can take a day to drive 60 miles through
mud-slicked mountain passes.
Health care also is compromised, as food, water and medicine cannot easily
be transported from one part of the country to the other. When silt collects
in waterways, disease spreads.
"For every 100 deaths of children under 5 years old, more than 50 had
symptoms linked to typhoid, dysentery bacilli and various parasites that
infest the fetid water," a report for the Canadian International Development
Agency concluded in 1998.
"Haiti's roads are a threat to public health," says Dr. Paul Farmer, a
Harvard Medical School professor who runs a clinic in Cange, a town in the
rugged Central Plateau. "There are terrible accidents all the time, and it's
not easy on us, either; we have to move medical supplies and staff along
Farmer blames such conditions for the loss of many patients, including
15-year-old Isaac Alfred, who had contracted typhoid from dirty water. He
had to be transported from his village to Farmer's clinic -- an eight-hour
"Microbes had bored holes through his intestines and when he was at the
clinic, hooked up to morphine and antibiotics, he was in excruciating pain,"
recalls Farmer. "By the time Isaac reached Cange, he received medical
treatment, but it was too late."
FOOD AND HEALTH
Farmer has seen how Haiti's deteriorating environment is contributing to the
"As topsoil is washed off of the treeless mountainsides, crop yields drop,"
he says. "Hunger ensues. Then they end up in my hands, with tuberculosis or
AIDS if they're adults, and with kwashiorkor [malnutrition] or diarrhea if
Dr. Guillaume Lionel, 34, who runs a clinic in God's Village, says the
biggest danger posed by the floodwaters is the contaminants they carry.
Once the sun begins to bake the pools of dirty water, bacterial and viral
agents from human waste and other pollutants become airborne. Many children
and adults in Haiti die not only from drinking dirty water but also from
waterborne contaminants and infectious respiratory diseases.
"We haven't had a huge flood lately, but on a daily basis the lavalas dump
the bodies of animals, sometimes a person, right in the canal that goes
through the center of this village," says Lionel. "The carcass slowly
becomes dust and it hits the kids the worst because in these tight places,
where everyone lives so close to one another, kids just touch everything."
The environmental conditions also have undermined agricultural efforts.
Dramatic political unrest has ensued as small farmers struggle to survive.
In the Artibonite Valley, the nation's rice basket, agricultural officials
are often targets of angry farmers whose canals have become so clogged with
sediment that rice can no longer be grown in the surrounding arid fields. A
Haitian government study in 1998 estimated that 37 million tons of topsoil
washes away every year, most of it in the Artibonite.
Some international efforts have hurt more than they've helped. After the
restoration of democracy by U.S. troops in 1994, the International Monetary
Fund and other institutions required Haiti to lift price supports in return
for hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid. Rice farmers were buried
by a glut of cheap food imports. Even if farmland conditions allowed them to
grow rice, it became too expensive. In the past two decades, exports of
American rice -- known here as "Miami rice" -- to Haiti have grown to
200,000 tons a year, making the nation one of the largest consumers of
American rice in the world.
"Some days you wonder why you're even out here," says Nevres Cadet Claudius,
60, overseeing laborers farming his tiny strip of land in the Artibonite.
"You grow and grow but the price you get for rice is less and less. Nobody
cares for us, not the government, not the world. We need fertilizers, better
tools, investment to compete in the world."
Unrest over these conditions has caused Jean Willy Jean-Baptiste, the local
head of the Development Organization of the Artibonite Valley, to travel
with shotgun-toting bodyguards as he surveys the agricultural lands under
his control. Angry farmers and opponents of the government's policies have
shot at him three times this year. The wall outside his office compound is
covered with graffiti calling for Jean-Baptiste's death.
"They are farmers who cannot grow food," he explains, standing beside a
silt-filled canal. "The capacity of the canals here to irrigate the land has
been cut in half.
"If there's no water in the canals, you cannot grow rice. If you can't grow
rice, then you cannot feed your family, pay for your children to go to
school, buy drinking water."
In the small village of Fabius, which hasn't seen water in the surrounding
canals in several years, farmers are resorting to violence to settle
squabbles over how to share limited water resources.
"The zones here are always in conflict now. The Artibonite is a very real
hot zone because we have people taking their machetes to solve their
irrigation problems," Jean-Baptiste says. "Sometimes one fight over a canal
leads to 10 or 12 deaths. It's neighborhood vs. neighborhood because one
place is getting water, but further down the canal it's dried up."
Mercily Dukern, 39, who grew up in Fabius, remembers when the canals were
waist-deep in water. "Look at my fields, they're just dead," he says. "We've
pretty much given up on getting water here for growing again anytime soon.
Whatever water collects in these ditches, people here need to drink. We're
all just waiting for God's mercy, waiting for his help."
LIFE IN THE SLUMS
As topsoil washes away in Haiti's rural areas, tens of thousands of economic
refugees have flooded its cities.
Port-au-Prince is growing at a rate faster than the world's mega-cities and
has a greater share of the national population than any other city in the
Western Hemisphere. About a third of the country's population -- some 2.8
million people -- live in the capital city.
"The farm families come here looking for a better life, but it's a life in
hell," says Jacques Hendry Rousseau, a Haitian demographer for the
International Organization of Migration. "These people have no urban skills,
and the one skill they do have -- growing food -- is of no use in the city."
The population density in the capital city's largest slum is among the
highest in the world. As many as 1,500 people live on every two acres of
land in Cite Soleil and other shantytowns. Conditions are so crowded that
many dwellers pay to sleep in shifts. Mothers and fathers often sleep
standing up in shacks that have less than 8 square feet of space for 10 or
"It's the lack of space -- there's literally no space at home or on the
streets or anywhere -- that's what's hardest," says Baby Lumeus, 35, of
God's Village, who is paid by residents to keep children from falling into a
foul swamp on Port-au-Prince's waterfront. "One of these days we'll all be
dead when the big rains hit, the water comes rushing down the mountain and
we're all pushed out to sea."
Hundreds of thousands of poor Haitians have overtaken the city's waterfront
in vast slums with names like the Eternal City, God's Village and Tokyo.
"In any other capital city in the world, the waterfront is where the rich
live," says Helliot Amilcar, a geologist who specializes in coastal
development at the Haitian Ministry of Environment. "Here, it is where the
poorest of the poor live."
The slums are hotbeds of crime and political discontent, and home to gangs
of young men who hire themselves out as political muscle known as chimere.
They use military titles and often mark territory with the names of American
hip-hop artists like Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg.
To escape conditions, refugees from Cite Soleil have moved up into the steep
mountains surrounding the capital city, building homes on sheer, treeless
slopes that often collapse during heavy rains. In early October, at least 15
people were killed when mudslides buried homes in Cite Bourdon, the slum at
the mouth of the Bois de Chien canal.
"There's really no place else to live; people here want to avoid the worst
slums like Cite Soleil," says Jean-Claude Fenelon, 36, bathing with several
other men and women in a stream that runs through Cite Bourdon. A native of
the Central Plateau region, he came to Port-au-Prince 10 years ago because
his plot of land barely grew anything.
"When I was growing up in the Central Plateau, you'd see people coming from
Port-au-Prince all the time," Fenelon recalls. "They looked good. They were
clean, wore nice clothes. They even smelled good. So you think good things
happen here, but looks can be deceiving."
Haiti's deplorable living conditions have promoted the spread of preventable
diseases that have been contained or eradicated in many other countries.
Polio, eliminated from the Western Hemisphere in 1994, re-emerged on the
island in 2000. The Pan American Health Organization said only 30 percent of
Haitian children had been fully vaccinated against measles, polio, mumps and
rubella in the 1990s. Since then, inoculation rates have declined. HIV/AIDS
kills 30,000 Haitians and orphans an estimated 200,000 children each year.
That gives Haiti the highest per-capita AIDS death rate in the hemisphere
and one of the highest in the world.
In city streets, Rousseau and other demographers have observed a large
increase in the number of street children -- known as kokorats or grapiays
(leftovers) -- orphaned by AIDS or other diseases.
"There's no reliable numbers on these children because the situation in
Haiti is so complex it's hard to tell anymore what a street child is," says
Rousseau. "The collapse of the countryside and the urban environment, the
sheer overpopulation, has resulted in a complete breakdown of the Haitian
family. In such an environment, a child who survives past the age of 5 is
usually on his own."
LEAVING IN ORDER TO LIVE
A growing number of Haitian refugees are fleeing for the relative stability
and economic opportunity of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island
of Hispaniola with Haiti.
The 223-mile frontier between the two nations has become a teeming border
area where Haitians and Dominicans compete for food and work. On the
Dominican Republic side, trees are clustered tightly in rich tropical
foliage. Roads are paved, houses are painted in bright tropical blues,
yellows and greens, and there are numerous automobiles. But in Haiti, the
mountains are bare and coffee-colored. Trees exist in solitary clusters so
small they would hardly shade a family picnic. Houses are ramshackle huts,
where they exist at all. The roads are muddy trails or worse.
"On one side there's order, and on the other side there's really no
authority at all," says Calixte Aldrin, a Haitian environmentalist who
specializes in border issues. "I don't even know if you can call what's on
the Haitian side an environment anymore. It's just barren, scalded land that
doesn't grow much."
As Haiti deteriorates, the Dominican Republic has grown increasingly
alarmed. Earlier this year, the chief of the armed forces described Haiti as
a security threat.
The World Bank estimates that at least 6 percent -- more than 500,000 -- of
the Dominican Republic's 8.4 million people are Haitian immigrants. Some
experts think the number is at least twice that figure. Many Haitians are
literally without any country: They have no records of their birth in Haiti
and live as illegal workers in the other nation.
"I supposedly have rights here because I was born here, and my mother was
Dominican," says Violine Philogene, a 16-year-old Haitian farmworker who
lives in a shack outside the Dominican border town of Dajabón. "But the
truth is that I cannot get any papers here, and I have no rights. I'm
Haitian, but I'm really just nothing, nobody, on either side of the border.
But the life is better here."
Ronald Joseph, a local congressman in Ouanaminthe, a northern Haiti border
town, estimates that the area's population has grown from about 5,000 a
decade ago to about 120,000 people today. All have fled the interior for a
better life in the Dominican Republic. The average income of Dominicans is
five times that of Haitians -- $2,000 a year compared to less than $400 in
"The misery is just increasing here," he says. "The only commerce is what
you can make on the Dominican side."
Louis Louis-Jeune, a 19-year-old Haitian who lives in a shack on farmland
outside another border town, La Ceiba, says he often journeys to farm and
construction jobs in Dajabón or the capital city of Santo Domingo.
But he and other Haitians are on continuous guard for sweeps by soldiers and
policemen. He recently was robbed of $150 by soldiers before being dumped
over a section of border hundreds of miles from his hometown.
"The yucca grows too small in Haiti," says Louis-Jeune, referring to the
cassava root that is a staple of Caribbean cuisine. "Nothing at all really
grows there anymore, so I came here basically to save my life because there
just wasn't any food where I grew up, and my family was too large.
"I had to leave in order to live."
Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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