Notes from the Field: On the Ground in Haiti

© Subuddhyananda 2010

Sebastian Africano, TWP’s Deputy International Director, writes about his most recent trip to Haiti:

I’d call on everybody to keep their eyes and thoughts on Haiti in the coming weeks, and to think of ways forward as the country prepares itself for the era that will see them either emerge as a functional democracy, or remain buried mentally and physically in the rubble of the past several decades.

This quote from a recent NY Times Editorial (Nov. 30, 2010) titled “Haiti After the Vote,” describes the recent presidential elections and speaks to many of the challenges facing the incoming government (whomever that may be):

“Eleven months after the devastating earthquake, more than a million people are still displaced. The country is also struggling to contain a cholera epidemic. The new government will have to clear the many roadblocks that have slowed the rebuilding effort. And it will have to tackle a host of other reforms: modernizing the electoral system and constitution; unclogging bureaucracies and legal requirements that stifle business and investment; overhauling cruel and ineffective courts and prisons.”

I would add one point to the above list of challenges that face the incoming Haitian government – and would, after 6 years of working in Central America and the Caribbean, extend this critique to all the countries in the region.  My thoughts stem from a trip I took a week before the elections, from the rural, arid northwest of Haiti back to the capital, during which we crossed paths with a convoy of at least 10 UN amphibious tanks & trucks, armed to the teeth, presumably heading to Cap Haitien.

UN troops make their way towards Cap Haitien.

We were in Cap Haitien until four days prior, and got out just before people started rioting against the UN based on the allegation that the current cholera strain was brought in by their troops, from abroad.

I knew that whatever was going on that week would pale to the chaos brought on by a general election between 18 candidates, and the after effects of this contest, that are sure to continue over several weeks.

So amidst the accusations of electoral fraud, stalling on durable solutions in the reconstruction, UN irresponsibility and an intensely dangerous cholera epidemic with dubious origins, lies an issue which receives relatively little attention, but which will be instrumental in creating a prosperous Haitian society, if there were ever to be one.  The origins of the cholera that has currently has Haiti over a barrel are secondary when you ignore the factors that have allowed it to proliferate – an abysmal disregard for sanitation and hygiene throughout the country, and no waste management systems that would provide an alternative to current practice.  In truth, nobody should be pointing fingers when there are crises like this afoot, but I look at the situation more objectively.

A river of trash on its way through Port-au-Prince and out to sea.

If the earthquake had never happened, Haitians would still be living among open sewers, defecating in waterways and throwing Styrofoam and plastic into clogged drainage channels, with no concern for the consequences… and the world would be perfectly content to ignore it.  The cholera may have been brought from abroad, but I’m sure the conditions for its proliferation have been ripe for decades, as they are in many developing-world cities.

I see epidemics like these as eventually inevitable, given the conditions, and this outbreak in Haiti should catalyze a serious global conversation on waste, the burden of responsibility that exists upon both the producers and consumers of things that become waste, and most importantly human waste.

A beach full of trash takes away from the stunning beauty of the Caribbean.

We “first-worlders” are subject to this scrutiny as well, as we find it more than acceptable to ignore the destination of our disposables, and are more than comfortable sullying perfectly potable water (an increasingly scarce commodity) on a daily basis.  But until we feel just as comfortable discussing the matter as we do flushing and throwing things “away”, we’ll keep running into epidemics such as this one, and perhaps even worse ones that come from the burning, burying and floating of non-biodegradable and chemical waste into the world’s sinks.

As cholera in Haiti, the recent petroleum disaster in the Gulf, the recent toxic spills in Hungary and so many other environmental disasters have shown us, we reap what we sow, folks.  It’s time we face the fact that we have to learn to manage what we consume, where it comes from, and most importantly recognize what that consumption leaves behind.  Let’s make the effort to reduce our share of non-biodegradable products in the waste-stream, and to make this a topic of conversation among families and friends as Haiti turns the page and begins this hopeful new era.

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treeswaterpeople

Trees, Water & People is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to developing sustainable community-based conservation solutions.

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