'It's an unnatural disaster, a man-made disaster'
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Ask ordinary Haitians what could improve their lives, and the answers seem simple. Food. Clean water. Good roads. Medicine. A roof over their heads.
In the Artibonite Valley, farmers want irrigation and fertilizer to grow crops. In the famine-plagued northwest, villagers want jobs that pay a living wage. In the capital's slums, many would be happy with a toilet.
"We just want someplace other than this ditch to go to the bathroom," says Baby Lumeus, a 35-year-old resident of the God's Village slum, standing beside a canal filled with garbage and dead animals. "There is not a single latrine in this area, a simple toilet. We've had [non-governmental agencies] come through here all the time, making notes, promising things, sometimes even collecting money. But nothing ever improves."
There are no easy solutions, and international efforts to reverse Haiti's
decline have gone awry for decades. Billions of dollars have been poured
into the country --
American taxpayers alone have spent $900 million since 1994. Most of the money has been wasted because of corruption, incompetence and the daunting challenge
of rebuilding Haiti's governmental and economic systems.
The country's fractious politics, insular rural culture and profound
class divisions have resisted change, compounded by 200 years of international
troubled relations with Haiti's largest neighbor and benefactor, the United States. All have contributed to Haiti's ecological crisis. The millions spent to preserve
wilderness areas, upgrade water quality and develop sustainable agriculture have done little to improve life in the poverty-ravaged cities and countryside.
"The environmental crisis is very real and entails much suffering,''
says Glenn Smucker, a cultural anthropologist who has worked in Haiti for
two decades doing
studies for the U.S. government and other organizations. "It's about soil and water erosion, agrarian and population pressures on the land, political crisis and
ineptitude, and erosion of many, if not most, of the formal structures of society."
People are flooding into Haiti's cities or fleeing to other countries.
Without access to modern farming techniques, equipment or expertise, peasant
survive. The Creole-speaking poor have labored for generations as subsistence producers for French-speaking upper classes, which consume wood, food and
water at enormous rates. Haiti's villages have remained beyond the reach of national systems of electricity, running water, education and medicine.
"Breaking the cycle of poverty will require a significant reduction
in the pace of environmental decay," writes Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a University
anthropologist who has written extensively on Haitian peasant culture. "The Haitian state will never muster the resources necessary to revive the whole national
"Small but successful reforestation programs show that environmental
degradation can be reversed ... on one condition: The peasantry must be
THE POINT OF NO RETURN?
Many experts believe Haiti is not beyond hope. It has a relatively small
population -- one-third of Iraq's -- and is located in a stable region.
With sufficient foreign aid
-- at least $1 billion immediately, says Dr. Paul Farmer, a physician with long experience with Haiti's poor -- the nation could invest in hospitals, schools, health care,
electrical systems and vital infrastructure.
South Korea and Thailand were in a similar situation 50 years ago and
were able to implement governmental reforms and foreign investment. Haiti
has the advantage
of proximity to the United States. With economic growth and political stability, Haiti could develop much-needed programs to build roads and water-treatment
plants, protect forests and halt erosion.
But other experts are deeply pessimistic about Haiti's ability to change
or to capture U.S. attention in an age of global terrorism and military
action in Central Asia
and the Middle East. Many also believe conditions are so dire, Haiti may have reached the point of no return.
With an election year approaching, the Bush administration is focused
on Iraq, with Congress recently authorizing $87 billion to spend there
and in Afghanistan -- a
sum that dwarfs decades of U.S. assistance for Haiti. Meanwhile, U.S. attention to the Caribbean and Latin America continues to wane.
"We don't have the CNN effect here now like they do in other countries,
and the world is just much more focused on the Middle East and other regions,"
Grimard, a diplomat with the United Nations based in Port-au-Prince. "People are doing a lot here to help, but this situation is just so bad, it's going to take much
But even if the White House and Congress turn their attention to Haiti,
an enormous effort would be needed to nurture its nascent democracy, stabilize
government and boost civic institutions.
Some believe the United States blew an opportunity in 1994, when troops
invaded the island nation to restore its first democratically elected president
Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- but withdrew before his government could carry out significant reforms.
"The window of opportunity that opened for Haiti in 1994 is about to
shut," says Colin Granderson, deputy secretary of CARICOM, the diplomatic
representing 15 Caribbean countries. "Ten years in the attention of the international community is as good as half a century."
Still, some Haiti experts maintain that the nation's natural systems
could rebound eventually if the White House directed money and attention
to Haiti. But for that to
happen, conditions in Haiti may have to get worse before they can get better.
History has shown that U.S. and international efforts have focused on
Haiti only after a major crisis -- an epidemic, mass exodus of migrants,
upheaval or coup.
"If you had covered these mountains 100 years ago with high-producing
fruit trees and various other perennials, this country would still be richer
than Canada," says
John Currelly, an agronomist with the Pan American Development Foundation in Haiti. "Haiti is extremely productive and has a tremendous recuperative capability
... The land itself, if left alone, comes back very quickly."
But the land has never been left alone. Its riches once powered an empire,
just as poverty now hastens its collapse. The effort to harness the environment
has been at
the heart of Haiti's struggles since its creation as the first nation founded by ex-slaves in modern times.
Originally known as Saint Domingue, Haiti was the richest European colony
in the world and made many French wealthy through large sugar plantations
coffee-producing estates during the 18th century. Its 500,000 slaves, who outnumbered whites 15 to 1, were a mix of different groups brought from Africa.
A war for liberation that began in 1791 destroyed most plantation systems
and sent most of the French packing. After the slaves won independence,
broke out among military leaders, and the freed slaves rejected plantation life. During the next half-century, the country lost its key sugar and coffee markets in
Europe and was isolated by the United States and other nations.
Many freed slaves retreated to the nation's interior. Farming small plots with little outside investment, they settled into subsistence techniques that continue to this day.
From 1804 until 1911, Haiti experienced dramatic political turmoil,
with 15 of 19 heads of government toppled by force. During this time, government
poor farmers on sugar and coffee crops. As these crops became too expensive to produce, peasants turned to beans, rice, peas and corn. There was no profit in
these crops so there was little effort to improve farming techniques.
In 1915, the United States invaded in a failed attempt to re-create
large-scale agriculture. The Americans withdrew in 1934, leaving behind
improved roads and
buildings but little in the way of civic or government institutions. In the decades that followed, international aid was squandered by a series of repressive regimes.
The rise of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier in 1957 led to a 29-year dictatorship
that thwarted attempts at political, economic or agrarian reform. Hundreds
of dollars in foreign aid went to regime leaders and their cronies, according to numerous accounts.
Declining living conditions in Haiti triggered a mass exodus, as immigrants
arrived by the thousands on Florida's shores in the 1980s. That prompted
administration to press Papa Doc's heir, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, to leave the country in 1986. Unrest followed, despite the inauguration of Haiti's first
democratically elected president, Aristide, in 1990. A year later, Aristide was ousted by a military coup.
In 1994, the United States invaded again to stem the tide of immigrants
and to return Aristide to power. The hope was that his popularity with
the poor would help
rebuild Haiti. But the United States withdrew its troops before the government was stabilized and could bring lasting reforms to legal, agricultural, environmental and
law enforcement systems.
U.S. officials also failed to commit enough resources, despite spending some $900 million, in training and building democratic institutions.
Without a stable government, analysts say, long-term development is impossible.
Since 2000, Haiti has been crippled by unrest over legislative elections
swept by Aristide's Lavalas Family Party. The opposition maintains the
vote count was
rigged. Opposition parties and other civic groups have accused the government of targeting them and have refused to join an electoral council that could establish the
ground rules for elections.
Many experts believe American officials should work directly with Aristide's
government. The United States, which provides more international aid than
nation, has channeled it to non-governmental organizations in the form of food and health assistance because of corruption and government persecution of political
"I have to say when you're sitting around the table with the various
parties, you get the distinct sense that they really aren't willing to
take the necessary steps to
resolve the crisis -- everyone is looking out for themselves, and nobody seems to think in terms of what can help the nation," says Albert Ramdin, an official with the
Organization of American States, the international diplomatic group that has been working to resolve the electoral crisis for two years.
But isolating Aristide's government and channeling assistance to private
groups only weaken Haiti's already fragile government institutions, says
Farmer, an AIDS
specialist who has lived in Haiti for two decades.
"Peasant cooperatives and the organized poor should not be required
to build clean water systems, a good public health network and public schools,"
"Why should the poorest have to do this, when in affluent countries such tasks are relegated to the public sector?"
Farmer and others point out that Haiti's poverty far exceeds any other
country in the Western Hemisphere. Out of a labor force of 4.1 million
people, only 110,000
have formal jobs, and at least one-third of those are government jobs.
Many historians describe Haiti as a predatory state controlled by politicians
who see government as an avenue to wealth and power, and affluent citizens
"It's the politics of the belly," says Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born
professor of government at the University of Virginia and author of Haiti's
Predatory Republic: The
Unending Transition to Democracy. "In Haiti, politics becomes an entrepreneurial vocation, the sole means of material and social advancement for those not born
into wealth or privilege."
Some argue that the United States should boost investment in Haiti's
development. The National Coalition for Haitian Rights, a leading human
recommends a package of trade incentives embodied in the Haiti Economic Recovery Opportunity (HERO) bill, pending in Congress. It would extend preferential
trade treatment for Haiti's apparel industry, pump millions of dollars into the economy and create thousands of jobs.
Some light industry -- textile production or manufacturing -- could
help Haiti. It's been tried before. In the 1970s, Haiti was the leading
manufacturer of American
baseballs, until political unrest forced the industry's leaders to flee.
But industry and agriculture can only flourish in a country where citizens have faith in government, law and order.
"Something has caused this country to be poor almost continuously for
200 years and that is a recipe for ecological disaster in any country,
particularly one that is 70
percent mountainous with lots of tropical rain," says Currelly, the agronomist who has lived and raised a family in Haiti for more than 20 years. "It's not a natural
disaster, it's an unnatural disaster, a man-made disaster. It doesn't have to be like this."
Copyright © 2004