Haiti: 'The world doesn't have any idea how bad this situation is getting'
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 Afghanistan.
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 war-ravaged Congo.
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 mounting problems.
"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
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
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 island.
"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
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,
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 income.
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
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
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 Caribbean sun.
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
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
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 that road."
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 drive.
"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 nation's crisis.
"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 they're kids."
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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 12 people.
"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
"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
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
In city streets, Rousseau and other demographers have observed a large
increase in the number of street children -- known as kokorats or grapiays
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
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.
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 Haiti.
"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
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 © 2004