Saving Haiti's Environment, Preventing Instability and Conflict

  • Posted on: 28 April 2009
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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Many papers, books, and presentations have covered in great detail how Haiti came to be deforested.  Fewer have focused on what Haitian government and civil society should do, with the support of the international community, to reverse the environmental destruction.  Doing so is neccesary for food security, disaster prevention, nutrition and public health, social/economic stability, and ultimately security.  The attached report by the International Crisis Group lists concrete actions that could be taken in the short and long term to promote security through  rehabilitating the environment. 


The paper open by emphasizing security is broader than the presence or absence of crime and violence.  It also concerns such threats as diarrhoea, malnutrition, illiteracy and unemployment, as well as the deadly floods that are now happening on an annual basis.  It also states that the basic needs of water, food and employment are increasingly threatened by pervasive environmental degradation that both results from and drives extreme poverty.


We know that if nothing is done, flooding in Haiti will become more frequent and severe.  Between 2001 and March 2007, natural disasters resulted in 18,441 deaths, 4,708 injuries and 132,000 homeless. Some 6.4 million persons were affected (today, Haiti has a population of 9.7 million), and damage was estimated at $4.6 billion.  In August-September 2008, four consecutive storms and hurricanes affected another 800,000 persons. A total 793 were killed, 310 disappeared, 100,000 had to seek temporary shelter, and more than 112,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.  Damages totalled $897 million.


Addressing the environmental emergency can also be an opening for improving Haiti's closely linked energy crisis.  The reports notes that Haiti harvests its sparse remaining forests anarchically and otherwise uses inefficiently its few additional energy resources.  It gets 5 per cent of its energy from hydroelectricity and 20 per cent from petroleum products, which drain 50 percent of the government’s import capacity.


The remaining 75 per cent of energy demands are satisfied by wood fuel (charbon).  Trees are felled to produce firewood or charcoal.  Households (the largest energy consumers), small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and trade and services together consume 70 per cent of the energy generated yearly, mostly from wood and charcoal.  The remaining 30 per cent is used by the industrial sector.  Though charcoal is produced in the countryside, most of it is consumed in urban areas, an estimated 80 per cent in Port-au-Prince alone.  From this, I take away the importance of electrifying Port au Prince - not just parts of it, but all of it - even the slums.


While deforestation must be halted and regulatory measures should be put in place for the cutting of trees to produce energy, measures must be applied carefully, so as to avoid sudden disruption of the live-lihood of a substantial part of the workforce.  The charcoal production chain generates 16 per cent of rural income.  People who sell charcoal know that it is harmful to the environment, but they also know that their family must eat.  That obligation trumps all others.  Projects to provide alternative income and employment should target those affected as a key element in programs to reduce charcoal dependency.  In other words, those who are selling the charcoal should be empowered to become change agents by providing them an alternative to use, to sell, and to make a living with.  However, these alternative must be as cheap as, if not cheaper, than wood charcoal.  Otherwise, they will not succeed. 


Further, the public works ministry should launch its charcoal production efficiency program and advance its project to promote the use of alternative kerosene-powered stoves and other alternative fuels as soon as possible.  The environment ministry should complement these efforts with regulations on, and taxes for the cutting of trees, both for fuel and construction.  There are many options - wind, solar, jatropha and other biofuels.  The government must develop and articulate a strategy.  Other Caribbean countries are substantially further ahead in using alternative energy.  Through CARICOM, Haiti should reach out to them for assistance.


Dwindling agricultural production owing to the effects of deforestation and erosion, among other factors, has spurred massive flight from the land, primarily to the large cities like Port-au-Prince, Cap Haïtien (North department), Les Cayes (South department) and Gonaïves (Artibonite department).  75,000 flock yearly to the capital in search of work, taking up residence in already overcrowded neighborhoods.  Port-au-Prince had some 300,000-400,000 inhabitants 40 years ago. Today, there are approximately 2.5 million, more than a quarter of Haiti’s total population.  Average urban population growth is 3.63 per cent per year (5 per cent in the capital), while in rural areas it is just 0.92 per cent.  This trend will continue if Haiti's rural population cannot make a living through agriculture.  Foreign direct investment would be useful, but let's not kid ourselves, it will overwhelmingly benefit Port au Prince and the border region.  Citizens outside of the Republic of Port au Prince are in need of livelihoods - environmental preservation and agriculture could meet these needs.  


As the land becomes less productive each year, it becomes increasingly harder for Haiti to feed its present population, growing at an annual rate of 2.5 per cent.  The predominantly young population will top 10 million in 2010, and approximately 100,000 youths join the job market yearly.  MSF reports it delivers on average 33 babies daily at the Port-au-Prince Jude Anne Emergency Obstetric Hospital it has managed since 2006,  but health facilities in urban slums are often virtually inexistent. Risks of mosquito and water-borne epidemics as well as respiratory ill-nesses due to pollution remain high.


To tackle deforestation, it is necessary to address land, energy and water issues.  A land tenure system that grants clear property titles is acutely lacking.  Land users, in their majority poor subsistence farmers, often do not have legal title. Uncertain land tenure produces land management problems, as users who have no sense of ownership are unwilling to invest in sustainable prac-tices.  The same indiscriminate land use has led to th e anarchic construction that plagues Port-au-Prince and its extended metropolitan area. It has also resulted in conflict in the Artibonite Valley (Haiti's rice basket) as multiple parties claim ownership to the same parcels of land.  Disputed land is rarely productive land.


The report also documents previous attempts by the Haitian government to produce environmental strategies.  The environmental action plan designed and published in June 1999 during President Préval’s first term was never implemented, mostly owing to a lack of funding.  In January 2006, just prior to leaving office, the transitional government led by Gérard Latortue published an environmental decree that defined national policies and sought to make government management and citizen use of the environment compatible with sustainable development goals.  That decree stated that environmental degradation had reached alarming proportions and put sustainable development at risk.  Despite recurring destruction from flooding and hurricanes, the measures it contemplated have still not been implemented.  President Preval and Prime Minister Louis have been giving an opening - the United States, other donor countries, CARICOM, and OAS all very much want to see this Administration succeed.


But what about the next one? Addressing environmental degradation is a long term under-taking that will not be solved by one Administration.  It took many decades for Haiti's environment to reach this point, and rehabilitation will take many decades more.  Still, the Preval government can and should get started.  The stakes are much too high for more delays.  Given that, the International Crisis Group advises the following steps:

•Declaring the environment a national priority and linking environmental rehabilitation and preservation measures to social and economic development strategies, such as the Poverty Reduction Strategy


•Relieving pressure on forest resources by encouraging the use of subsidised wood fuel substitutes, taxing the sale and transport of charcoal and wood and investing returns in environmental rehabilitation programs


•Investing more external aid in rural development to stem the flow of migrants to urban slums and stepping up community-led environmental protection projects in those slums to expand access to clean water and basic sanitation; and


•Strengthening institutions to better manage the environment by establishing and empowering local governance structures, including community polic-ing; completing and enacting the organic law for the environment ministry; eliminating overlapping ministerial responsibilities for natural resources management; and ensuring more effective coordination among ministries and the international community by launching the inter-ministerial committee on the environment to be chaired by the prime minister.


We endorse thes steps.  Haiti's success in addressing HIV/AIDS sets a precedent for what can be done when the Haitian government makes an issue a priority at the highest levels. The same sense of urgency must now be applied to the environment. 


Haiti should draw from the expertise of CARICOM, OAS, and other resources such as the Caribbean Information Platform on Renewable Energy in determing where and how it wants to tap alternative energy sources.  Solar, biofuels, hydropower, and biofuels have all been used in Haiti - but which should be brought to scale?  We also feel that Haiti should continue to develop partnerships with the Dominican Republic, which has begun to subsidize propane exports to Haiti, and with Brazil which is the hemispheric leader in biofuels.  There could be possibilities for provision of electricity from the Dominican Republic to Haiti and perhaps expansion of biofuel usage with technical assistance from Brazil.   


Counties such as Ethiopia have shown that, even with minimal resources, political will can result in real progress when it comes to reforestation.  Uganda has taught us that, in the absence of political will, civil society can fill that gap and urge change.  A Civilian Conversation Corps still makes sense for Haiti and we hope that rural Haitians will be given a chance to make a living by rehabilatating the environment.  Pilot it, learn from it, and then bring it to scale.  Donors do not like to take risks but they do like to get behind successes.  


The paper is well worth reading.  If you have suggestions for actions the Haitian Government, the Diaspora, and/or the international community could be taking to help reverse the environmental damage in Haiti, we would be interested in hearing them.  Please post in the comments section below.




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