Green Cross International/Global Green USA senior fellow Finn Longinotto (pictured left) travelled to Haiti during 15-18 October, 20912, to find a country still ravaged by the 2010 earthquake but where people were still able to take charge of their futures and develop crucial services and projects for their communities. The following text is Finn’s first person account of his time spent in Haiti.
Jaded traveller that I am, I seldom find myself in a country for the first time. If I haven’t been there I’ve usually read about it, so there are really no surprises. But Haiti was different. The city of Port au Prince, still scarred by the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, in which the government reported the loss of 316,000 lives, seems more desperate than the countryside which, from the little we saw, can still be refreshingly above the chaos. Although I was not in Haiti specifically for Global Green, I am very glad that Global Green, particularly Matt Petersen, has engaged so actively in this desperately needy country.
Overall, nothing prepares one for the sheer poverty of the island and its inhabitants. In the city it seems that the magnitude of the problems exceeds any possible resources to solve them. Shanty towns climb up the mountainside on the outskirts of Port au Prince (PAP). Unpaved streets are clogged with cars and people, and the side walks are lined with all types of vendors, as well as make-shift marriage counters, beauty shops and funeral parlors. What gives one hope are the school kids in spotless uniforms, picking their path carefully among the garbage strewn in the slums, somehow on their way to a better future.
From the moment of arrival, it is clear this is another world. At the main international terminal in the country’s capital, the Immigration desks are plywood, with electric cabling coming down from the ceiling. When I finally left the terminal I went immediately, as suggested, to pick up a temporary Haitian cellphone at Digicel, and met the prearranged driver, who helped me into the 4×4 (I hardly saw a normal car, but then it would have a very short life on these roads). The arrangement was for unlimited driving for $150 per day plus gas. The hefty cost added to almost everything for non-Haitians appears to be due entirely to the incremental cost of security provision. With the tank on empty when we started, the first chore was to stop to tank up – cash only. After a good ten minutes and having driven only a few blocks in traffic we arrived at a gas station. But this one was empty. So we drove on to the next gas station, almost. The car stalled and wouldn’t start. A little pushing got it to the crest of a hill, where we were lucky to cruise down toward another gas station, right to the pump. But that pump was empty. So, hands gathered round to push us back up a bit, in order to freewheel down to a pump that was working. At about $5 a gallon, prohibitive for most people in this economy, and $100 later, we had a full tank of gas and proceeded to use it, with a large part spent idling in traffic with the air-conditioning on.
Before checking in to the hotel we made it straight to the Champs de Mars, a central square where a UNICEF-sponsored Global Handwashing Day was to take place. As arranged I met up with Kathia Flemens, who works for an Italian NGO involved with water issues, subcontracting to UNICEF. I had informed our Green Cross Water Director, Marie-Laure Vercambre and discussed Green Cross/Global Green water activities with a number of people. This event was particularly important because of the high incidence of water-borne diseases in Haiti, including cholera, which was unintentionally introduced by UN peacekeeping troops brought from Nepal after the 2010 earthquake.
That afternoon I visited Philippe Bayard, the President of the Audubon Society of Haiti, who had been referred to me by Rod Mast of the Oceanic Society as well as Robin Moore of Conservation International. Philippe Bayard is a great local philanthropist and director of Sunrise Airline. He gave me valuable insights about NGOs working in Haiti and some of the pitfalls to avoid. I was lucky that Philippe had actually called a business meeting of the Audubon Society (incidentally John James Audubon, the bird painter who gave his name to the organization, was born in Les Cayes, Haiti, then Sainte Domingue in 1785).
I was thus able to join them and meet with Joel Timyan, a Resource Ecologist to whom I had also, coincidentally, been referred, as well as Arnaud Dupuy, the local Audubon Director. Joel, raised in West Africa, had been in Haiti twenty-five years. Among the many topics discussed, the two that most stand out were the Mouvement Paysan du Papaye, MPP, the ‘Countryman’s Movement of Papaye’ and the difficulties in creating a Marine Protected area in the western gulf area, off the Island of Gonave and the main island. As I understand it, MPP is a nine-year program, basically divided into three three-year phases, analysis and research, training in sustainable agriculture, and supervised implementation by the local population. This gives an idea of the sort of time-frame to expect for projects in order to build a solid base so that is sustainable.
The next day we headed out of PAP, crossing the mountains to Hinche, in the center of the country, the nearest town to Papaye. We drove through some tree-lined areas and it was refreshing to get a glimpse of what the rest of Haiti once looked like. The villagers everywhere were helpful and friendly. That evening I had a very good and fruitful dinner with Wendy Flick, the very energetic and delightful Haiti Program Manager for UUSC, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which is based in Boston, and the local Representative of UUSC in Haiti, Nanouche Enaillo Forestal. They were a little late as they had had not one but two flat tires on the way. Wendy speaks Kreole, has worked with Haiti for the past ten years, is extremely knowledgeable and is well liked by all her co-workers, whom I had a chance to meet the next day. UUSC is involved in the Eco village PPM, in Papaye, which we drove by on our way to Hinche.
Another interesting program of UUSC, and one where I think Global Green can be of assistance, while simultaneously getting our name out and known, is a program with the “restavek”. This is a term in Kreole to describe child slaves. In the NGO’s own words, this initiative is part of UUSC’s Protection of Children and Women program area – as they point out, those marginalized before a disaster become more vulnerable afterwards, orphaned children, child slaves and women. UUSC has helped form child protection committees in eight camps, to facilitate dialogue circles in communities for consciousness raising in order to bring about longterm social change, around the restavek issue and to train 100 NGO’s in their methodology of community dialogue called ESK (Education is a Conversation).
A related program, “Friends of the Children” has trained 60 young adults who were marginalized by being restaveks or teenage mothers who had their children as a result of rape in the camps. They have trained them in marketable skills such as plumbing and graphic arts. Human rights education was critical to assist with recovery of self-worth. The great success of the program is now being duplicated with a second training for another 60 young people. Yet another “Light of Life” project is adapting Rethinking Power SASA methodology developed in Uganda to stimulate community dialogue and consciousness raising to reduce Gender Based Violence.
As part of this work, the group encourages and so helps develop the creative painting talents of the children. UUSC is also seeking outlets to exhibit their work and thus draw attention to their ongoing programs. In a sense we can help them access a wider world, at least in the US, both on the East and West coasts. My idea is to approach those embassies in Washington DC which have extensive cultural programs and good exposition space, and many of whose cultural attaches are known to us, to sponsor the exhibits. Similarly in Los Angeles. A first time visitor to Haiti is immediately struck by the amazing artwork – both the talent and the abundance – which is for sale everywhere from the street to upscale art galleries. The country boasts a distinguished art history, with everything from earlier primitivism, which is still copied today, to more modern painting, all distinctly Haitian. I hope we can help in getting the exposure to these young Haitians’ plight by arranging the expositions.
On the Wednesday afternoon we accompanied Wendy on a tour of some of the urban Tire Garden Projects. Together with GEAD “Bright Educators of Delmas”, with only $15,000 a very successful program has been developed which has involved 48 families in sustainable urban farming. We visited three of the families and witnessed the success of this program first hand. The process involves cutting apart old car tires, flattening out the sides, using any flat material for the base, and making planters of them. The families grow seedlings into edible organic foods, particularly a Haitian variety of spinach. The advantages in urban areas are raising the plants to receive more light than they would have on the ground in the shadow of a building, and, in more rural areas, the platforms on which the tires are placed keep the vegetables out of reach of pigs and goats who might eat them. They also use very little water and require little space.
Five of these tires can feed a family; ten tires gives them enough to sell in the market and raise money for school fees and other household expenses. What was remarkable was the enthusiasm that the individual “urban farmers” showed and the pride they took in what they had achieved. Not only were the tires no longer part of the garbage problem and being used constructively, there was a deeper symbolic significance. Car tires have traditionally been burned in the streets during the most severe political protests in Haiti. They had also been used in the past in horrible murders of people, who with tires around their bodies, were doused with gasoline and set on fire for a slow and painful death. Thus this symbol of death had now been turned into a symbol of renewed life!
After a fairly depressing few days, in which I had been overwhelmed by the apparent hopelessness of the situation, the visits to these tire gardens allowed me to leave the country on an upbeat and positive note. There is hope, as long as the people buy into what they are doing, because they understand how it benefits them. The answer doesn’t lie in the millions of dollars being poured into the country from international and intra-national organizations, often without visible effect, but in the people themselves.