By Jean H Charles
The French ecologist Jacques Cousteau warned the Republic of Haiti in a well- documented video: “Tears of sorrow”/“Pleurs de douleurs” that it must take urgent steps to combat the degradation of its environment otherwise the process of erosion will intensify to the point where the country might become a desert.
That was 30 years ago. Haiti has been since so delinquent in taking the minimum measures to ameliorate its environment that the vegetation coverage is now only 2%, down from 25% when the warning was posted.
I remember on February 8, 1991, calling on one of the advisers of the then president of Haiti that urgent initiatives should be taken to look into why cut trees should be the energy staple for running the dry cleaning and the bakery business. His answer after consulting with the president, who was close by, was that the government was too busy for such an insignificant matter!
The present Haitian government declared the year 2013 as the year of the environment. The year went by and left with a wooden bell because the ministry of environment has been at best timid, at worst using the lowest standard of evaluation, unable to provide any significant outcome concerning the ecological degradation.
As I have predicted, Haiti’s rainy season is in full swing. Heavy rain comes every night and will be visiting the island from April 1 to November 1 as such nature is rebounding with a vengeance. April is also the time when the pods of the cider trees and the Marengo as well as the mahogany trees are ready to give up their seeds.
You would imagine there would be a festival of harvesting those seeds for planting next year in a voluntarism day on the 1st day of May (the Day of Agriculture), the 18th of May or the 18th of November (two national days of Remembrance for the heroic deeds of the founding fathers) in an activity sponsored every year by the ministry of environment or the civil society.
Yet, as with the Year of the Environment, the seeds of these hardwood trees are lost in an environmental culture where nobody cares; leaving only to the defecation of the birds or the passing of the wind the task for renewing the cut trees with new seedlings.
Playing the ostrich game is also the staple attitude of the Haitian population concerning their environment. The mountains (Morne L’Hôpital) that surround the capital city of Port au Prince are invaded by hordes of peasants coming from all over the country, building on fragile hillsides that should be kept in a perpetual conservation status to maintain the water aquifer for use by the population.
This phenomenon is repeated in all ten major cities of the republic unabated and growing by the month. The government, as well as the international organizations, is busy either managing with cosmetics or expedients this calamitous situation that will wrought devastation a la Mathusalem in case of a tremor or constant heavy rain, or they are practicing a complete attitude of tomorrow will take care of itself.
In the small towns, the mountains are depleted of their trees to make charcoal used in cooking or, worse, in industrial plants such as bakery and dry cleaning. Whether you are visiting the cities of Gonaives, St Marc or smaller town such as Lascahobas, the vista is the same, the bare mountain that surrounds the city is showing its bones and its veins. This canvas does not provoke indignation from the citizens to take action for the renewal of the vegetation when government action is deficient.
Haiti today, as in 1991, is too busy to take a fundamental policy to resolve the problem at its root, which is the renaissance of each rural county where the villagers will live with the spirit of the hamlet while enjoying all the amenities of the city.
Poverty is at the root of the degradation of the environment. Bananas that were once a staple for export, bringing revenue to the Haitian peasant, was stopped in 1947 when the Dumarsais Estimẻ government chose to politicize the operation, thereby terminating up to today that profitable export business. Politics has since replaced economics and common sense has yielded to expedients in the country!
Coffee that made Haiti famous for its flavor and rich like a Creole for centuries disappeared around 1970 when the Duvalier government for alleged security reasons started ordering the cutting of the trees that protected the coffee plantations leaving the bare land for attack by erosion.
Organic pork husbandry was also one of the major staple of cash crop used by the peasant for emergency situation or for building a nest fund for major expanses or for economic expansion. A real or alleged porcine fever in 1980 caused the destruction of the stock of indigenous pork that fed itself on surplus or discarded food. Corruption in the governmental apparatus has eaten most of the funds provided by international organizations that would have compensated the peasants to renew their stock of new piglets.
With no infrastructure and no institution building in any of the 565 rural villages for centuries, the Haitian peasant has no choice but to cut the trees to the last one, becoming a nomad in the city, living on hand outs or brassẻ business (doing small and different menial jobs), or illegally taking a boat to Florida, The Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos or Martinique through Dominica. They are now trying their chances all the way towards Brazil.
Haiti’s environmental woes highlighted by Jacques Cousteau need urgent action at the personal, national and international level to bring the country to a point where, with macro and micro economic intervention, there will be a nation left to enjoy.
I have in my own home established a policy that no seed of any eaten fruit shall be discarded. They are all becoming seedlings for gifts or use in the garden. The garbage is placed in two different disposals, the organic ones that will be become compost in six months and the paper goods for the garbage truck. I have even found a mine of worms nearby, which is harvested once a week for feeding the plants and the compost.
This culture of being hospitable to nature environment can be propagated to each household with the zeal of a missionary endorsed by an engaging ministry of environment. Entire neighborhoods could band together to start planting trees on the sidewalks, imitating the legacy of one million new trees left by Mayor Mike Bloomberg to the city of New York. The Big Apple, after three terms with Bloomberg as mayor, is now greener than any Caribbean nation except maybe the Commonwealth of Dominica.
At the national level, the state of Haiti is still the major owner of most of the rural land, with national funding (the pension fund) and international support (debts swapping for nature) as well as investment products (international pension and ecological funds) Haiti can set up large parcels of land that could be dedicated to the plantation of hardwood such as mahogany, cedar, and ebony.
It will realize a three sum benefit. Liquidating its national debt through debt swapping for nature, create a wooden and green Haiti and amass a sovereign reserve fund that will mature in a generation, leaving the country perpetually rich for each one of its citizens.
Haiti can still recover its pristine status observed by Christopher Columbus when setting foot near the Mole St Nicholas in the northwest part of the country on December 5, 1492. To do so, the citizens must end the game of the ostrich, by developing good citizenship that ceases to cut the trees and steals even the metal cover of the sewer for sale for scrap to Turkey through the Dominican Republic.
Its government must stop playing politics with environment issues; the very survival of each one of its citizens. It must start incubating a safe and rich vegetal setting where the children will grow healthy in replenishing the country with mature trees, while being good citizens. This will perpetuate a strong and rich nation, good for its own, and set as a model for the entire Caribbean region.