Changing a country from within
By Camilla Mortensen
In Haiti, when someone wants to tell a story, he calls out “Krik?” If the audience wants to hear the story, they call back “Krak!” If they aren’t excited enough, the teller might shout out again “Krik?” until the audience yells back with enthusiasm. But prior to the recent earthquake, American audiences haven’t been all that enthusiastic about hearing Haiti’s story.
Tim tim? Bwa Seche!
To pose a riddle in Haiti, the joker asks “Tim tim?” If someone is eager to solve it, the response is “Bwa seche!” The exact meaning of the words is less important than the desire to tell the riddle and the eagerness to solve it.
For more than 20 years, Jean André Victor worked as an agronomist in Haiti, tying to solve the riddle of how to fix the centuries of environmental degradation and poverty that has kept Haiti from developing a self sustaining economy and food supply. But, “the main problem is that you can’t solve the degradation of Haiti with projects,” says Victor.
This spring, at the age of 68, Victor came to Eugene to discuss law and policy with scientists and other attorneys, write the first textbook on environmental law in Haiti and learn English at the University of Oregon’s American English Institute. He came though the help of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW),
His visit is part of a project to protect biodiversity in the insular Caribbean, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He will return to Haiti this summer — a country that was struggling even before the devastating January earthquake that killed thousands of Haitians, including Victor’s mother — and try to change his country from within.
Haiti’s long and painful colonial history has led to problems, both political and environmental, that linger well into the present. Decades of U.S. intervention have done more harm than good, and Victor says projects on a micro level can’t effect change, unless Haiti also makes changes on a policy level to solve its social, environmental and energy issues.
Victor holds himself with quiet dignity as he sits on a comfortable sofa in ELAW’s offices, tucked away off Franklin Boulevard. He has a regal profile that looks like it belongs on coin. It’s easier to picture him as the professor in front of a classroom, as he has been in Haiti and universities abroad over his long career, than it is to imagine him sitting at a student desk, adding another language to his roster of accomplishments: A law degree, a masters degree in environmental science and decades both in classrooms and as an advisor and consultant with national and international groups make up his extensive résumé. He speaks Haitian Creole, French and Spanish and, in addition to his recent work in English, he can read Italian and Portuguese.
After 10 weeks of classes in Eugene, he speaks English carefully, with the almost non-existent ‘r’s and ‘h’s of Haitian Creole. He requires no translator to convey the complexities of Haiti’s social and environmental difficulties.
Dèyè mòn, gen mòn: Beyond the mountains, more mountains
The earthquake is only the most recent calamity to hit Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and pundits say it wouldn’t have been so devastating if the country and its infrastructure were not already so vulnerable. The quake was estimated by the Haitian government to have killed 230,000 people.
Long before the 2010 quake, when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, the second place he made landfall in the New World was the island of Hispaniola, home of present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. By the mid-1500s, European colonizers began importing slaves from Africa to work on sugar, indigo, cotton, cocoa and coffee plantations.
In 1804, the Haitian slaves successfully revolted and Haiti became the second free republic recognized in the New World. The first, the United States, was less than excited at having a nation of free blacks so nearby, 60 years before the Civil War.
Haiti’s deforestation and overuse of the land started during the colonial era. The Europeans were interested in profiting from Haiti’s natural resources, not preserving the fertile, mountainous land. According to author Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by the mid-nineteenth century, Haiti had largely been stripped of its timber. The ships sailing to Haiti loaded with slaves, left the country loaded with valuable lumber.
The Creole name for Haiti, Ayiti, is said to refer to its mountains, and the mountains on the island tend to direct the rivers and the majority of its the rainfall to the Dominican side of Hispaniola. So once the Haitian side was stripped of its trees, and once the fields were overharvested, it was even more difficult for vegetation to grow back.
Post-revolution, Haitians were wary of dealing with European investors, whom they feared would try to reintroduce slavery. The U.S. had no interest in economically aiding a nation of former slaves, though by 1915 we had already sent Marines to occupy Haiti to “protect” it from foreign interests.
Victor says that in present day Haiti, 70 to 80 percent of the population exists below poverty level. Victor himself is already seven years beyond the average Haitian life expectancy of 61.2 years, according to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators. “In Haiti, do understand that you have two societies,” he says. “One is people with education; people with almost all the wealth. On the other is poor peasants with less than a dollar a day.”
While modern American readers may recoil at calling the largest part of Haiti’s population “peasants,” or in Haitian Creole peyizan, this is how the rural population refers to itself, and there are a number of Haitian nonprofit social justice and environmental groups that use this designation.
The majority of Haitians, about 90 percent, speak Creole only with about 10 percent fluent in both Creole and French. The adult literacy rate is about 40 percent. French has long been the language of government and law.
In more recent years, the U.S. has continued to step in, and some might say interfere with, Haiti. Victor says in the early 1980s he was working as an agronomist, and not only was Haiti producing its own rice and feeding its own people, but from 1980 to 1985, he was working on a project to begin exporting rice to other Caribbean countries. But in 1986, after the departure of dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the transitional government, under pressure from the U.S., liberalized the rice market. Victor says, “We received a lot of cheap rice from the United States and the Haitian market cannot compete with the cheap rice.”
“Now we import two or three times what we produce,” says Victor. With cheap rice available, Haitian farmers could not sell their more expensive rice and were driven out of business. “Even President Clinton confessed that he allowed the destruction of rice production in Haiti,” he says.
In March 2010, Clinton, now a special envoy to Haiti, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that pressuring Haiti back in the ‘80s to allow the import of cheap southern rice was the wrong idea, “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake,” the former president said. “I had to live every day with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.”
Critics of foreign aid to Haiti have said that importing food is not a solution; Haitians want and need to develop their own economy and provide their own food, as they did only decades ago.
Victor says that he has returned to his law degree and to working not just on the farming end of things, but on the legal and political end as well. “Now, I understand that it is not possible to manage a country like Haiti if you don’t have good policies,” he explains. “And it is impossible to have good policies if you are not involved in political affairs.
“To understand me,” Victor continues, “as an agronomist I was working for 20 years thinking it is possible to do something right with a technical solution. After 20 years, I saw it is impossible, as in the example of rice production, because you can have results for 20 years of working with technical solutions and one day of political decisions is sufficient to destroy all you were doing.”
Sa ou fè, se li ou wè: What you do is what you see
“Everybody tries to help according his perception of the Haitian reality,” says Victor, “and then you have a nightmare. Nothing can work in such a situation.
“When you don’t have economic growth in the country,” he says, “you are fabricating poverty because as the population grows, people need everything, food, shelter, education and so on, and the government cannot offer enough services to satisfy demand. Then the first victim is the environment because people cut forests to make charcoal to survive.”
To solve the problem, Victor says, “You find projects to protect the watershed, projects to provide technical assistance to farmers and to peasants, demonstrations on what can be done with solar and wind energy. But there’s no impact.”
He gives an example of a post-earthquake Clinton proposal: “He has an idea to transform Haiti into a great country where computers are used by all peasants, whatever the place.”
“It’s a great idea,” says Victor. “But in reality to do this you have to solve many other problems. You have to address the problem of energy for the computers.”
Haiti’s primary source of energy is charcoal, Victor says, and he adds that the charcoal industry is a very big problem because wood and charcoal represent 70 percent of Haiti’s total consumption of energy; in the cities, charcoal represents 90 percent. “And then people make charcoal with all the trees in the country,” he says. It further degrades the land, as well as hurts human health.
“We have 50 years in Haiti of experts all over the world, Haitians, professionals, observers, everybody is discussing the problem, making suggestions: Use another source of energy, another kind of stuff, other types of combustible.”
As president of The Haitian Environ-mental Foundation, Victor and other aid groups planted three million seedlings that grew into trees in a year, but with 50 million trees cut a year for charcoal, Haiti is still over 98 percent deforested.
“We have a lot of projects,” says Victor. “The problem is a project, well done or not well done, has a short duration and concerns few people. And then when the project finishes, you can’t see the impact. The main problem is you can’t solve the degradation of the environment with projects.”
As for Clinton’s computer idea, energy source aside, Victor says that “to use computers, you need to train people, people who do not know how to read or write. You need to have infrastructure to link the people using the computers to a database, to a provider or services. That’s not a simple thing.”
But all these things are material and mechanical, he says, and thus they are not impossible.
“We have to mobilize the whole population. Not projects. The government must adopt new ways and policies in the fields of agriculture, energy and even population. In Haiti we have no policies. You have projects and a lot of opinion coming from officials, technicians, professionals and the international community, but no policies.
“With no policies, he says, “you have no coordination within the government, or between the Haitian government and the international community.”
Piti piti zwazo fè niche: Little by little, the bird builds its nest.
“I’m not the only person to see the globality of the problem,” Victor says of how he believes Haiti’s social and environmental woes can be fixed. The first thing he will do is write the founding book on environmental law in Haiti, with the help of the ELAW partners. When he returns to Haiti, he will build a group of environmental lawyers to provide assistance to peasants and farmers. He wants to get fellowships for students. There are only four or five people in Haiti working in the field of environmental law, he says.
Second, when Victor returns to Haiti he will work on mobilization and bringing the two parts of Haitian society together. “The communication between the two types of society is very low,” he says. In the literate society, you have laws, bills, courts, judges and lawyers. “In the peasant society you have informal tradition and no written laws and an isolated population and the consequence is the degradation of the environment because these people are not part of the whole functioning of the economy,” he says. Seventy percent of people in Haiti are unemployed. In other countries, Victor points out, it’s considered a problem when just 10 percent are unemployed. Many of the young people that are educated in Haiti leave and don’t return. He says in the last five years, 10,000 Haitian university graduates moved to Canada alone.
“You can have good resources, good laws and enough budget, but this is not sufficient to solve the problem,” says Victor. “You can’t solve the problem if peasants and farmers are not involved in the solution. And to involve them you need another way to manage the country.”
Third, Victor says, he will work in the area of political affairs. He wants to prevent incidents like the one that led to the devastation of Haitian rice production. “It is interesting to underline also that many people living outside Haiti think that the solution to the Haitian problem is occupation by another country,” he says. “I think this is wrong for two reasons. Even with occupation you can’t do economic development without the participation of the population. The second reason is that government in Haiti doesn’t represent the Haitian people. Within the Haitian people we can find the human resources; we can find people with the ability to fight against poverty.
“Of course we need cooperation with the international community, of course we need technical assistance, of course we don’t have all that is necessary for economic development, but it’s also true that you can find in our country the human resources to move the country forward.”
The earthquake, however, has made Victor’s mission harder.
“We have one million homeless people,” he explains. “We had no jobs before the earthquake and now it’s worse. Personally, I lost my house in the earthquake; I lost my mother to the earthquake. But until now it is impossible to know about how many professional people, agronomists, doctors, lawyers, engineers, students we have lost. It means we when we are going to rebuild the country, it is very difficult to find the human resources. But it is not impossible.”
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