By Rosaly Byrd.
A little less than a month ago I moved to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, and although I had visited the country twice before moving here, I’m still astonished with the degree of environmental degradation that has taken place in the country. The smell of burning plastic, mountains completely bare of trees, and gullies full of waste heading right to the ocean are all traits that are the rule and not the exception in Haiti. Proper waste collection was barely existent in the country before the earthquake in 2010, and still today inadequate public infrastructure results in groundwater contamination from improper waste disposal. Soil is depleted of nutrients due to deforestation and erosion (which then affects agriculture), and polluted natural spring water has forced much of the population to buy purified drinking water. Even for an outside observer it is easy to see why Haiti is ranked 176 out of 178 countries in Yale’s Environmental Performance Index (while the Dominican Republic, which actually shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, ranked 75).
For these reasons, Haiti perfectly illustrates the necessity for environmental issues to be tied into the poverty dialogue. The link between these two factors is obvious, and in order to obtain the elusive “sustainable development”, changes in the environment have to be considered when working to alleviate poverty (and vise-versa). For example, Haiti’s coral reefs, which at one time were some of the most diverse, are now some of the most over-fished reefs in the world. The government only recently (in August 2013) established a Marine Protected Area, and the surrounding reefs are almost all dead and defunct of any fish biodiversity. In reality, although very hard for the poverty-stricken local fishermen to accept, local interests are actually aligned with the idea of marine protected areas. To allow for the Haitian population to continue fishing (and therefore ensure an income and a food source), the reef and fish must be left to reproduce and guarantee their presence for the future. Likewise, the disastrous deforestation which has left the country with only 2% of total forest cover has been mainly a result of charcoal production for energy consumption and cooking purposes. In order to sustainably resolve the issue of deforestation, other factors need to be taken into account such as the fact that charcoal production is often the only source of income for the rural population and that charcoal is the most used cooking fuel. “Eco- tourism” may offer some hope to a small portion of Haitians; by bringing in tourists (or more typically, the ex pat population living in Haiti) to explore the natural beauty that the country offers, the fishermen and individuals from rural areas are offered an alternative form of income. Led by a local fisherman in his boat, I recently went with a group to snorkel a reef off Haiti’s Côte-des-Arcadins. Similarly, last weekend we had a local “guide” lead us on a hike to Parc National La Visite, one of the two national parks in the country. But also, to continue to attract tourists for these types of expeditions, there needs to be fish to see and woody areas to hike.
Fortunately the connection between poverty and the environment is gaining prominence in the development sector. Climate change and sustainable development are now key factors taken into account in World Bank and UN projects, and the UN Millennium Development Goals have evolved into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A week ago the SDG Open Working Group’s eighth session addressed the issues of ocean and seas, biodiversity, and forests. The SDG Working Group has also focused on integrating climate change into the Goals, as the vulnerable and poor will be the most affected by climatic changes.
Many poverty reduction measures could also benefit from environmental alternatives. For example, offering electricity access to poor rural areas that aren’t connected to a grid is easier done with decentralized forms of energy, i.e. solar or wind power. In some of Haiti’s rural villages, solar powered charging stations that are subsidized by the local phone company provide outlets for individuals to charge their cell phones and other electronics. Solar power also gives buildings the option to be self-sufficient, which is important in a country like Haiti where the largely government-owned electricity company Électricité d’Haïti (EDH) is unreliable and inefficient. Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais, a hospital that was recently opened an hour outside the capital, is now the world’s largest solar-powered hospital. The hospital has actually had a power surplus and has been able to sell daytime overage back to the national grid. The hospital uses grid energy at night, with diesel generators for backup, but has been able to use solar for 100% of its daytime power. By using solar, the hospital will save $379,000 from the projected annual operating costs, was able to train local electricians in solar panel installation and maintenance, and is expected to save 210 metric tons of carbon emissions annually.
There are many places in Haiti that are absolutely beautiful and the potential is undeniable. It is a Caribbean island, after all, with incredible terrains and amazing views. With more development policies and projects that focus on integrating environmental issues into the poverty discussion, hopefully, Haiti will eventually see a reversal in the ecological destruction that has so far afflicted the nation.