[permaculture] Haiti relief opinion piece

Patrick forgeadams at yahoo.com
Sun Feb 14 13:51:35 EST 2010


This is my final report on the expedition to Haiti, from 23 Jan to
4 Feb. I travelled as a medical relief worker, although the team with
which I worked turned out to be better equipped, in terms of skill set
and preparation, to work as organizers and intermediaries. I will not,
therefore, belabor this document with medical observations- those have
been made already in other forms, and concern mostly the slow
transition from post-injury infections to chronic epidemics, including
diseases like measles and typhoid, which are rarely seen in
immunocompetent populations in the US. One point already mentioned in
previous reports, but worth returning to here, is that the first teams
of trauma surgeons, orthopedists, and emergency physicians from the US
were underequipped and underprepared for the disaster, and felt they
were forced to improvise heroic treatments- notoriously, field
amputations- which in the end merely created a second wave of dehisced,
infected, or outright untreated surgical wounds for which the second
wave of US providers were in turn similarly unprepared. This placed the
second wave of providers in a position where they, too, felt they had
to improvise heroically, distributing antibiotics based on supply
rather than appropriateness, or debriding necrotic tissue with
non-medical implements. These measures in turn are created further
downstream complications, and it is appropriate to ask whether acting
inappropriately in the name of expedience is ever wise. Certainly, the
providers who created this cascading crisis were convinced that they
were "unlearning" their pampered American reliance on elaborate fixed
resources and staff; perhaps it would have been better had they worked
instead to unlearn their American belief in the necessity to "do
something," and that this would be better than nothing.

primary concerns about Haiti from here on out are not medical, but
relate instead to the idea of rebuilding, and the development issues
that go along with it. With the US military ceding food distribution to
civilian agencies, the relief effort has begun to take seriously the
question of what happens next for Haiti, and what model, economic and
physical, should guide Port Au Prince into the future. I have even
begun to overhear, on the internet and through word-of-mouth, of
specific efforts to send engineers to help construct permanent housing
for the displaced poor. These rumours range from the established civil
engineering model to wilder "permaculture" plans to build straw-bale
houses (in a wet, tropical country without grain agriculture, no less!)
to more practical determinations to assist poor people in reassembling
the informal and improvised houses they occupied before the tend cities.

respect, I can't imagine a worse use of informal resources or donated
money. The poor people of Port-au-Prince do not need their overcrowded,
unserviced, inaccessible vertical bidonvilles back. It is not
as if all the various residents of Haiti sat down together in the
1960's and decided, collectively, how they all wanted to live- the bidonvilles,
and the extreme disparities in wealth that go along with them, are a
result of Haitian history, and an actual "rebuilding" project worthy of
support by progressive or radical Americans, would have to somehow
address this history before if could attempt to remediate the piles of
stones that history- and the earthquake of 12 January- have left on the
ground of Port-au-Prince.

Haiti, currently, has no government.
It is an anarchic society, and holds surprisingly close to the model
proposed or expected by first world anarchists. There is not that much
violent crime, most people not being criminals, and in fact violence is
famously less now than it was before the disaster. Food is produced
primarily by smallholders or in improvised gardens, prepared by people
who manage to avoid poisoning their customers, streets are opened or
closed by the collective efforts of residents (a common sight is an
improvised barricade assembled nightly across an intersection, that
marks the point beyond which displaced people have set up their nightly
improvised shelters) and larger buildings are combed through for intact
concrete blocks or rebar for sale. Microindustries like tire inflation
or cell-phone recharging are everywhere, and somehow the football
fields are always clear of rubble or tents in time for a game. That
said, there is no trash pickup, centralized water distribution, or
sewage, the roads are unmaintained, and while the rich complain that
there are no police in Port-au-Prince, the poor complain that the
police do exist, but have no particular program behind their actions
other than self-enrichment and corruption. Public health is a disaster,
and education ends about when kids start to get bored. Restaurants,
stores, and organizational headquarters are safe, clean and modern, but
you are always aware who pays the man with the shotgun outside the door.

occupancy is both informal and complex. Both the dictatorship of the
Duvaliers and the subsequent regimes of Aristide made significant
changes in land use without ever formalizing or registering ownership
for the poor. Under Duvalier, land was reserved for and tranferred to
the rich, specifically those rich Haitians who patronized Duvalier.
Squatter settlements, or even housing for the poor, were destroyed and
occupants displaced, arrested, or killed by the "Tonton Macoutes."
Aristide ended this, and even permitted semi-legalized squatting, but
did so under a World Bank and IMF regime that created the land-use
complexities that concentrated the poor into hillside arcologies called
bidonvilles which lack water, sewer, or access to transportation
or employment. Simultaneously, Haiti has been swept by urbanization
after rural farming has collapsed. Why this happened depends on whom
you ask- American leftists point to deforestation and its effect on the
topsoil, which Haitian leftists blame Duvalier's disenfranchisement and
displacement of communist-leaning farmers and organizations. Another
theory heard in Haiti is that during the swine flu scare in the 1970's,
Haiti's naturalized pigs were all but wiped out, removing rural
families' traditional mechanism for converting household and
agricultural waste into meat. Regardless of why, the population in
Port-au-Prince has swelled dramatically with internal migrants from the

Needless to say, people from all walks of life in
Haiti feel some bitterness after the past half-century or displacement.
Latifundistas (yes, I know the word is Spanish) reminisce about the
days when the police would keep the dirty people off their horse
ranches, which the poor (and the relict institutional left) resent the
lost promises of Aristide. It has been better explained by other people
from my team, but before any short-handed reconstruction project sets
up in Haiti, lets at least remember that these grievances are all real
and deeply felt, and the expedient solution that obtained prior to the
earthquake, wherein the rich guarded their dwindling estates with dogs,
guns, and razor-wire walls, while the poor packed in literally on top
of each other, pleased no-one. Also, these folks are armed.

all of this is Haiti's dubious long-standing honor as the poorest
country in the western hemisphere. For the past two decades especially,
political and religious organizations, from the Venezuelan government
to the Scientologists to "punk rock permaculture" (dot com) have looked
to Haiti as a blank spot for which any change could only be for the
better. As misguided as the surgeons in the first paragraph, these
assorted NGOs have assumed their utopian projects couldn't possibly
make anything worse than it already was, and have subdivided Haiti into
a patchwork of walled compounds and demographic turf, within which they
have each attempted to make their case for a better world. The crazy
evangelicals stealing babies are simply one more group of do-gooders
who can't imagine how leaving well enough alone would be preferable.
(and yes, Haiti does have a little child slavery problem, which is part
of why parents are so willing to hand their kids over to western
"orphanages"- but that's a very different topic.) The problem here is
that none of these NGOs are Haitian. And they are, with their schools,
clinics, factories, extinguishing the possibility of a Haitian civil

The argument I am going to attempt to make is best elaborated (for my taste) in Mike Davis' fantastic Planet of Slums,
which I wish I had read prior to leaving for Haiti, but it goes to the
heart of one of the most carefully exegeticized debates in modern
development economics. By way of translation, its way over my head and
I only cite Davis' position because it matches up best with the
experiences and opinions of Haitians I talked with last month. Bluntly,
NGOs take a struggle or an imbalance that undermines the stability of a
political regime, and attempt to resolve it using the best available
expertise, technology and planning, and as many international resources
as they can qualify for. Often, for smaller populations, they are more
than transiently successful (though their failures may get more press
in donor nations.) In doing so, however, they restructure questions of
power and change into the technocratic language of professionalism and
problem solving, and essentially do an end-run around larger-question
organizations that lack the education, professionalism, or financing to
effect comparable results in the short term, or within a narrow focus.
Even seemingly obvious measures like primary schools or technical
academies can be problematic, because no Haitian organization could
ever provide equivalently educated teachers, or fixed resources,
compared to a US NGO, and would have to compete for turf- paying
professionals, buying computers, attracting students- with other
academies who had all the resources of, say, France, or the southern
baptist convention, to draw on.

This process, what Davis calls
"monopolizing expertise," creates a situation in which it is impossible
for any Haitian-based organization to accrue the credibility needed to
be a serious player in domestic politics- all those slots are currently
occupied either by NGOs or by government proxies. Rene Preval is
functionally a US proxy. Even BIC, the all-Haitian organization my team
allied with, which had some residual legitimacy from the founders'
pasts as business owners and land owners, could not get the time of day
from either the US military or the WFP, who felt food distribution
would be more efficiently handled by internationals like Save the
Children (worst name ever!) or the 7th-Day Adventists. One can only
imagine the reception a neighborhood organization from Cite-Soleil
would recieve!

However, without this kind of Haitian civil
society, there can be no national consensus or mandate that accurately
reflects the participation of the Haitian people. Without this national
mandate, any "rebuilding" plan is doomed to create another situation in
which those in power are virtual clients of the US military, and those
out of power are way, way, way out of power. Right now, the talk among
educated Haitians is that Port-au-Prince is doomed; that the poor will
never be rehoused, will have to be removed to the countryside, and the
city will be bulldozed and rebuild as a sort of
Santa-Monica-on-the-Atlantic. Among the poor, the talk is of prices for
rebar and cinderblock, to recreate anything that will keep a roof over
the head. Among the internationals, the plan is to create whatever
perfect world their host church, or political program, thinks best. Any
attempt to rebuild Haiti, in the absence of an independent social
revolution, will ineluctably lead to strengthening one of these.

course, I'm not a foreign development economist. I'm a paramedic. I
don't have answers to these questions, nor do I know if the problems
I'm bringing to light here are even the most relevant. All I ask is
that people remember- the government has diverted the tents, and the
encampments are made of stripped sapling poles and bedsheets. In April
it will rain and in the fall there will be hurricanes. The idea that
going in and "doing something" must be better than nothing has caused
untold misery so far, but there are real people living in Haiti.

So, I don't know.


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