The Finger of Blame for Haiti’s Environmental Degradation
By Meghan Pierce, Undergraduate Research Assistant
Posted on July 1, 2013
I visited the Library of Congress last Tuesday to listen to a lecture by Dr. Jean-Francois Mouhot, a post-doctoral research fellow based at Georgetown, who is currently conducting a three-year research project on the Environmental History of Saint-Domingue / Haiti (1492-today).
Dr. Mouhot began his talk by displaying a picture of the Haitian-Dominican boarder, brought to prominence by Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth (see above). The photograph reveals sparse, brown soil on Haiti’s side of the border, and flourishing tropical forest on the other. Dr. Mouhot indicated that with this image, Gore, like many others, depicts Haiti as a “cautionary tale” of failed environmental policy.
Dr. Mouhot was quick to amend that he did not dispute the impact of An Inconvenient Truth, nor the overlying message about environmental conservation. However, he was hesitant to endorse the stereotypical narrative that links Haiti’s environmental degradation to social failings, economic hardship, and violence. Instead, his research seeks to examine certain environmental factors, such as epidemics caused by mosquitoes, as the historical cause of instability. Given the dearth of research on Haiti’s environmental history presently, his future findings will undoubtedly present a fresh perspective on the country long dismissed as a “naked pearl” (a play on Christopher Columbus’ christening of Haiti as “the Pearl of the Antilles”).
According to Dr. Mouhot, human encroachments on nature have left forests standing today on about three percent of Haiti’s land. Such a dramatic figure has sparked intense domestic action. President Michel Martelly has launched a drive to double forest cover by 2016, and has declared 2013 “the year of the environment,” even creating a catchy creole slogan, “Yon ayisyen, yon pye bwa” (one Haitian, one tree).
This blog has previously discussed the importance of images in the formulation and implementation of policy, which holds true when considering the photographed Haitian/Dominican border. Significantly, the first 9 images that appear after a Google search of “Haiti Environment” are of the Haitian/Dominican boarder, demonstrating the “failed” mentality already prevalent from an outside policy perspective.
A policy maker could easily contemplate the stark Hispaniola divide and point the finger of blame to Haitians, while lauding the Dominican Republic for its efforts to conserve trees. However, such analysis does not take into account Haiti’s lack of liquid propane gas for cooking, deeming wood burning necessary. The Dominican Republic, on the other hand, has access to propane, meaning the tendency to cut down trees for charcoal is less frequent.
Such examples caution us against one-sided understandings of Haitian environmental degradation. While it is true that Haitians are responsible for deforestation, it is also prudent to consider colonial-era crop dependence, historical resource extraction habits, and of course, such environmental risks as violent storms, earthquakes, and periodic drought, which can result in deforestation.
As Haiti attempts to rebuild its fragile ecosystem, policy makers and environmental advocates should caution against over-simplified understandings of environmental degradation, and interpret such images as that of the Haitian-Dominican border with a grain of salt. Rather than declare the state of the environment the result of “failed policy,” it is better to question the reason for deforestation, and to ponder more practical responses to larger structural factors.
The Present State of Haitian Fertility and the International Response
By Meghan Pierce, Undergraduate Research Assistant
Posted on May 31, 2012
The right of the individual to decide how many children to have and when to have them has consistently been the guiding principle in international reproductive health standards, according to the World Health Organization. Since 2010, Haiti’s rising annual birth rate has been increasingly referred to as a “fertility crisis” by international population demographers.
Haiti’s population is expected to reach 15.7 million by 2050, targeting the need for a reproductive health program to decrease the total fertility rate, currently 3.9 children per woman. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, an influx of international aid arrived to Haiti, with specific funds allocated for family planning initiatives, prioritized because of the ballooning population and dwindling natural resources. However, like many aid programs in Haiti, the funds have been poorly allocated and inefficiently managed. Since 2010, Haiti has been experiencing a “baby boom” in urban areas like Port-au-Prince, due in part to the destruction of infrastructure that once included clinics with contraceptive supplies and counseling. According to the United Nations Population Fund, the Haitian fertility rate has tripled since the disaster.
The unmet need for contraception, defined as the percentage of fertile, married women of reproductive age who do not want to become pregnant and are not using contraception, is currently 32%. For women in the poorest quintile, the majority of whom live in rural areas, the unmet need reaches 44%.The lack of contraception access is especially troublesome in light of the sharply increasing fertility rates, particularly among adolescents.
The risk factors of the urban baby boom are numerous. A 2007 UNFPA study reported that, given irregular or no access to contraception, Haitian women are more inclined to use abortion as a regulatory fertility method. However, the performance of abortions is governed by the provisions of the Haitian Penal Code, which declares the practice to be illegal. Thus, women are more likely to seek riskier abortions, whether self-induced or by an unqualified practitioner. Haiti is also at risk of increased HIV and STI rates, because of the lack of contraceptive methods that protect against infection, such as female and male condoms. Currently, about 2% of the adult population of Haiti has HIV, and the infection is considered a growing health concern.
The Haitian government has yet to respond to the fertility crisis with an effective family planning program. In 1995, the Haitian government launched an ambitious decentralization plan that relied on a network of Communal Health Units for the delivery of basic health services, which included reproductive health services. However, progress has been limited, and not all communities benefit from rally health posts, mobile clinics, health agents, and locally trained birth attendants. Furthermore, because of the enormous need and limited staffing, clinics are at risk of a significant drop-off in the quality of care women receive.
USAID reports that the difficulty of access to contraceptive methods is due to frequent stock-outs of contraceptives and a limited range of method choice in most health facilities, which is especially true for long-term methods like IUDs and birth control implants. The stock-outs have led to the creation of parallel procurement and distribution systems by international organizations, private clinics, and hospitals. This lack of coordination of service delivery is exacerbated in rural areas, as the limited number of health centers and district hospitals are primarily found in urban areas. Furthermore, instruction on the proper use of birth control is frequently overlooked. For example, it has been reported that condoms are not understood as a family planning method to some Haitians, but only as a method of prevention of HIV and STIs. As a result, condoms are not frequently used by couples in committed relationships, as to do so would be to admit unfaithfulness, according to the same report. The lack of proper contraception instruction is further evidenced in that only 21% of Haitian women can situate the fertility period in their menstrual cycle, according to a USAID demographic health survey.
The sheer number of family planning NGOs and US-sponsored organizations working to “manage” Haitian fertility, with few results in recent years, evidences the mismanaged coordination between such groups. The lack of strategic resource distribution and the disparity of urban and rural access to contraception pose many questions about future action. For example, it is questionable if a single family planning service provider would be the most “ideal” response to the high fertility levels. Because of the current political climate, an overhauled government-driven health care system which accommodates family planning services does not seem likely. Yet, the coordination of all family planning funding, staff training, and service distribution by a single NGO, whether domestic or international, seems equally as unlikely. Given the importance of family planning as a gender, economics, and human rights issue, Haiti is at pivotal point as it responds to rising population levels, although perhaps it is not itself ready to define the issue as a “fertility crisis.”
“On Common Ground” Opens at the Art Museum of the Americas
By Meghan Pierce, Undergraduate Research Assistant
Posted on February 20, 2013
On February 13th, the Organization of American States and the Embassies of Haiti and the Dominican Republic held an opening reception for “On Common Ground,” an exhibition featuring emerging artists of Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The pieces are held at the Art Museum of the Americas, the OAS gallery located at 201 18th Street, NW.
In order to foster AMA’s mission of “promoting the Inter-American agenda through artistic expression by encouraging social change, consensus building, diversity and tolerance,” the exhibit encourages visitors to examine the shared identities and perceptions of Hispaniola’s people.
One’s eyes are immediately drawn to simple black and white signs hung at each room’s entrance, on which questions are posed to the featured artists. For example, when asked “why do you feel your country is misunderstood?” Dominican artist Engel Leonardo replied “lack of responsibility,” while Haitian artist Pascale Monnin answered “the omnipresence of negative stories in the media.” Powerful and thought-provoking, the responses resonate with visitors as they move throughout the rooms.
In addition to Leonardo and Monnin, the gallery also displays the work of Dominican artists Natalia Ortega Gámez, Hulda Guzmán, Gustavo Peña and Julio Valdez, and Haitian artists Killy Patrick Ganthier, Marc Lee Steed, Manuel Mathieu, and Pascale Monnin. Guzmán’s “Fiesta en el Batey” and Peña’s “Swimming Outside the Boundaries” are especially noteworthy, depicting festive scenes with bold colors and brush lines.
The exhibit as a whole has a hopeful, albeit challenging feel. A visitor is at both times reminded of the richness of Hispaniola culture, but cognizant of its history of inter-island violence and political strife. Indeed, the exhibit authenticates the notion of productive dialogue through thoughtful creativity.
A short way off the National Mall, the exhibit will be on display until May 26th.
For more information, visit the AMA website.
The Role of the ICRC in Haiti
By Meghan Pierce, Undergraduate Research Assistant
Posted on January 31, 2013
On Thursday, January 31, the congressional office of Representative Sam Farr (Dem-CA), hosted a briefing featuring Patricia Danzi, head of Operation for the Americas at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Latin America. The purpose of the session was to delineate the state of armed conflict and violence in Latin America, and to describe accordingly the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross in peacekeeping.
According to its mission statement, the ICRC is an “independent, neutral organization ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence. It takes action in response to emergencies and at the same time promotes respect for international humanitarian law and its implementation in national law.” As the head of Operations for the Americas, Danzi embarked on the arduous challenge of summarizing the status of violence in the hemisphere, which varies greatly by country. It was repeatedly emphasized that recent international homicide rates are in decline, except in Latin America, where the rate is more than double the global average.
Danzia explained the capacity of the ICRC to hold a leadership role in humanitarian issues in the hemisphere, through coordination with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and national chapters of the Red Cross in individual countries, as well as through other supranational organizations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of American States (OAS).
For the purposes of this Project, it was necessary to inquire about the ICRC’s role, if any, in maintaining order in Haiti. While Danzia emphasized the country’s relatively low levels of homicide and kidnapping, certain social elements that were already problematic have since been exacerbated by the 2010 earthquake. The quality of life for detainees and prisoners is one such areas of concern. According to Danzia, there are approximately 9,000 individuals currently being held in detention, with each allotted approximately 1.5 square feet of space in detention centers. This is not only physically infeasible, because it necessitates such things as rotating sleep schedules, but also results in inadequate supplies of water, food and medical care. Most significantly, it is a violation of international humanitarian law.
For those interested in Haitian development, the status of detention centers is something to watch. For further information on the Red Cross’s initiatives, visit the ICRC website.
Canadian Perspectives on Hemispheric Issues: Government and Diplomacy
Meghan Pierce, Undergraduate Research Assistant
Posted on January 16, 2013
On Tuesday, January 15th, the Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program of the Elliott School of International Affairs, in collaboration with the Embassy of Canada, hosted the final session of a four-part speaker series entitled “Canadian Perspectives on Hemispheric Issues.” The closing program centered on Governance and Diplomacy issues, with Christian Ranger of the Embassy of Canada and Stephen Baranyi of the University of Ottawa as the featured speakers.
The event commenced with a description of the differentiation between US and Canadian diplomatic backgrounds, with Secretary Ranger pointing to such factors as geographic proximity, economic scale, and global notoriety as indicators of policy effectiveness. He also introduced Canada’s foreign affairs and international trade priorities of 2012, which include an emphasis on economic prosperity and job creation, contribution to effective global governance and international security, and most significantly, the expansion Canada’s engagement in the hemisphere.
Such expansion of engagement raises questions about Canada’s contact with Haiti, which Secretary Ranger described as an “exceptional relationship.” He indicated several fundamental connections that bolster the relationship, the most obvious being French as a shared national language (although the most widely-spoken language in Haiti is Kreyol). He also mentioned the importance of the Haitian immigration to Canada, especially the population of Montreal, one of the most politically significant diasporas in the country. Indeed, the 27th Governor General of Canada, Michaelle Jean, was herself a Haitian refugee in the late 1960s.
The question of Canadian aid to Haiti was also raised, given the recent decision by International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino to temporarily discontinue all new aid projects to the Caribbean nation. The Canadian International Development Agency released a statement relaying that “while the results of specific projects have largely met expectations, progress towards a self-sustaining Haitian society has been limited. Our government has a responsibility to maximize the value of Canadian taxpayer dollars… We remain concerned with the slow progress of development in Haiti, in large part due to weaknesses in their governing institutions…We expect accountability, we expect transparency, and we expect tangible results for those most in need.”
Secretary Ranger pointed to recent belt-tightening in Canada, combined with the new economic policy emphasis, as rationale behind the aid freeze. However, like Fantino, he emphasized that certain pre-existing programs will continue, and that Canada will continue its commitment to Haiti through future projects. However, disputes surrounding the international community’s responsibility to Haiti continue to arise. With regard to his own country’s response, Mr. Fantino decried the fact that Canada has already contributed $1 billion in aid. “Are we going to take care of their problems forever? They also have to take charge of themselves.” (Source: The Globe and Mail)
This frustrated perspective appears to be echoed by other major donors, including the United States. What is more, the influx of ineffective or poorly distributed funds raises concerns of aid dependency. Theoretically, Haiti should be a promising zone for long-term development, given its geographic proximity to US and Canadian markets. However, the aid problem, combined with international perceptions of disarray and political instability in Haiti, means that is an unlikely candidate for significant international investment.