Hello from Port au Prince! I’ve just returned to Haiti for the first time since May 2004 and wanted to share my impressions with you.
In 2004, I arrived just two months after a band of armed men, led by a former military man named Guy Philippe, crossed the border from the Dominican Republic and marched across the country to Port au Prince, intending to oust then-President Jean Bertrand Aristide. This was a tense period when the island was embroiled in political turmoil. U.S. troops along with those of France and Canada were visible everywhere, and a multi-national United Nations peacekeeping mission known by its French acronym MINUSTAH was about to be established. Nerves were frayed and volatile emotions were barely kept below the surface of everyday life. How are things different now? And how are things the same?
What seems different is that there is more openness and less tension as I walk through the streets of Port au Prince. Despite ongoing concerns about violent crime and insecurity in the city, Haitian people seem more relaxed.
After four years, the blue-helmeted United Nations (U.N.) troops are still here. But their role is not clear. The mandate of the U.N. mission does not allow the multi-national troops to do much more than deter violence through their presence. International donor governments have determined that it is worth several million dollars per month to keep these troops here. But in Haiti there is much controversy about the U.N. Mission.
Most Haitians with whom I have spoken over the past few days have told me they would like to know what the actual cost of the U.N. Mission is per month, because the benefits and impacts seem unclear to them. Rico Jeanne-Pierre from the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA) made clear that in such a poor country with such enormous need for roads, sanitation, sewer and water systems, and for services such as health care, education and environmental protection, the huge investment in maintaining an international military force flies in the face of the most urgent needs of the Haitian people. In Port au Prince, with about 4 million people, it is estimated that only about 10 to 15% of people have access to running water or sewage systems. Each blue helmet is a visible reminder of an unmet need.
Despite all this, Haitians seem to be going about the business of their lives. People in Port au Prince as well as the countryside are in constant motion – coming and going to and from markets and work. The many brightly colored tap taps – dramatically hand-painted and exorbitantly decorated mini-vans and buses – are full to over-flowing with people. The streets, especially near markets, are teeming with goods.
What has not changed is the dramatic evidence of the continued social and political exclusion of the painfully poor Haitians who still live predominantly in the countryside. Rural Haiti has been exploited and neglected under international domination, as well as by national governments, for centuries. Today only 1.25 % of the original forest or ground cover remains. The effects of over-exploitation of the natural environment – such as unmitigated deforestation – have created what is today an environmental crisis of disastrous proportions.
Despite the best efforts of numerous peasant associations to engage in home-grown reforestation, the problem is of such large proportions that only a nationally-coordinated, publicly-funded reforestation program could begin to make a real difference. But many Haitians with whom I have spoken bemoan the weakness of the Haitian government. As Camille Chalmers of PAPDA notes, the government is obligated by the international community and financial institutions like the IMF to prioritize debt repayment over human or environmental services such as reforestation.
What is encouraging, however, is that all of the major regional peasant organizations are aware of the gravity of the situation in the countryside, and are working to build a national coalition to protect the land and rural residents. Representatives of peasant organizations such as the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) and the Regional Coordination of Southeast Organizations (KROS) tell me their first priority is to hammer out a national program for improvements in the countryside. They know that a united platform will help them more effectively negotiate with the national government and international donor governments for a national program of rural development that will stop the bleeding of the land and support the self-sufficiency of rural communities.
That’s all for now. Next blog installments will focus on current activities of peasant groups and their suggestions for future actions in the countryside. Please stay tuned!