In the days since a devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake rocked southern Haiti on August 14, we have been in close communication with our Haitian partners. Their reports convey immeasurable loss, sharp political analysis, and an extraordinary combination of pragmatism and vision regarding the way forward.
As of Sunday, August 22, the reported death toll was 2,207, with 12,268 people injured, and nearly 130,000 homes destroyed or damaged. The Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH), a partner that has been closely monitoring the situation, underscores that official numbers are partial at best. They do not yet account for those in remote areas lacking health and other infrastructure, where “the situation is catastrophic.” Our partner National Congress of Papaye Peasant Movement (MPNKP) elaborates:
“[The earthquake] killed many peasants who worked in their fields. There is no way to find their corpses. In a communal section of Camp Perin, for example, more than 100 peasants died trapped between two mountains. They do not enter the balance sheet… In the communal section of Fonds Cochon in the Commune of Roseaux, entire communities are destroyed. There is no way to reach them. The smell of corpses is rising.”
Layered atop this already dire scenario was the additional tragedy of tropical storm Grace striking while so many were completely unsheltered, and with many people still trapped under the rubble.
A Multidimensional Crisis
The Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA), another of our long-term partners, aptly describes the devastation brought by the earthquake as being “grafted upon a multidimensional crisis.” Before the earthquake hit, Haiti had already been facing its most extreme humanitarian crisis in more than a decade, with skyrocketing rates of hunger and a worsening of the COVID pandemic, pushing its already strained medical system over capacity. The situation was further complicated by escalating violence in the aftermath of the assassination of the ex-president whose regime had been widely protested for corruption, violence and mismanagement.
Haiti’s multidimensional crisis stems from colonization and neocolonial trade, “aid,” and development policies that have plagued the world’s first Black republic, leaving both its people and landscape impoverished. Once self-sufficient in food and with an agricultural surplus, today Haiti is dependent on imports to a degree that renders its population highly vulnerable. At the same time, the country’s domestic agriculture sector has been hard hit by climate chaos in the form of intensifying drought and flooding over the past decade, the effects of which are magnified many times over by widespread deforestation. The past decade has also seen a rush in land grabbing, facilitated by international capital, often in the guise of “reconstruction” from the earthquake of 2010.
In short, there is absolutely nothing natural about the level of devastation and destruction caused by natural phenomena such as earthquakes and storms when a country and its people have been forced into such a precarious existence. As emphasized by each of our partners, the situation at hand is deeply political and needs to be recognized as such as a precondition for a just recovery.
Action on Multiple Fronts
A resounding message from our Haitian partners and allies is that if the recovery from this latest earthquake is to be different from that of 2010, international response efforts must prioritize initiatives that are Haitian-led. Supported by a still-ongoing emergency fundraiser, our partners have kicked into gear, complementing each other’s efforts and those of other Haitian social movements and grassroots organizations as they move quickly on multiple fronts.
MPNKP and its founding organization, the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP), have helpfully laid out three stages of response and the type of support needed for each. The first involves immediate distribution of emergency supplies and emergency shelter to prevent people from dying of hunger, thirst or disease. For this stage, it is essential that aid coming in from various sources be under the control of grassroots movements and organized communities in order to reach those most in need.
The next stage, within one to two months’ time, will involve securing access to local seeds, plant cuttings, livestock, and farm tools, together with “training in the areas of agroecology, understanding of the climate crisis and the means to combat it.” It will also involve capturing water sources and improving temporary shelters. MPP, which is located in Haiti’s Central Plateau, is equipped and willing to absorb refugees at its extensive organizing center in Papay. This is work MPP carried out in the wake of the 2010 earthquake and is prepared to do again.
Finally, the third stage, 6-24 months out, will involve setting up: “home construction programs that meet earthquake-resistant standards; restoration and environmental protection programs through soil conservation, reforestation, protection of river banks, etc; and training programs in social and solidarity economy, agroecology, environmental management.”
Advancing Transformative Visions
The proposal of MPNKP and MPP is a powerful demonstration of the determination of Haitian social movements to continuously advance their transformative visions, even in the face of great crisis. For our Haitian partners, this vision includes food sovereignty, climate justice and full realization of human rights for Haiti’s people.
PAPDA clearly articulates how such a movement-led approach departs from conventional approaches to disaster response:
“We do not intend to intervene as the others do by providing only emergency aid. Our interventions aim not only to put in place the bases for reconstruction, but also and above all to help families and communities to recover at the psychosocial level, to build the bases of the family economy to reduce the risks of dependence on aid, particularly food aid. Organizing is key to our interventions, because it is a question of allowing local organizations to continue their fight for public policies articulated according to their demands.”
Together these responses amount to a new way forward for Haiti and Haitians. Notably, among the first priorities identified by our partners MPP and MPNKP amid this environmental and political disaster is access to local seeds for impacted communities. Seeds are quite literally the first step towards food sovereignty, which serves as a foundation to multiple other forms of sovereignty that are critical for a better future in Haiti. Peasant movements recognize that these efforts involve scaled-up training and political education, areas which they also prioritize and have highlighted as part of their response.
Haitian activists have also underscored the necessity of a rights-based approach to current threats to people and the environment. For this reason, our partners PAPDA and POHDH are dedicated to consistently monitoring local and international crisis response. They are keeping a trained eye on governments, corporations, and even NGOs who may wish to use this political moment for their own profit. They warn that such forms of disaster capitalism risk furthering land grabbing and environmental destruction.
As our partners deepen and expand the work that they have been doing all along to meet the current challenges, they are in urgent need of support. This is the true point of international solidarity in times of crisis — standing with those impacted and following their lead.
Join us in supporting the efforts featured in this article and other Haitian-led responses to the earthquake via the Haiti Earthquake Emergency Fund.