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Posts Tagged ‘haiti’


Photo: Storify
Mudslides in Haiti in 2011. Reforestation of the once lush island is badly needed, but how can people in poverty wait decades for results when a sapling could provide charcoal for a hungry family?

Recently, I read a book that I recommend highly. It’s Apricot Irving’s memoir The Gospel of Trees. I wrote the following about it on GoodReads.

Author Apricot Irving’s parents were missionaries in Haiti for several years starting in the 1970s, and Apricot’s memoir evokes what the experience meant for her as a child, a teenager, and an adult. The vividness of her writing benefits from the fact that both parents kept diaries. Her own journal, which she started at a very young age, also gives both happy and bitter memories remarkable immediacy.

Apricot’s counterculture parents were people used to hiking long distances and sleeping under the stars. They shunned middle-class materialism and thought nothing of raising children in a shack with an outhouse. (The family eventually included three daughters.) They got religion at a point in their marriage when Apricot’s mother was fed up with Apricot’s father and his remoteness. She was ready to split. A pamphlet left by her mother-in-law led to her epiphany.

When the church the couple joined needed help at a medical mission in Haiti, Apricot’s father (a hard-working farmer and forest ranger) found the mission’s reforestation sideline appealing. Off they all went to save the poor people and tell them what was needed.

Over the years, the family began to see that that’s not how development is successful. They learned what Paul Farmer of Partners in Health had been preaching for decades in Haiti — namely that the local people must lead. (Oddly, the famous doctor is never mentioned, suggesting to me there’s some enmity.)

The Irving family lived through years of getting trees started in the ravaged, depleted soil, where mudslides, destruction, and death were the norm, only to see the new growth eaten by goats or cut down for charcoal — over and over and over and over.

They lived through revolutions, political upheaval (sometimes aggravated by US military action), danger, and crushing disappointment, coming back to help any way they could after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Once back there, they relived all the ironies– paying locals to plant trees, which enabled them to buy goats, which ate the trees. By this time they knew that buying imported furniture as NGOs demanded was wrong when desperate locals were struggling to keep their own furniture businesses afloat. They knew that forcing a flourishing local cooperative to meet an NGO timeline might be dooming it to failure. They agonized for the country they still loved.

The author recounts the history of the island, going back to Columbus, who discovered what was then a lush paradise, eventually ruined by clearing the land for crops grown by slaves. And she gradually peals back the stages of her personal awakening, her conflicted feelings about the country, her wish to help, her understanding that although the job is never finished, you still need to do what you can and know that others will continue the work.

I found that I liked Apricot a lot and admired her ongoing effort to find common ground with her demanding, sometimes cruel, father. I also admired her stalwart mother’s efforts to bring cheer — especially as the mission was falling apart and all the doctors and nurses and staff were feeling demoralized.

You get to see the beauty of the country in this book and the different strengths of the people. And you especially get to see why decades of do-gooder initiatives were bound to fail. Not that the medical mission did no good at all — many lives were saved, many people got jobs and other kinds of help — but the model was unsustainable.

I can think of so many people I know who would love this book — people who work with immigrants from Haiti and elsewhere, tree people trying to protect the environment, people who love beautiful, honest writing.

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How many times lately have I read “in these uncertain times” and “now more than ever”? Crises bring these phrases out.

So how do we inject the words with extra special urgency? I find myself thinking like Charlie Brown (or was it Lucy?) trying to fill up a book report: Now more than ever ever ever really and truly and I’m not kidding, programs about the environment such as Living on Earth are important.

Some of the Living on Earth shows — about melting ice and rising seas, for example — are crucial to our understanding of what we face. Others, like the one about a certain pig in Haiti, underline the interconnectedness of the environment and local economies. You can’t wipe out an animal people rely on and expect everything to be fine.

From Living on Earth: “In Haiti, the creole pig was a staple of the peasant economy, bringing families economic stability, devouring food waste and occasionally becoming an religious sacrifice. But as Allison Griner reports, disease killed many creole pigs and American efforts to control the swine flu took the rest. Efforts to replace the pig failed, but now peasant farmers are slowly rebuilding the creole pig herd.

“GRINER: To reverse the trend, [2015 presidential candidate Jean-Baptiste] Chavannes and his colleagues in the peasant movement decided to reintroduce the creole pig — or at least a hybrid that could fill its place.

“CHAVANNES: We want the return of the creole pig. So we led a fight, and over the years, the minister of agriculture finally started a program for the repopulation of the pigs. …

“GRINER: But just as the new pig herd was starting to grow, once again disease intervened. This time, the culprit was teschen, a virus that can kill a pig within days. Six years ago, it started to spread. And decades of work were lost. …

“Still, the fight is not yet over for the creole pig. Vaccines for teschen are already being tested in Haiti, and Chavannes hopes partnerships with international NGOs will help fight this latest disease. Part of Chavannes’ mission is to rebuild the peasant economy. But to reach that goal, bringing back the creole pig is a necessity, he says.

“CHAVANNES: We must. [Laughs] We must, and like I said, pig farming is indispensable for reestablishing the peasant economy. …

“GRINER: Already, the race to save Haiti’s pigs is well underway. This past spring, an official from the ministry of agriculture announced that the 500,000 doses of the teschen vaccine had been produced. The official says they are currently available for farmers to use.”

At Living on Earth, you can read what the pigs meant to the farmers, why they got killed off, why American pigs were a terrible replacement, and what kind of livestock peasants decided to raise while they are waiting for the creole pigs to come back.

Photo: Allison Griner
Pig in Delmas, Port au Prince, Haiti

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When homes are destroyed in disaster zones, the Mobile Factory can turn the rubble into Lego-like building blocks to create new housing. They snap together without mortar.

Stella Dawson of the Thomson Reuters Foundation writes, “In Amsterdam a mobile factory, the size of two shipping containers, ingests rubble at one end, liquifies it into cement, and spurts out Lego-shaped building blocks.

“Call it rubble for the people, converting the deadly debris from disasters into homes and hospitals, cheaply and quickly.

“It’s the brainchild of Gerard Steijn, a 71-year-old sustainable development consultant turned social entrepreneur, who leads the Netherlands-based project to recycle the rubble from natural disasters and wars.

“He plans to create ecologically sound and safe housing by producing 750 building blocks a day from the debris, enough for one home at a cost of less than $20,000 each.

” ‘In disasters, you have piles and piles of rubble, and the rubble is waste. If you are rich, you buy more bricks and rebuild your home,’ Steijn said in a telephone interview.

‘But what happens if you are poor? In disasters it is the poorest people who live in the weakest houses and they loose their homes first. I thought, what if you recycled the rubble to build back better homes for poor people?’

“His rubble-busting Mobile Factory has fired the imagination of a landowner in Haiti and a civil engineer at the University of Delft. They have joined forces to test Steijn’s idea and build the first rubble community in Port au Prince next year. …

“Unskilled people can build the homes with the blocks, which meet demanding Dutch construction standards to ensure they will last for many years. [Hennes de Ridder, an engineering professor at the University of Delft,] expects further stress tests he planned for Peru in a few months will show the homes can withstand temblors of at least 6 on the Richter scale.” Read more here.

Photo: The Mobile Factory
Model homes built from cement rubble are on display at an industrial park in Amsterdam. The brightly painted homes are designed for disaster zones, using technology that creates Lego-style building blocks from cement rubble.

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Having given myself a serious scare reviewing the film Revolution (on the planet’s race to extinction through practices such as destroying critical forests), I was happy to read about a positive forestry initiative started in India and expanded to Haiti and Kenya. The pressures are the same in those countries as in Madagascar, which was featured in Revolution, but there is also a recognition that trees are life-giving.

Gregory M. Lamb writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Aviram Rozin was excited. He had just returned from Haiti where the 80,000 Maya nut trees that volunteers with Sadhana Forest had planted there during the past five years had started to flower. Before long each tree would be producing huge quantities of nuts high in protein and other nutrients. One tree could supply enough yearly protein for a family of five.

“The nonprofit Sadhana Forest, cofounded by Mr. Rozin and his wife, Yorit, follows three simple strategies:

“• Plant indigenous trees in arid regions that once had been forested but have become barren, useless land.

“• With few exceptions, do the work using volunteers, both local and from around the world.

“• Since trees don’t grow overnight, plan on staying around for a long, long time to see the project through.

“The Rozins started Sadhana Forest in 2003, the year after they moved to India from Aviram’s native Israel to live in Auroville, an experimental township in southeast India that emphasizes sustainable living and has attracted immigrants from all over. The couple bought 70 acres of degraded land and set about creating a community dedicated to reforestation. …

“The aim of Sadhana Forest isn’t to buy and reforest massive tracts of public land. Rather, it is to teach local people how to grow trees on their own land. Faced with the dry climate, Rozin has come up with a simple, yet innovative, way to water the trees: wick irrigation. A two-liter plastic bottle filled with water is planted up to its neck next to each sapling or tree. A piece of cotton rope fed through a tiny hole in the bottom of the bottle acts as a wick, slowly moistening the soil. Loosening or tightening the bottle’s cap can control the rate of flow. …

“Each wick bottle becomes ‘a personal watering system for each tree,’ Rozin says, yet the materials are readily available locally and cost almost nothing. …

“Rozin, who studied psychology and later worked in management for an Israeli medical device company, does not have a degree in forestry but says that may have been a blessing in disguise.

“ ‘We found out that, in a way, ignorance is bliss because we’re very open to learning,’ he says. ‘We don’t think we know everything. A lot of innovation comes from listening to people, to being open.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Sadhana Forest
Volunteer Nixon Casseus (l.) and Sadhana Forest cofounder Aviram Rozin show off the first flowering Maya nut tree in Haiti.

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Ajay Singh writes about the good work of a library in Haiti that manages to do everything libraries do … except hand out books.

“When Rebecca McDonald was helping rebuild Haiti in the aftermath of its 2010 earthquake, the former construction manager witnessed … noticed that children had little or no access to books. …

” ‘I asked myself how children were supposed to get any education without books, especially given that they’d catch up with their teachers really fast,” McDonald said. An avid reader herself, the 36-year-old often shopped for books online, which led to her epiphany about the medium.

“ ‘It hit me that Haiti’s kids could use digital books,’ she said. …

“In spring 2012, McDonald met Tanyella Evans, then the Scottish executive director of Artists for Peace and Justice in charge of building a school in Haiti. Evans, 27, immediately liked McDonald’s idea, and together they set out to achieve a lofty goal: Launch a cloud-based digital library that would make books accessible to 250 million schoolchildren in developing countries around the world.

“With $110,000 raised on Kickstarter in July 2013, the duo officially established their nonprofit, Library for All. By the end of that year—thanks to Open Educational Resources, free digital titles provided by major US publishers, and partnerships with local governments and NGOs to purchase electronic devices—Evans and McDonald started their pilot program at Respire Haiti, a K–12 school on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. …

“Today, Library for All uses an Android app for low-cost tablets, PCs, and feature phones to make available a selection of 1,200 cloud-based e-books in Haitian Creole, French, English, and Spanish; many of the students had never even seen books in their native language of Haitian Creole before.” More here.

The story comes from TakePart, by way of the Christian Science Monitor feature “People Making a Difference.”

Swoan Parker/Reuters/File
Students at Julie Siskind School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, identify alphabet letters on a wall.

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After Haiti’s devastating earthquake three years ago, money flowed in. Today many funders have retreated, but a 5,000-farmer coffee-growing coop is showing it can manage with guidance and small loans.

Daniel Jensen at Global Envision (a Mercy Corps blog) writes, “Root Capital is providing loans and consulting expertise to COOPCAB, a Haitian coffee co-op that markets its products internationally while investing money in local reforestation efforts that improve its own production. The cooperative, which has expanded six-fold under Root Capital’s guidance, now includes 5,000 members …

“Managing COOPCAB comes with its own set of challenges. Meeting them requires a model that creates local business leaders rather than simply employing foreign relief workers. Root Capital’s Willy Foote explains:

” ‘COOPCAB … is managed by local Haitian farmers with little formal training in financial management and accounting. … As a consequence, we’ve had to innovate and hone our business model in Haiti, slowing our lending in the short term while accelerating and deepening our financial advisory services program.’ …

“Soon, Haitian entrepreneurs may find new opportunities to replicate COOPCAB’s model, as [U.S.] Ambassador [Paul] Altidor has asked Foote to help advise formal policy decisions. Haitian minister of agriculture Thomas Jacques also plans to create a rice commission focused on increasing domestic production.” More.

Consider buying your coffee beans at COOPCAB and giving Haiti a helping hand.

Photograph: coffeeresearch.org

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Dr. Paul Farmer, the subject of a great Tracy Kidder book called Mountains Beyond Mountains, has spent many years delivering medical care — and working to alleviate poverty — in remote areas of Haiti. His nonprofit organization, Partners in Health, takes the word “partners” seriously. The teams do not tell the locals what is good for them but makes a point of learning from them and helping them get what they need.

In recent years, Farmer has been in demand in other countries, too. One focus area has been Rwanda. I liked a recent Boston Globe article on the approach to building a Partners in Health hospital there.

“The designers quickly realized that the challenge was not simply to draw up plans, as they had first thought, but rather to understand the spread of airborne disease and design a building that would combat — and in some cases sidestep — the unhealthy conditions common to so many hospitals.

“Learning from health care workers that hospital hallways were known sites of contagion, poorly ventilated, and clogged with patients and visitors, MASS Design decided that the best solution would be to get rid of the hallways. Taking advantage of Rwanda’s temperate climate, they placed the circulation outdoors, designing open verandas running the lengths of the buildings. …

“When it came to building, MASS Design looked at the Partners in Health model of involving local poor communities in health care, and realized that they could apply the same ideas to the construction process. The hospital was built entirely using local labor, providing food and health care for the workers. Unskilled workers received training that would help them get more work; and skilled laborers, notably the Rwandan masons who built the hospital’s exterior from carefully fitted together local volcanic stone, refined their craft and found themselves in demand all over the country. The construction process also beefed up local infrastructure — new roads and a hydroelectric dam — creating more jobs and literally paving the way for future projects.”

To paraphrase what Farmer often says, the biggest challenge to health is poverty. Read more.

Update on the designers from the June 19, 2012, Boston Globe.

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