I spent two weeks in Haiti shortly after the earthquake and what I saw there was truly unreal. For starters, the devastation is beyond belief, bordering on the incomprehensible. You can look at pictures of what has happened, but to truly understand the scope of it, you need to see it firsthand. Essentially, the city of Port Au Prince, a city of roughly three million people, needs to be completely rebuilt.
I would like to throw out my back of the napkin, relatively naive yet hopeful beyond belief idea for the rebuilding of Haiti. Don’t ask me how these things can be accomplished as they are just thoughts to use as building blocks based on what I saw there. Before I start in though, I’d like to mention what extreme admiration I have for the Haitian people. While there I was privy to an experience that should have brought out the worst in people yet seemingly did the exact opposite.
Instead of “looting” (I use quotes because looking for food is not looting) and riots, I encountered a relative calm and an unwillingness to accept defeat. The Haitians are an extremely proud and strong people and I was humbled by their ability to deal with extreme adversity. I say that to point out that we do not have the right to tell the Haitians how to rebuild, but have the obligation to offer them our help and support should they choose to accept it. The bottom line is that the future of Haiti should be decided by and for the Haitian people.
So here goes.
Solar Power: There was sporadic infrastructure in Port Au Prince before the earthquake and for obvious reasons that has been all but eradicated. Close to 80 percent of the power created there was from diesel generators which are expensive to maintain and heavily polluting. On an island in the Carribean, which is bombarded with sunlight, doesn’t it make sense to rebuild with solar in mind? Shouldn’t every house be solar powered? Every building generate it’s own power? Forget about building a new grid, photovoltaic companies should step in and offer assistance to create a city that is truly green, where power is free, and everyone has it. Critics of this idea have pointed out that there is no economic model for this as there will be no way for anyone to collect fees on electricity, but in a country where the average person wouldn’t be able to afford it to begin with, is that a point of contention? Free power will provide security, better education (reading in the dark tends to be hard) and afford people the ability to live better lives.
Solar Cookers: In the early 1900s Haiti was an extremely fertile country and the soil was full of life giving nutrients. Over the last 100 years, 98.5 percent of the trees in the country have been cut down and or burned to be used as fuel, mostly for cooking. As a result of the need for charcoal, and the ability to sell it, the top soil is all but gone, and the country has been decimated environmentally. A quick look at the Haitian/Dominican Republic border (the DM has forestry controls in place) tells the story better than I can explain. Distrubuting solar cookers would eradicate the need for charcoal, saving money and trees, and give citizens the ability to cook for free and purify water as needed.
Repair the Land: Poverty is one of the main problems in Haiti, the likes of which I have never seen. It seems to me that an incentive program to teach people how to grow their own food and take care of the land would benefit everyone. I have no idea if this is something that is even possible or conceivable, but as an end run, pay people to grow their own food and give them the tools and education to do so and you will have accomplished several things. First off, citizens will be working towards becoming self sufficient and as more do, assuming they learn how to do it sustainably, land will improve. Also, by offering this kind of program, there is the possibility that more people will head out of Port Au Prince towards the country, alleviating some of the problems in the city and diminishing the need to feed a people who have little to no means.
The bottom line of all of this of course is that I don’t have any answers, just a lot of ideas. It will take people far greater than I to implement anything concrete and my hope is that whatever happens ends up serving the Haitain people, and not a foreign government looking for a new cheap labor pool. There is a Haitian saying in Creole that reads “Neg mawon pap janm kraze” – “a free man can never be destroyed.” It encapsulates something I found wonderful about the Haitians. But freedom takes many roads and I think the ability to sustain oneself without relying on others is about the greatest freedom anyone can have.
I know many will not agree with these ideas and many more will not even care, but it seems that it’s a discussion that’s worth having. Sometimes just throwing things against the wall to see what sticks is a good start.
The future of Haiti is uncertain at best but perhaps out of all this great calamity can come something good, for the Hatiain people, and for the world. Hopefully thirty years from now well look at Haiti and think “It can be done, if only we choose to do it.” And the country that was once considered to be at the bottom of the heap, will rise to the top as a sustainable model for us all.