In Haiti, re-building the ground


In Haiti, re-building the ground

In Port au Prince, the bodies are being buried, small children are alone in clinics and officials fear that thousands of children have been separated from their parents.

Water, food and other emergency aid are beginning to touch the edges of horrific desolation; at the same time, there is a mass exodus from the ruined shanty city to an uncertain future in the countryside.

Two-thirds of Haitians depend on agriculture for their living, Oxfam reports. In this 2008 Joel K. Bourne Jr. story from National Geographic, farmers say "the earth is tired," but in reality, it has washed into the sea with every rain:

Virtually since 1492, when Columbus first set foot on the heavily forested island of Hispaniola, the mountainous nation has shed both topsoil and blood--first to the Spanish, who planted sugar, then to the French, who cut down the forests to make room for lucrative coffee, indigo, and tobacco. Even after Haitian slaves revolted in 1804 and threw off the yoke of colonialism, France collected 93 million francs in restitution from its former colony--much of it in timber. Soon after independence, upper-class speculators and planters pushed the peasant classes out of the few fertile valleys and into the steep, forested rural areas, where their shrinking, intensively cultivated plots of maize, beans, and cassava have combined with a growing fuelwood-charcoal industry to exacerbate deforestation and soil loss. Today less than 4 percent of Haiti's forests remain, and in many places the soil has eroded right down to the bedrock.

Contributing to the deforestation - and to the nation's chronic hunger - was the pig stock slaughter in the '80s, undertaken to contain the highly contagious African Swine Fever. Children quit school, small-scale farmers mortgaged their land, and others cut down trees for cash income from charcoal.

But there is hope in - of all things - toilets. They are the brainchild of ecologist and activist Sasha Kramer, an adjunct professor at the University of Miami, who worked with colleagues to found Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL). The nonprofit group builds composting toilets in rural communities, says the NG writer.

The toilets serve a dual purpose -- they return organic matter and fertility to fields so local food production can go up (the photograph above, from a NYT video, shows the result) - and they prevent fecal contamination of water, a common cause of childhood death, a CNN story says. Indeed, UNICEF estimates that 70 percent of Haitians do not have access to "safe drinking water and adequate sanitation."

In a holiday gift-giving column last year in The New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof suggested donating to the group. With the exodus to the countryside, the work of SOIL will be all the more urgent.

In parallel, there are the Clemson University researchers who are exploring the use of shipping containers as emergency housing for disaster victims, and the use of

55-gallon steel drums, as a way to create a starter garden - from seed - on the roof of the container homes as a way to get food crops started when the ground may be contaminated by stormwater. Water also would be filtered through the drums before being used in a water pod comprised of shower, sink and composting toilet.

And that water and compost would nourish the soil, which, in turn, would nourish those in desperate need.


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