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HAITI: Battered and Unready for Looming Storm Season

Marina Litvinsky

WASHINGTON, May 4 2009 (IPS) - Haiti’s environmental degradation is a time bomb that needs urgent attention if the country is to preserve its already strained social and economic stability, says a new briefing from the International Crisis Group (ICG).

The brief, “Haiti: Saving the Environment, Preventing Instability and Conflict,” argues that the combination of environmental destruction, weak institutions, extreme poverty, and rapid population growth raise the risk of serious new trouble in the island republic.

“The catastrophic state of the environment is closely related to deep-seated institutional, political and governance problems,” said Bernice Robertson, ICG’s Haiti analyst. “Coherent national socio-economic development policies have been mostly absent, due to management and political limitations and the narrow interests of those holding economic power.”

Haiti is one of the world’s most natural disaster-prone countries, due to its location in the high latitude tropics, mountainous terrain rising to almost 2,700 metres above sea level and severely degraded environment. The devastating floods of 2004 killed approximately 3,000 people and a succession of hurricanes and tropical storms in 2008 killed close to 800 and left some 100,000 homeless.

According to the brief, the 2009 forecast predicts 14 storms in the Caribbean during the season that runs from Jun. 1 to Nov. 30, seven of which are likely to become hurricanes and three of which are expected to develop to category three (out of five) level or higher, with winds of at least 111 mph.

Deforestation and soil erosion affect over 50 percent of the country. The few forests which remain after the colonial period pillage of precious woods are today depleted for charcoal production. Trees are also cut for use in the local furniture and construction industries or by farmers to increase access to arable land.

Compounded factors, including deforestation and erosion, caused dwindling agricultural production, which has spurred massive flight from the land, primarily to the large cities like Port-au-Prince, Cap Haïtien, Les Cayes and Gonaïves. Each year 75,000 people flock to the capital in search of work, taking up residence in already overcrowded neighbourhoods. Port-au-Prince now has a population of 2.5 million, compared to about 400,000 just four decades ago.

This kind of overcrowding accounts for the growth of shanty towns like Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince. In 2005, during the worst period of armed gang activity, UNICEF reported that around 70 percent of school-aged children in the poverty-stricken community of Cite Soleil did not attend school and that more than 30,000 children were living in situations of violence in the capital.

The briefing asserts that the environment ministry, which was created in 1995, remains weak in human and financial resources, legal structure and political influence. The ministry continues to function without an organic law, and some responsibilities continue to overlap with those of other ministries, such as agriculture and natural resources.

Haiti is the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere – 80 percent of the nation’s nine million people live on less than two dollars a day.

The financial crisis has made it difficult for donor countries and organisations to meet commitments and has reduced diaspora remittances.

During a recent donor’s conference, 324 million dollars was raised in emergency and long-term assistance for Haiti. Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis also recognised the need for investment. “We need investment because we need to create jobs,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “And to get investors, whether they are from the private sector in Haiti or international, they have to have confidence.”

Two days later U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited Haiti with about 300 million dollars in U.S. aid. “They’ve had a difficult time,” she said as she toured the country. “Part of what we are trying to do is help Haiti reconstruct its services.”

A clear strategic and comprehensive policy approach to foreign aid does not exist in Haiti, according to the brief. Funding fluctuates in accordance with political circumstances, donor strategies vary, and the government has little influence over the use of funds.

Some U.S. policymakers want to grant illegal Haitian immigrants temporary protective status (TPS) as Haiti has announced that it is unable to cope with returnees. The Haitian Protection Act of 2009 was introduced to legalise a temporary halt under Section 244 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. If it becomes law, illegal Haitian immigrants could be made eligible for TPS.

ICG calls on the Haitian government, with international help, to reach out to local communities to make them full partners in reducing environmental degradation. Hurricane-preparedness is another urgent matter. With parliament’s approval of the 2008-2009 budget in April, the non-profit group urges government to launch its announced pre-hurricane season programme immediately, which includes the cleaning of rivers and canals in Gonaïves, Cabaret, Léogane, Jacmel and Port-au-Prince . “Success in environmental rehabilitation depends in large part on good cooperation between those over-using the natural resources and those seeking to better manage them,” argues Markus Schultze-Kraft, ICG’s Latin America programme director.

“The approach to halting and eventually reversing Haiti’s environmental problems must contain that same strong social component that is fundamental for reducing the risk of renewed violent conflict,” he said.

ICG set out immediate actions required of the government of President Préval and Prime Minister Pierre-Louis including: declaring the environment a national priority and linking environmental rehabilitation and preservation measures to social and economic development strategies; relieving pressure on forest resources by encouraging the use of subsidised wood fuel substitutes, taxing the sale and transport of charcoal and wood and investing returns in environmental rehabilitation programmes; and strengthening institutions to better manage the environment by establishing and empowering local governance structures.

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