Haiti’s long history of international interference has crippled the country’s ability to sustain itself in times of disaster, according to Montreal writer and political activist Yves Engler.
After Haiti was pounded by four tropical cyclones last month, Engler – speaking Tuesday night at a conference on the environmental devastation in Haiti, organized by QPIRG Concordia and Haiti Action – examined the role that the U.S., Canada, and France have played in Haiti’s ecological crisis.
“Our analysis is that it’s not a natural disaster,” Engler said. “It’s a human-made disaster.”
Since government coup of 2004, an operation organized in Ottawa by the Canadian, American, and French governments has had the bulk of public services for the country being left in the hands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
As a result, the Haitian state has been dwarfed in its capacity to provide public services to the country. Of the country’s $95-million budget, $85-million is provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and ends up in the hands of NGOs that constitute 80 per cent of Haiti’s governmental services, Engler said.
“There has been a plan from Washington and Ottawa to implement a neoliberal program of downsizing the state, and at the same time channeling what money goes into the country into NGOs,” Engler said. “[NGOs are] eroding the legitimacy, will, and capacity of the Haitian state, weakening Haiti’s capacity to build itself.”
Colonial and imperial interference in the country has, over time, stripped the land of 99 per cent of its forests, and left Haiti exponentially more vulnerable to natural disaster, Engler claimed. He said deforestation began with exports of mahogany to Europe in the colonial period, and worsened when Haiti’s plantations took over the economy. Seventy-five per cent of Haiti was forested when colonizers first arrived; 25 per cent in 1950; four per cent in 1994. Today, a mere 1.5 per cent of the country is forested.
Since no other fuel is available, Haiti’s peasantry continues to cut down trees for charcoal. According to Engler, they know that cutting down trees will have serious long-term consequences, but still do it anyway.
“Desperation means that people have to cut down trees…just to have some food today,” he said.
According to Engler, the destruction of the countryside fits into the IMF’s economic plan for the country.
“The IMF has long seen Haiti’s advantage as a place of cheap labour,” Engler explained, “so one of the positive effects of destruction of the agricultural sector is that it pushes people into cities.”
He explained that rural migrants are willing to work for low wages in the city, and that many find themselves producing t-shirts in factories for less than a dollar a day. Montreal-based t-shirt producer Gildan, which capitalizes on cheap labour in Haiti and Honduras to keep its production costs low, was one of his examples.
According to Paul Farmer, founder of Partners In Health, a non-profit healthcare organization whose largest and oldest project is in Haiti, the country needs to invest in infrastructure and forestation. In the short term, he argued, Haiti needs relief from disaster – water, food, shelter, and boats.
“People were already living on the edge and dying on the edge before these storms,” Farmer said in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now. “The storms may actually wake people up to the gravity of the situation.”