Haiti’s Cycle of Debt, Poverty and Destruction

Haiti’s Cycle of Debt, Poverty and Destruction

An assistance camp set up by the Brazilian army

Though the full extent of Haiti’s earthquake Tuesday is yet to be truly understood, the images emerging from the country are heart-wrenching: bodies are piled outside an overflowing Port-au-Prince morgue, men, women and children sit, waiting – bandaged and stunned, a series of makeshift tents has sprung up to shelter the city’s homeless – to replace the somewhat-less makeshift houses that many of them previously inhabited.

It was the current disaster in Haiti that framed last night’s conversation at New York’s Society for Ethical Culture, among Amy Goodman, Raj Patel and Naomi Klein. Together the three painted a picture of a Haiti impoverished by foreign economic decisions – from the early insistence that Haiti pay reparations to French slave owners for its country’s independence, to modern day IMF loans whose conditions included reduced tariff protections for Haitian rice – turning it from self-sufficient in rice production to virtually dependent on American “Miami rice.”

Like many developing countries around the world, Haiti’s poverty is complexly intertwined with its environment, with the destruction of the country’s forests lying at the heart of many of its woes. Haiti today experiences one of the worst rates of soil erosion, as the majority of Haitians, unable to afford alternative fuel sources, rely on trees for firewood and charcoal. Aside from rendering the soil increasingly difficult to farm, the soil erosion magnifies the effects of natural disasters such as this earthquake or the series of hurricanes that hit Haiti in 2008, as houses crammed on to unstable foundations collapse and mudslides gush downhill.

And yet the roots of this deforestation, and the belief that trees are more valuable cut down than standing, can be traced back to Haiti’s early history, as its countrymen felled their rich mahogany forests to help make payments to France. In the two hundred years since then, little has changed, and we continue to see countries around the world destroying their natural resources to pay off debts. As Klein mentioned last night, Bangladesh is pushing forward shrimp farming in a bid to make crippling World Bank loan payments, and is, as a result, destroying its coastal mangrove swamps and making the low-lying country more susceptible to monsoon flooding.

As the images of Haiti continue to pour in and we ask ourselves how we can contribute, Patel and Klein have a couple of suggestions. They urge us to let our media sources know that we are interested in their coverage of Haiti, and to pressure them into providing comprehensive coverage of the events currently unfolding. They also remind us that now is the time to be vigilant. As Klein outlines in her book “The Shock Doctrine,” unpopular policies such as the introduction of loans and privatization of basic amenities are increasingly pushed through in the wake of natural disasters. While Bill Clinton mentions the opportunity to rebuild a more stable, greener Haiti, as this disaster’s silver lining, Patel and Klein warn us to keep note of who profits. As it turns out, their calls are not unheeded. Less than 24 hours after the earthquake hit, the Heritage Foundation published a blog noting the present opportunity to “re-shape Haiti’s…economy.” In response to readers’ outraged comments, the Heritage Foundation promptly removed this section.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia