I was honored to go to Haiti this summer, where I was wide-eyed and awestruck. I witnessed the extremes of environmental health: highly hazardous conditions on one hand and primitively sustainable practices on the other.
Although I often bash our landfills, the truth is they are wonderful. I have a new appreciation for our ‘mountains of trash,’ as there is no trash service of any kind in Haiti. The conditions are appalling, because of the recent earthquake damage and extreme poverty, but also because of the sheer amount of exposed garbage. There is trash piled up everywhere, mixed among human waste. The piles are often burning, so imagine that permeating smell!
It broke my heart when I saw the creeks and rivers. The waterways in Haiti, their main source for drinking and bathing, are running among scattered plastics, tires and debris from rubble, etc. The curbs and sidewalks also serve as trash collectors, so I wondered with exasperation, “why don't they just dig a large hole in the ground for this trash?”
In spite of the pollution, the most die-hard environmentalists would consider Haiti ‘green.’ The "reduce, reuse, recycle" concepts have never been more apparent. While I certainly am not advocating that we adapt to third-world practices, their daily lives should give us pause and appreciation for our wealth and we should be encouraged to think seriously about our disposable mentality and overindulgence in America.
Of course Haitians reduce their consumption, since they have few material belongings. As I took pictures of one elderly lady, she retrieved her most prized possession and posed proudly. It was a plastic "Dora the Explorer" tote bag… a reminder of how little they have, but how they relish those items. They have the ‘reduce’ part down pat…it’s engrained in them.
In terms of ‘reusing,’ there is evidence throughout the country of creative reuse. They shop with baskets and large rice bags, carry them on their head, full of heavy material all day. They wear donated clothing...it's common to see our standard name brand clothes, which are worn for days at a time. And to keep clothes looking ironed, they lay them between the mattresses! Now that, I may try…
Haitians also reuse plant leaves, tree bark and corn husks for multiple purposes, from washing their dishes to building their homes. They are quite resourceful; creativity is born out of necessity and desperation.
They recycle in Haiti, but not in the traditional sense. There is one area (Cange) where the methane gas from the holes in the ground (i.e., toilets) is converted to cooking gas. They also collect urine, dilute it 10 to 1 with water and use it as fertilizer for agriculture purposes.
Conservation is key in Haiti since access to resources is so limited. If you are lucky enough to have electricity, beware that in the middle of the night it will be turned off and won't return until mid-day. Water comes from natural springs and rainwater collection. If it doesn't rain, you’re probably out of luck. Bathing is optional and cold showers became a luxury I learned to enjoy.
There are no pesticides used or manufactured in Haiti and no genetic modification is necessary (is it ever, I wonder?). They plant crops to live and barter with and obviously shop local, with markets in every town on Saturdays. They have smart transportation: scooters and taxis are commonplace, "tap tap” trucks get materials and large groups around the mountains, and everyone walks everywhere…all day long.
If you would like any pictures or a video from Haiti, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I’ll be glad to share more of my journey with you!
Tracy Himes (“Verde Mom”)