SOS for Haiti

published: Sunday September 21, 2008
Jamaica Gleaner
Myrtha Désulmé, Contributor


Being a Haitian-Jamaican proved to be an awkward proposition this past month. One minute we were screaming with joy about Team Jamaica reaping Olympic gold, the next we were in tears over the devastation wrought by back-to-back killer storms in Haiti. Four storms in three weeks have killed more than 600 people.

On August 15, Tropical Storm Fay sparked flooding in Haiti's southern region. Ten days later, Gustav tore through Hispaniola as a Category 1 hurricane with 90 mph winds, before whipping Jamaica. One week after Gustav, Hanna came barrelling through Gonaives, in the northern region.

stranded for days

Gonaives, Haiti's third largest town, was devastated. Flood waters reached the ceilings of homes, forcing thousands to flee to their rooftops, where they were stranded for days. The streets are lined with thousands of people struggling through muddy, waist-high water, trying to find higher ground.

This photo released by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, shows a flooded area of Gonaives, Haiti, on September 3. The city was flooded by Tropical Storm Hanna, that swirled over Haiti for four days, dumping massive amounts of water and leaving at least 61 dead in its wake. - AP

Hanna swirled over Haiti for four days, dumping vast amounts of water, wiping out food supplies, blowing down fruit trees, and tearing houses apart. More than 100 people died in the floods and mudslides it triggered. Some 15,000 families were affected by the storm, which levelled about 3,000 dwellings, and damaged another 12,000. Even the Gonaives hospital was flooded. For days after the storms, it was impossible to enter the city. All of the bridges have been washed out, and water levels at the southern entrance of the town cut off access to humanitarian convoys.

United Nations helicopters flew in 40 tons of supplies, and rescued some people stranded on their rooftops. But after three days of operation, with Hurricane Ike upon them, all helicopter flights were shut down. Ike, the fourth storm to slam Haiti, brought blinding sheets of rain, another pounding deluge, and more massive flooding.

Picture the unbelievable images we witnessed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: Desperate families huddling on rooftops, without any access to food, water or shelter, and survivors wading through waters infested by debris, carcasses of dead animals, and dead bodies, except this is much worse. Worse, because this particular tragedy has gripped an entire country; the living conditions were much more precarious to begin with; and the Haitian government has nothing like the disaster relief resources of the United States.

60 per cent price increase

Health and sanitation conditions are extremely critical, and the risk of water-borne illnesses is rampant. Food supplies and water are scarce, and prices are rising. The price of rice has increased 60 per cent since the storms, while what gasolene is available is selling for about US$13 a gallon.

US Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, and several congressmen and women, including the Congressional Black Caucus, have issued urgent pleas for the US government to take decisive action, and for the ships, helicopters, and air cargo capacity of the US Southern Command to be directed to provide the necessary logistical support for this humanitarian crisis.

escue convoys

Ships, planes and helicopters have finally begun to arrive with desperately needed aid from the international community, as rescue convoys travelling by road have hitherto been blocked by flood waters. The US has pledged US $10 million, and Canada and Venezuela have sent ton-loads of food and supplies, as well as disaster reconnaissance teams.

Haitian President Rene Preval called the situation "catastrophic", comparing it to the disaster which followed Tropical Storm Jeanne in September 2004, when more than 3,000 people were killed around Gonaives. Haiti is particularly vulnerable to devastating floods because of its steep terrain, which has been deforested by peasants for agriculture, and for charcoal. Nearly one million people have been left homeless across the country, and 54,000 are living in shelters.

The government estimates that about 250,000 people are affected in the Gonaives region alone, which lies in a flat river plain between the ocean and deforested mountains. Clean water is a major concern. Rain water has infiltrated wells, and the city no longer has the facilities to provide clean water to its 300,000 citizens. The UN, and Doctors Without Borders, are trying to work out how to get the facilities set up, to filter and process huge amounts of water.

Until the appointment of Michéle Pierre-Louis on September 5, Haiti spent nearly five months without a prime minister, President Preval's first two nominees having been rejected by Parliament. Pierre-Louis must now install a new government, and respond to multiple disasters all at once. On her first day on the job, she visited storm-ravaged Mirebalais whose hospital is closed. She tried to tour Gonaives, but was turned away by the high water.


In the 18th century, the exploitation of Haiti's slave population built up the magnificence of France. For the 204 years of Haiti's independence, the peasant farmers, descended from these slaves, who make up nearly two-thirds of the population, have continued to form the backbone of the Haitian economy, while continuing to be exploited through the exaction of agricultural export taxes.

Due to its dependence on foreign funding, the Haitian government has had to submit to the neoliberal economic measures, and structural adjustment policies favoured by the international financial institutions (IFIs). These policies, which have no interest in Caribbean agricultural development, imposed the elimination of import tariffs, effectively destroying local food production.

This course of action has decimated the peasantry, whose only remaining source of survival is the cutting of trees for charcoal, hence the disastrous deforestation problem, which leads to the deadly floods ensuing from any tropical storms.

alternative fuels

A ministry of the environment set up in early 1995 planned to reduce urban consumers' demand for charcoal by promoting the use of gas stoves. It also planned to explore the option of importing alternative fuels, and to reforest mountain areas where key watersheds are located. But these initiatives never got off the ground, as only fractions of the funds allocated to Haiti by the IFIs for budget support are assigned to the agricultural sector, or to environmental protection and rehabilitation.

A massive reforestation campaign, and major public works to keep cities safe, are crucial in the medium to long term. But if nothing is done in the short term to support the poverty-stricken peasantry in finding alternatives to the cutting of trees for their livelihood, the misery and catastrophic loss of life caused by natural disasters will continue to be inevitable. It is urgent and imperative that the government and the IFIs revive the agricultural sector through subsidies for fertilisers, storage facilities, subsidised credit, irrigation projects, and land reform.

With the controversy, which is raging over the signing of the EPA, CARICOM needs clarity of vision to determine, define, and shape our collective future, ensuring that our economic and human rights are respected, and that the EPA, as well as the WTO Doha negotiations, produce results which do not strip Caribbean countries of domestic policy sovereignty, or exacerbate poverty and commodity dependence.


Reading the exultation over Usain Bolt and Team Jamaica in the European press confirmed to me that the secret to success in a globalised economy is to develop world-class niche products, which are so intrinsically our own that they could never even be copied. IOC president, Jacques Rogge, could pontificate 'lickle more' about Bolt's showboating. It is precisely the authenticity of Usain's Jamaicanness, as expressed through his 'nuh linga' dance moves, and 'to de world' poses, which makes him unique, and draw the adulation of the crowds. He is smart enough to know that, and plays to his fans while cultivating the 'yard' spirit.

Let us not sell our souls for 'market access'. Market access does not automatically convert to market presence. We will not have to beg for market access when we develop our distinctive Caribbean products, as the world will beat a path to our door clamouring for them. Even the credit given to the now famous Trelawny yam in the creation of Team Jamaica speaks to the importance of subsidising our own healthy, indigenous products, over the processed, fertilised, hormone-laden foreign imports.

The tragic events in Haiti prove that demanding that international treaties protect our indigenous economies and producers is critical to preserving not only the distinctiveness, but also the human dignity of our Caribbean people, and sometimes even saving their very lives.

Myrtha Desulme is president of the Haiti-Jamaica Society Email: myrtha2004@yahoo.com.

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