Haiti and the Potential of Permaculture

Can the earthquake resettlement camps be transformed into self-sufficient agrarian villages?

Port-au-Prince, Haiti: tent camp, June 2010. [Photograph: Trees for the Future via Flickr]

From the point of view of Gaia, there is no such thing as a natural disaster. Hurricanes, floods and earthquakes are simply nature’s events that take on tragic dimensions when they cross paths with human construction and ambition (and hubris). What we call “natural” disasters are socially constructed, more similar to armed conflict than to trees falling in a forest where no one can hear. The root cause is usually the failure of the state or the absence of the rule of law. The difference between the effects of the category 8 quake in Chile in February of this year, where 521 persons died, and of the category 7 quake in Haiti in January, where over 300,000 citizens lost their lives and 1.3 million people have been displaced, is a case in point. The numbers tell it all; the fragility of Haiti extended to its very foundations — not only geological and physical but also social, economic, political and infrastructural.

Indeed, at the time of the earthquake, the government was in the midst of revising its constitution because it wasn’t working. Acknowledging the role of social fragility in the toll of the disaster, the recovery plan — the Action Plan for the National Recovery and Development of Haiti — reads less as a response to a specific event than as a blueprint for building a state from scratch, with an opening call for a “modern society characterized by the rule of law [and] freedom of association and land management,” followed by proposals for a new and diversified economy in which all of the citizen’s needs would be met. And the means for achieving this future welfare are described, with surprisingly singular focus, as a “strong commitment to de-concentration and decentralization.” 1 This seems to me a powerful vision. Having studied how refugee camps can be transformed from ecological disasters to sustainable villages and how agriculture can help achieve these transformations, I am compelled by the idea of such settlement on a national scale; but having worked in post-Katrina New Orleans, where much smaller relocations of population have exacted a huge social price and not delivered the promised ecological benefit, I cannot help but fear the consequences.

Gonaïves, Haiti: corn field sponsored by the Yélé-Vert program, established by TREES as part of an agroforestry and agriculture initiative to address immediate food security issues. [Photograph: Trees for the Future via Flickr]

The Action Plan’s vision of a decentralized Haiti makes a lot of sense. Superimpose maps of flood, wind and seismic threats on the national map, and the existing metropolitan centers show up bright red. Something must be done. A part of the current plan is to enhance Port-au-Prince with satellite towns. This seems an excellent idea — but not one to stem the rural to urban influx that has been one of the consequences of a failed agrarian economy. To reverse the flow of population will take the revival of that economy. This is not impossible. Indeed, Haiti is still more agrarian than most countries, with only 35 percent of the population living in cities; and the economic base is still agricultural, despite recent Haitian reliance on imported food staples (85 percent) supplied courtesy of first world (largely American) economic imperialism. With the plans for proper watershed management (Action Plan point 4.1.6), environmentally sound husbandry (Action Plan point 4.2) and a new national transportation network (Action Plan point 4.1.2), the future map of Haiti could appear a verdant landscape dotted with regional hubs connected by a web of transportation lines to restructured and enhanced port cities. It could be a productive park that provided for its own people and exported mango to the world. Overlaid on this economy and landscape, agro-tourism could support the maintenance of scenic and cultural treasures and capture the market for the craft goods that Haiti currently exports to surrounding beach-endowed islands.

Decentralization holds as well the promise of social equity, in which every Haitian who wants to return to the land would be granted the proverbial “40 acres and a mule”; but it also carries the threat of forced dislocation. Think back to our own history of post-Civil War reconstruction, when General William Tecumseh Sherman hoped to reinforce democracy and husbandry simultaneously by granting every freedman a farm — only to have this vision undone by landed interests. Similarly, the leveled landscape that is post-earthquake Haiti is etched with property lines that disenfranchise much of the population. “Land tenure in Haiti is total chaos,” says Patrick Elie, Haiti’s former secretary of state for public security. “This is also the result of the behavior of the Haitian elites over centuries. They appropriated land, especially after independence and the end of slavery, which would have been common property…. And now, there is a lot of discussion about who owns what piece of land…. Whose land will be seized in this time of emergency that gives the government the power of eminent domain — [land that the] peasants have used for centuries? or the vast tracts of land owned by the elites?” 2 The current cadastre or land-ownership-document efforts in Haiti, which are sponsored by the Organization of American States, could become a tool for either the legitimization of the informal settlements or for the forcible eviction of historical squatters and even of refugees from private camps. 3 Meanwhile, in the short term, there are 1.8 million refugees (up 0.6 million people since I started to research this essay in late spring) living in 1,241 spontaneously organized camps (up 200), 206 of which are officially recognized (up 160) and five of which have been identified as sites for permanent settlement (up 1). Many more threaten to become permanent as the displacement continues.

My research on refugee camps and displacement settlements supports the assumption that the refugee camps of today are in fact the cities of tomorrow. Camps such as Dadaab, Kenya, are disingenuously considered temporary settlements, even as they persist for decades on infrastructures laid down under extreme duress with the intent to control crowds and to prevent fires and cholera. It is difficult to introduce civic spaces, neighborhoods, and the various subtleties of the good city on top of such a plan. Most importantly, it is difficult to forge an environmentally and economically sustainable place from such camps, the starting points of which are deforestation, fuel scavenging, erosion and large influxes of collective waste.

In Haiti, worker-volunteers with Nouvelle Vie prepare soil mix for rice sack gardens. [Photograph: Nouvelle Vie Haiti via Flickr]

To restore lands and create managed ecosytems, the United Nations has begun to experiment with the idea of camps as permaculture — a neologistic combination of permanent and agriculture that refers to a mutually sustained relationship among settlement, economy and ecology. In Zimbabwe, for example, at the Tongogara camp, 1,800 refugees farm cotton and indigenous and imported vegetables in labor-intensive plots of 1 to 3 hectares (2.5 to 7.5 acres) for their own consumption and profit. The UN uses the same strategies in both the camps and villages that neighbor disaster relief sites. The bio-engineering used to control erosion in the Beldangi-I refugee camp in Nepal, for example, came from a successful project in the adjoining village of Madhumalla, which was similarly effected by monsoon flooding. Subsequent UN-sponsored workshops brought together both local residents and refugees in their shared goal of land reclamation for commercial agro-forestry. 4 The permaculture camp and the permaculture village are, ideally, indistinguishable.

Haiti has already begun to act on the assumption that the camps will be permanent, but has not integrated their existence into the Action Plan. The controlled resettlement of citizens from the first camps within Port-au-Prince to planned settlements outside of the city — such as Corail Cesselesse — has begun. With its sturdier tents and proposed cabins, its graded gravel surface and latrines, that new camp for 7,000 is certainly an improvement; yet it stands on a remote plain with no trees and no potential for the agricultural future outlined by the government (purportedly dry, the land has turned out to be in a floodplain made more vulnerable by deforestation). Like more traditional UN Camps, Corail Cesselesse receives supplies from bases that are often an hour’s drive away. 5

Corail Cesselesse, Haiti: resettlement camp. [Photograph: Oxfam International via Flickr]

So questions arise as to why this particular site (larger in area than Manhattan), rather than a more fruitful landscape, has been claimed by eminent domain; and why this plan and planning process have been implemented on this site. Given the striking resonance between the permaculture camp and the Haitian Action Plan’s vision of small-scale decentralized agrarianism, why not use camps as incubators of that agrarian future before applying this radical socio-economic change across the nation? Why not transform sites of dislocation into test sites of new forms of enfranchisement? The productive contradiction of the refugee camps is that they are garnished land — and as such free to be re-imagined and re-staked. Here is an opportunity to test strategies of self-organization in agriculture, land management and settlement patterns, and to do so using the examples of the similar methodologies the UN has developed.

If Haiti were to commit to permaculture settlement, it would find many willing experts scattered among its 10,000 uncoordinated NGOs; some of these experts — like Rodrigo Silva and Joe Jenkins, who work with the organization Give Love — are today literally stuck in the trenches of Port-au-Prince, dealing with the waste. Other potential activists include the Nouvelle Vie Youth Corps — a kind of permaculture peace corps. And in fact there are relevant organizations and projects that predate the quake, such as the eco-village of Sadhana Forest, in Anse-a-Pitre, which will host a summit this October, and the agro-forestry Project Racine, begun in 2007 by the International Association for Human Values.

What might permaculture in Haiti look like? That will depend upon the local terrain on which it is established and on the practices of the Haitians who live there. But the predominant geography of steep lands suggests that one sensible approach to agriculture and settlement would be agro-forestry, in which food crops, annuals and animals are raised in association with trees shrubs and woody perennials. Haitians tend to have small farms of about one hectare (2.5 acres), with few farms exceeding 12 hectares (30 acres); this suggests that such a surgical model of cultivation within reforestation is suitable to established methods. Perhaps the resettled Haitians will then prepare their bounty in collective kitchens, or serve it in a city of music set within a people’s orchard, and consume it in the midst of whatever verdant scene fills their needs and desires.

  1. All references to Action Plan points are to The Government of the Republic of Haiti, Action Plan for National Recovery and Development of Haiti, March 2010.
  2. Patrick Elie, Interview with Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!, July 12, 2010.
  3. A cadastre is a map that layers and synchronizes the information of metes and bounds, and of land cultivation, tenure, ownership and value. David Mulet, a project coordinator for the Organization of American States, explained the cadastre effort to an audience of healthy skeptics at the excellent teach-in — Rebuilding a Sustainable Haiti — held at the Institute for Urban Design on June 4, 2010. His presentation can be found there.
  4. Ultimately, in this case, the refugees will return to Bhutan, the buildings will be removed, and the site will become an undisturbed “eco-zone.” For permaculture practices by the United Nations, see “Practicing and Promoting Sound Environmental Management in Refugee/Returnee Operations,” Environment, UNHCR, December 3, 2002.
  5. Jonathan M. Katz and Marko Alvarez, “Summer Storms Flood ‘Safe” Refugee Camps,” Associated Press, July 13, 2010.
Deborah Gans, “Haiti and the Potential of Permaculture,” Places Journal, September 2010. Accessed 01 Dec 2022. https://doi.org/10.22269/100920

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Past Discussions View
  • vanderleun

    09.20.2010 at 20:24

    Clearly Ms. Gans has not yet plumbed or cannot bear to plumb just how deeply corrupt and criminal Haiti actually is.

    I would suggest a two-year sabbatical in the best "camps" Haiti has to offer before she signs of on the "why not" of it all.

  • Rodrigo Silva

    09.21.2010 at 10:21

    Hi :) I'm Rodrigo Silva from Portugal. I've been volunteering in Haiti as a Permaculturist focused in Ecological Sanitation.

    A friend of mine from India posted in my facebook page this article. I would like to thank Ms. Gans for the intensive research you made and for mentioning the people and organizations that really want to help. I'm glad that someone intelligent is observing our efforts.

    You can see all that I've been doing here: http://www.facebook.com/rodrigogfsilva

  • Abbey

    09.21.2010 at 19:04

    While well meaning, most of this article is devoid of reality! As previously mentioned Haiti is corrupt beyond imagination and this goes too with the United Nations.

    The only thing the UN is good at is placing extremely vicious and corrupt people around the world telling everyone how great they are. They are responsible for more destruction of the ocean's fisheries than any other organization, with their promotion of 25,000 miles of small gauge drift nets in the water at all times of day and night.

    The current, past and most likely future government of Haiti is so far beyond corrupt, the only example they set is one of lies and theft.

    Ask the people of the Congo, Sudan, and several other regions of the world how the United Nations is working for them!!

  • Hannah

    09.23.2010 at 16:25

    @vanderleun, @Abbey: granted that Haiti has some extremely serious and deeply rooted problems. But 9 million people live there, and it hardly seems fair to abandon them to the forces of corruption, deforestation, malnutrition, homelessness, etc. - particularly when foreign antics helped cause many of these problems in the first place.

    You are quick to announce the futility of all the projects mentioned above. I'm curious to hear what you think should be done instead.

  • Jade Dressler

    09.25.2010 at 20:42

    Thank you Deborah for this article. Villages are the root of culture and community and just because we've moved away from this with our attenuated demand and supply western models which has led to and bred corruption, etc...let's not abandon the ship just yet. This is simply the call to return to a model that worked on this planet for thousands of years and Haiti is the perfect place to show that it works. Healing follows destruction and therefore the humanistic principles of Permaculture have a great laboratory and action plan here in Haiti.
    Please add the non-profit group, im.material to your radar. We are building a village in Petit-Goave on land generously donated by a Haitian landowner. If you seek the good, you will find it. Here is the Facebook page where you can learn about the project. http://tiny.cc/m69zi

  • Abbey

    10.11.2010 at 19:55

    Hannah, If you had taken the time to actually read what I wrote instead of makeup stuff, you would have realized I do not think much of the United Nations. Throwing the UN in there is just what you stated about foreign entities causing problems. The UN is a model of corruption, get rid of them, get some other honest organization in there instead.

    Teach the people to be more like the Dominican Republic if nothing else. At least they are not always living in squalor and corruption, like the people of Haiti. You have several island close by which are better role models, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, any of the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Bahamas, Caymans, the list goes, but get the United Nations out of there before they really get a chance to screw it up.

    Why do you think the pledges of money and aid has dried up before it really started? Most industrial countries know better than to give money where the UN will only steal it!