Haiti: Human-made humanitarian disaster follows storms

Issue 

Below is an abridged transcript of an interview with progressive US radio program Democracy Now!, an independent program broadcast on over 700 radio stations. Visit http://www.democracynow.org for more information and the full transcript.

Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman spoke on September 10 with physician Dr Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, a group that provides free medical care in Haiti, about the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from Haiti being hit by four major storms and hurricanes in less than a month.

As many as 1000 people have died. An estimated one million Haitians have been left homeless.

Rescue groups say they have no access to many interior villages across the southern region or to Gonaives, Haiti's third-largest city, which has been cut off after a bridge collapsed. Much of Gonaives remains under water.

At least 80% of the estimated 300,000 residents have been displaced or otherwise affected by the flooding. The city's population has been stranded for days without food or drinking water. Many are making do sleeping on rooftops, with their animals and furniture, waiting for the water level to drop.

Throughout Haiti, bridges, roads, clinics and homes have been washed away.

After visiting Gonaives over the weekend, Farmer wrote, "After 25 years spent working in Haiti and having grown up in Florida, I can honestly say that I have never seen anything as painful as what I just witnessed".

Visit http://www.pih.org for updates on the situation and details on how to assist.

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Why don't you just describe what is happening in Gonaives?

Well, the situation is perhaps most grave in Gonaives, but unfortunately, the entire country has been affected by these storms.

Although it's more difficult than ever to get into Gonaives, I'm confident that a determined relief effort could reach all of those people stranded there, since we're not really specialists in disaster relief and we didn't have much trouble getting there. In fact, my colleagues there today tell me they intend to go back to Gonaives.

But I think that what is clear is that people can get into Gonaives with water and food and temporary shelter.

Where is the Haitian government in all of this?

The Haitian government was there. Their officials were there. Over the past few months Haiti has not had a government, because the prime minister lost his job because of the food insecurity issue — which Haitian governments have little to do with.

So it was actually not until Saturday [September 6], when the new Haitian government was installed. And on that day, we met with the new prime minister. And she spent her first day on the job working on disaster relief.

The problem is, the Haitian government and the Haitian state have been so hollowed out over the last several years that they really don't have the resources that they need.

But the people in charge of responding, the doctors and disaster relief employees and the volunteers, they were there in the city doing what they could with what they had.

The problem is, they just don't have anything.

People are angry, upset and frightened. And they've lost their property. And many of them have lost family members. And they're still stranded on top of these ramshackle buildings.

In one house, for example, there were about a 100 people crowded into one single-family dwelling on top of the roof and in the dryer parts of the house. And you could see that all over the centre of the city.

Getting food and water and medicines to the people inside that area and also to those who have been pushed further south towards places like the ones in which we work or into the centre of Haiti is urgent, and also feasible.

Can you talk about why Haiti has been so hard hit? Is this just the force of these storms? In the headlines, we read about Cuba, that suffered damages to their buildings, but very few people have died, about four. What issues specifically affects it, like deforestation?

Well, you're right to signal the difference between those two places, because I have little doubt that Cuba was harder hit by [Hurricane] Ike than Haiti and may have been harder hit just in general by these storms.

But they have a fairly well-coordinated — a very well-coordinated — disaster relief system that allows them to move hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of people on fairly short notice into shelters.

Haiti doesn't have that. So that's one area.

A second is, as you mentioned, deforestation. The force of these storms is felt principally in flash flooding that occurs because the highlands get hit and then there's no trees to protect erosion, and the rivers from the mountains swell and sweep away bridges and people and homes.

You also have the ecological disaster that underpins the entire process. And again, the chaos and the ecological disasters are caused by humans and not the wrath of God. So, ostensibly, we could respond to them.

It's going to take a long time, but in the short term, disaster relief is what people are asking for.

I don't think many people in the US are that familiar with how it takes place. Can you talk about the economy of this country and why people cut down trees on the mountains?

There is a deep history of deforestation, which has to do with the slave plantations from long ago. In the mountains, the deforestation is now occurring principally because the poor who live in them don't have cooking fuel.

They can't cook a pot of rice without charcoal. And the charcoal comes from trees.

I work in those areas and know that people understand that this is a short-term gamble. They understand, in my experience, that this is going to be bad for the prospects for their country and their own little bits of land.

But, again, they've been pushed into a corner, where they have no option other than to cook with charcoal.

And that's not going to slow down until there is a very aggressive attempt to provide alternative fuels to the rural poor and, at the same time, to link reforestation with some meaningful job creation and assistance, so we can lessen the poverty and food insecurity in Haiti.

This disaster also comes in the wake of a major food crisis.

And it's really adding insult to injury. Haitians were already hungry and living on the edge, and sometimes dying on the edge, before these four storms hit.

You mentioned over a million refugees out of maybe nine million people. It's going to make the work that we all know needs to happen to decrease poverty and to lessen food insecurity all that more difficult.

It may also wake up people to the gravity of the situation so that we can have the kind of assistance that we need.

You sent out an urgent appeal. What can people do?

Well, that was an appeal to my coworkers and supporters of Partners in Health. And what we're looking for are the means to obtain water, food, temporary shelter.

I just spoke to one of my Haitian colleagues, and she said, "Don't forget boats". In order to move people across some of these streams and also to reach other villages that are half underwater, you're going need boats. She mentioned also the obvious things: soap and medical supplies.

We're looking for financial assistance for our disaster relief efforts. We're also trying to coordinate our efforts with the Haitian authorities in central and coastal Haiti.

We're trying to update our own supporters on Pih.org on what's going on every day, without putting too much pressure on our Haitian colleagues who are working so valiantly to respond to the urgent needs of those afflicted.

@question = Finally, you've written extensively about the history of Haiti and, more recently, the coups against former president Aristide, who still has not been able to come back to Haiti, remains in South Africa. The first US-backed coup against him was in '91, the second occurred in 2004. Can you talk about how that affects the people today?

We're seeing the results in terms of a weak and hollowed-out public sector. And we're seeing, between 2004 and now, the results of that.

There are plenty of Haitians of good will who would like to help and are helping their neighbours and citizens of their country, but without an infrastructure and without a stable government, it's very difficult to build up this capacity.

So, in my view and the view of many Haitians, letting democracy flourish in Haiti is really part of the recipe for avoiding future disasters.

We have to stop destabilising democracy, and any other country that's doing that also needs to stop, in order to have a long-term strategy that will remain in place for decades.

You can imagine how difficult it's going to be to have a reforestation effort really take root without broad-based social support. And there is broad-based social support for democracy in Haiti.

And so, we should respect that and do everything we can. I'm speaking as an American now, and the US people should do everything they can to support democracy in Haiti.

@question = How has the US destabilised Haiti?

Well, we have the two oldest countries in the hemisphere. And so, between 1804 and now, we have not often been a very positive force.

There have been many mechanisms used to destabilise Haiti: media campaigns, support for armed groups like the Haitian military. The modern Haitian military was really founded by a US act of Congress during the US occupation of Haiti.

And although that army was demobilised under the democratic governments, the leftovers and the weapons remain.

So, we need to side with those who believe that every Haitian adult should be able to vote and choose the kind of governments that they want.

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