Two factors in Haiti directly contributed substantially to the enormous devastation caused by the January 2010 earthquake, and we must take a lesson from Haiti about how we manage the environment to keep it from happening elsewhere. The earthquake was bad enough but, in particular, these two issues related to sustainability made the damage much, much worse.
The first direct factor in the devastation caused by the Haiti earthquake was forcing their local markets to open to the world. Following that, a subsidy to U.S. agriculture was established to import cheap rice and sugar from the United States to Haiti. Rice is the staple food of many Haitians, and by providing rice for prices below what the Haitians could afford to grow rice and sugar for themselves for the past thirty years, that subsidy caused the migration of hundreds of thousands of Haitians into cities to work in garment sweatshops, because the Haitians could not afford to farm for themselves. The cities had no infrastructure to support that many residents--resulting in poverty and deplorable living conditions, including a lack of drinkable water and insufficient food. Many Haitians working in the sweatshops could not afford housing, or were forced into overcrowded housing units, which could not withstand an earthquake, and in many cases, could not even maintain structural integrity in the best of conditions.
As if that were not enough, rice prices have increased, whereas wages for Haitians who work in garment sweatshops have not kept up with food prices. Therefore, many Haitians were undernourished to begin with--hundreds subsist on dirt, fashioned into "cookies" or "pies." The lack of a few days' food would not be an issue for people who are well-fed, but for those who are undernourished, it is disastrous. Similarly, people who regularly drink clean water could survive far longer than those who are already dehydrated from lack of clean water.
Because the Haitians had no market to export sugar cane, the country had no product for which people in other markets were willing to pay. The only thing Haitians had to sell was, basically, slave labour in overcrowded and filthy factories. (The average Haitian garment worker earns less than $2 a day.)
The second factor in the devastation was the deforestation of Haiti in order to provide wood and charcoal for cooking and heating. Forests prevent soil erosion and landslides, and when the earthquake struck, the land collapsed onto the major roads of the country, preventing aid from reaching Haitians in a timely manner. In addition, deforestation caused a disruption of the ecosystem, resulting in less food growing on the island, and the resulting starvation when imported food supplies were cut off. Whereas most ecosystems support life suitable for human nourishment, bare land cannot provide nourishing food, even to a few people.
The lessons for sustainability are clear: first, there must be a local source of food, which can be accessed in an emergency. The food must also be local because it must be tied to the local economy, and not to an economy in which labour has no relationship to the cost of food. Agriculture keeps cities from being overloaded to a point where the infrastructure cannot support the residents.
Second, the ecosystems native to an area must be supported. These ecosystems not only prevent land erosion and flooding, but also serve as a buffer to support life capable of providing food and other necessities of survival. (Don't forget that many modern medicines are derived from plant life!)
PROFITING OFF THE MISFORTUNE OF OTHERS IS WRONG. THIS WRITER HAS NO INTENTION OF DOING THAT. ALL EARNINGS MADE FROM THIS ARTICLE - LARGE OR SMALL - WILL BE DONATED TO THE EARTHQUAKE VICTIMS IN HAITI. IF THIS ARTICLE CONTINUES TO EARN AFTER DONATIONS ARE NO LONGER BEING ACCEPTED FOR EARTHQUAKE RELIEF, CONTINUED EARNINGS WILL BE DONATED TO OTHER LEGITIMATE CHARITIES SUPPORTING SUSTAINABLE OPPORTUNITY IN HAITI IN PERPETUITY.
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