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Coming Together for Environmental Restoration in Haiti

"We have to start working collaboratively," says former Minister of the Environment Yves-André Wainright. Photo by Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Interview by Beverly Bell and Alexis Erkert
April 24, 2012

In honor of Earth Day, we run an interview with Yves-André Wainright, who discusses ways that poor governance and the role of foreign donors have contributed to the country’s environmental catastrophe. He also lays out a blueprint for what could turn the situation around, effectively mobilizing both government and the population to begin restoring the environment.

Yves-André Wainright served twice as Haiti’s Minister of Environment. Trained as an agronomist, Yves-André’s work has focused on environmental management, especially management of natural resources and waste.

My approach towards management of the environment is to have Haitians who face [the same environmental] challenges come together. We might not all share the same economic interests, but if we work together, we can reach a compromise where one’s interest won’t trump another’s.

Current poverty levels can’t be used as an excuse for environmental mismanagement, like deforestation of watersheds or the poor construction of rural roads. More than an issue of technology or of funding, the challenge with environmental management in Haiti is a matter of governance. It’s a multi-pronged issue. First, there is the fight against impunity. As long as anyone thinks he or she can do as he pleases without any consequences, it will be difficult to manage the environment. A second issue is that [central] government ministries act as competitors rather than allies. As a result, information is not shared and institutions are not organized to provide assistance and directives to local government or NGOs [non-governmental organizations, and international agencies]. Since management of the physical environment is a crosscutting and long-term challenge, it’s very difficult to maintain continuity from one government to the next, which hinders the implementation of required programs.

For example, in the 1990s, I led the preparation of an innovative program to fund peasant-managed micro-enterprises for families who depended on cutting down trees in national parks. All state institutions including local governments, the judicial system, the national police, and key ministries would be able to give input and would receive training in the sustainable management of biodiversity. The project facilitated coordination among the various stakeholders, public and private, through various management committees. The first disbursements were made two weeks before I left the government. [When I returned,] the project was considered overall as having failed. The governance structure of the project was considered too complex, and [since] normally in the government, people from different ministers don’t talk to each other, the project’s implementation lacked leadership. There were even 70 or so agronomists trained, and about 10 who went abroad for professional specialization, but none of them were never put to use. And, the peasants never benefited from the comprehensive technical and financial assistance I had dreamed of.

The third issue I wish to highlight is the role of donors from the international community. They put too much emphasis on ‘transparency’ toward their foreign constituency and lack sensitivity to the process of building democracy within communities receiving aid. I admire the abundance of documentation donors have accumulated on Haiti but feel that not enough effort is put into making this information available to local stakeholders. This has facilitated the creation of an oligarchy of consultants and specialists who monopolize the field of international assistance. Donors don’t seem to trust the initiatives from people outside of this circle.

For instance, during my first term as Minister of Environment, USAID and the World Bank were the main donors providing assistance to the process of clarifying the role of the newly created ministry and prioritizing actions for environmental management and rehabilitation. I started to organize multi-stakeholder platforms towards preparation of a National Action Plan for the Environment, but the donors decided to replicate the preparation process from various African countries – a plan written by specialists and validated afterwards by the civil society. They succeeded in having beautiful documents prepared, which are currently embellishing shelves of libraries in foreign universities.

What is needed is to help Haitians develop partnerships around common environmental concerns.

[In 2010], the office of the Prime Minister organized a forum on lessons learned from watershed management over the past 30 to 40 years. That forum had a large participation of funders, with data-rich presentations by the experts. These presentations confirmed that, during the period considered, more and more short-term NGO-led projects promoted market-linked incentives for environmental protection instead of building of decentralized state capacity so that the government ensures respect of environmental norms. [Participants of the forum] acted as though the state were outsiders of the process and that the government should be replaced by the market as the driving force for livelihood improvement. But the problem is that the market promotes individualism and a spirit of competition. It can’t instill the feeling of community and citizenship needed to stimulate Haitians to take part in the rehabilitation of the environment.

We must have regulations that guarantee the socioeconomic and environmental rights of all citizens: the right to be informed of initiatives affecting their environment; the right to have input into [environmental] mitigation measures to be implemented; the right to an unbiased judicial system to [ensure] the application of norms. We must also have an appropriate democratic governance structure able to implement this at the regional and local level. Otherwise, even if the billions of dollars pledged would be effectively disbursed, we won’t resolve anything.

One of the principles in the Rio Declaration on Sustainable Development [endorsed by 165 countries in June 1992] states, “Peace, economic development and protection of the environment are interdependent and indivisible.” There is no peace without social justice. I’m not preaching anything new.

Fortunately, there is progress being made. In October 2005, the government adopted an important environmental decree. It integrates most of the international principles for managing the environment promoted by the Rio Declaration. It identifies nine priorities [to be implemented by government authorities and] the private sector. By the private sector, I don’t just mean the bourgeoisie in town, but also peasants and small merchants.

These nine domains are:

  • Education related to ecology and environmental health;
  • Reinforcement of the state’s capacity to [manage] the environment, from locally elected officials to the central government;
  • Integrated management of watersheds and coastal areas;
  • Promotion of alternative energy sources to charcoal and, as possible, imported fossil fuels;
  • Regulation and policies related to where and how people can or can’t build houses and decentralization of activities from Port-au-Prince;
  • Sanitation, and the management of garbage and pollution;
  • Application of the national plan for management of risks and disasters - mainly focusing on floods and water-related epidemics for the short term, with later focus on other sources of pollution that impact human health and the ecosystem;
  • Preservation and sustainable management of biodiversity, relating to protection of the habitats of endemic and other endangered species;
  • Sustainable management of mineral resources like construction materials, quarries, and mines.

There are ways to improve governance of the environment around these themes, provided they are integrated into a comprehensive and progressive land-use zoning process. For example, alleviation of the pressure of agriculture production on mountainous lands should be a common objective for all groups working on any of these nine issues. With more than 500,000 families depending on subsistence agriculture on eroded lands, there’s no potential for improving living conditions. Policies must be proactive in providing alternative means to make a living, and we have to invest more in building governance capacity at the municipal level.

We have to start working collaboratively. We can be successful in the nine priorities listed, but only if we admit that whatever our capabilities and our excuses, we’re condemned to fail without cooperation. By we, I mean the government, the ministries, the parliament, the NGOs and their networks, grassroots organizations and social movements, enterprises and trade unions, donors and others.

Read the full, unedited interview with Yves-André Wainright here.

Interview translated by Larousse Charlot and David Schmidt.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance and is working on the forthcoming book, Fault Lines: Views across Haiti’s New Divide. She coordinates Other Worlds, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Alexis Erkert is the Another Haiti is Possible Coordinator for Other Worlds. She has worked in advocacy and with Haitian social movements since 2008. You can access all of Other Worlds’ past articles regarding post-earthquake Haiti here.

Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Alexis Erkert and Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.

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