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Haiti: Deforestation and Slavery

two articles:

1.  "People for Sale" (2008)

2.  "Haiti on the brink of ecocide" (1994)

"Never before has man had such capacity to control his own environment, to end thirst and hunger, to conquer poverty and disease, to banish illiteracy and massive human misery. We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world -- or to make it the last." -- John F. Kennedy, speech to the United Nations calling for an end to the Cold War and converting the Moon Race into an international cooperative effort, September 20, 1963, two months and two days before he was removed from office.


from "People for Sale", by Benjamin Skinner, from Foreign Policy reprinted by Utne Reader July-August 2008
link to article:

Excerpt from article:

Most people imagine that slavery died in the 19th century. Since 1810, more than a dozen international conventions banning the slave trade have been signed. Yet today there are more slaves than at any time in human history.

And if you're going to buy one in five hours, you'd better get a move on. First, hail a taxi to JFK International Airport and hop on a direct flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The flight takes three hours. After landing, take a tap-tap, a flatbed pickup retrofitted with benches and a canopy, three-quarters of the way up Route de Delmas, the capital's main street. There, on a side street, you will find a group of men standing in front of Le Réseau (the Network) barbershop. As you approach, a man steps forward: "Are you looking to get a person?"

Meet Benavil Lebhom. He smiles easily. He has a trim mustache and wears a multicolored striped golf shirt, a gold chain, and Doc Martens knockoffs. Benavil is a courtier, or broker. He holds an official real estate license and calls himself an employment agent. Two-thirds of the employees he places are child slaves. The total number of Haitian children in bondage in their own country stands at 300,000. They are restavèks, the "stay-withs," as they are euphemistically known in Creole. Forced, unpaid, they work in captivity from before dawn until night. Benavil and thousands of other formal and informal traffickers lure these children from desperately impoverished rural parents with promises of free schooling and a better life. The negotiation to buy a child slave might sound a bit like this: "How quickly do you think it would be possible to bring a child in? Somebody who could clean and cook?" you ask. "I don't have a very big place; I have a small apartment. But I'm wondering how much that would cost? And how quickly?" "Three days," Benavil responds. "And you could bring the child here?" you inquire. "Or are there children here already?" "I don't have any here in Port-au-Prince right now," says Benavil, his eyes widening at the thought of a foreign client. "I would go out to the countryside." You ask about additional expenses. "Would I have to pay for transportation?" "Bon," says Benavil. "A hundred U.S." Smelling a rip-off, you press him, "And that's just for transportation?" "Transportation would be about 100 Haitian," says Benavil, "because you'd have to get out there. Plus, [hotel and] food on the trip. Five hundred gourdes"-around $13. Now you ask the big question: "And what would your fee be?" Benavil's eyes narrow as he determines how much he can take you for. "A hundred. American." "That seems like a lot," you say, with a smile so as not to kill the deal. "Could you bring down your fee to 50 U.S.?" Benavil pauses. But only for effect. He knows he's still got you for much more than a Haitian would pay. "Oui," he says with a smile. But the deal isn't done. Benavil leans in close. "This is a rather delicate question. Is this someone you want as just a worker? Or also someone who will be a `partner'? You understand what I mean?" You don't blink at being asked if you want the child for sex. "Is it possible to have someone who could be both?" "Oui!" Benavil responds enthusiastically. If you're interested in taking your purchase back to the United States, Benavil tells you that he can "arrange" the proper papers to make it look as though you've adopted the child. He offers you a 13-year-old girl. "That's a little bit old," you say. "I know of another girl who's 12. Then ones that are 10, 11," he responds. The negotiation is finished, and you tell Benavil not to make any moves without further word from you. You have successfully arranged to buy a human being for 50 bucks.

It would be nice if that conversation were fictional. It is not. I recorded it in October 2005 as part of four years of research into slavery on five continents...

--from "People for Sale" by E. Benjamin Skinner, Utne Reader July-August 2008


E Magazine no longer has this article on their website (there's a short mention, but not the article).  I remember that the magazine had photos of the stumps being hacked out of the ground for charcoal, some of the most disturbing I've ever seen.   If you have access to Google Earth, the boundary between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is easy to determine, since one side still has most of its trees and the other does not.

If ever there was a place that needed large scale permaculture restoration, it's Haiti.   Perhaps the tragedy of the earthquake can result in some focused ecological restoration, a prerequisite for social and health improvements in that deforested land.  Imagine what could be done if military spending were diverted into efforts for real needs.

Haiti on the brink of ecocide E: The Environmental Magazine, August, 1994 by Dwight Worker

As I rush down the street to avoid the beggars, a woman steps directly in front of me. She pushes her child into my arms. I grasp reflexively, and find myself holding a small naked boy. We look at each other. Dark, tired eyes. He begins to cry silently. He has skinny arms and legs, a distended stomach, blotchy skin, and patchy hair. He has kwashiokor, a disease of malnutrition--literally "the disease the first baby gets when the second one comes." Then the woman shouts and aggressively pushes her upheld hand into my stomach. Is she saying that I am fat? My friends wouldn't think so. Yet, compared to her, I am fat.

I have promised myself 10 times not to give more money to beggars. It doesn't do any good. Once you give to one, 50 more beggars will hound you in the streets. I hand the child back to the woman with a few "gourds," maybe 25 cents in the local currency. Then I walk away fast, before any other beggars can surround me. No, I am not in Africa.

If you want an "ecotour" to see an environmental disaster, you need not go to Africa or India. Save your money and look in our back yard at Haiti. It is our local "worst-possible-case" of eco-catastrophy.

I first came to Haiti in 1970, when "Papa Doc" Francois Duvalier had his "PRESIDENT FOR LIFE" sign over his White House. I arrived as the proverbially naive, optimistic college graduate, and I was staggered by the poverty and political oppression. The poverty was obvious--hungry children, beggars and the diseases of malnutrition. The oppression was more subtle, seen in the cautious looks on people's faces. At dinner, if you wanted to clear the table of Haitians, all you had to do was ask them for an opinion of Papa Doc Duvalier. In the streets, people were constantly pleading with me to take them "away from here" before they were killed by his private guards, the "Tonton Maucaute."

 My ultimate trauma came at the post office in Port-au-Prince. I wanted to send some beautiful Haitian wood carvings to my parents. In front of the post, I was so besieged by a crowd of screaming desperate beggars that I literally could not move. Most of their bodies had gross physical injuries. Missing fingers, hands, arms and legs. Some had letters and even words scarred onto their faces. Moist pink flesh protruded where eyes used to be. Then I felt something grip my ankle. One man with stumps for limbs had scooted up to me on a rolling cart and hooked his chin and shoulder around my ankle. He began pleading in Creole for anything. He didn't even have a hand for me to give to. I broke loose of them and, without mailing my package, ran back to my hotel, where I breathlessly told a German resident of my experience. "Oh, you have seen the 'mutilates,'" he said. "Mutilates?" "Yes. The ones Duvalier has disfigured so badly that they can no longer live normal lives. But Duvalier lets them live so that others can see what will happen if they too try to resist."

When I return to Haiti in 1993 I decide to go to the post office in Port-au-Prince. A Haitian friend has come with me this time "just in case." My camera is ready. But when we get there, I find no mob scene. Just some street vendors. I ask my friend where all the vendors are who used to sell the incredible wood carvings. "Not much of that anymore. No more good wood here for carving, and we cannot afford to import wood." "And where," I ask, "are all of the--mutilates--the victims of political oppression?" He shakes his head. "Oh, the army just kills us now. They don't bother with those details anymore. You see, we too have progress."

I have hired a driver to take me in his 4-wheel drive to Jean Rabel in Haiti's Northwest--the most deforested part of a deforested country. Our jeep creaks along the road at a walking pace as my driver dodges erosion gullies. He tells me that Haiti is celebrating its 150-year anniversary of non-stop kleptocracy--"government by the thieves." He says that there is no money for road repairs--or anything else. "The military has stolen all of it," he confides. "This road is returning to dirt. If the rains do come this year, they will close the road down indefinitely. Every year, everything gets worse. I know this is a fact. That is our history."

Columbus arrived on the Santa Maria on the north coast of the island of Hispanola (now shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1492. An estimated 250,000 Arawak Indians lived here. Perhaps 100,000 lived in what is now Haiti. Deep forests covered over 75 percent of the land. Columbus called it "La Navidad." Because the Spaniards did not find much gold, they did not colonize Haiti. French buccaneers began preying upon the island in the 1600's. Settlers quickly followed, and they killed off almost all of the Arawak Indians with a combination of disease, massacre and overwork.

France gained complete control with the Treaty of Ryswick at the end of the 17th century, and Haiti soon became its richest colony. Their treatment of slaves was among the most brutal in the western hemisphere. Most slaves died within five years of importation, and over one million would die from work conditions and disease in the next century. In 1804, the slaves revolted, declared the country independent and renamed it "Haiti," the old Arawak name. But the new leaders quickly tried to restore the plantation system and recreate a "black-on-black" serfdom as brutal as the French system. The freed slaves deserted the plantations and fled into the mountains. The plantation system eventually failed, and since then the peasants have been dividing and subdividing their plots of farmland.

Today, land ownership in rural Haiti is among the most egalitarian in the Americas, unlike many other Latin American countries, where a tiny oligarchy controls much of the land. Yet Haiti faces ecological disaster. The numbers are grim: Experts estimate Haiti to be from 90 to 97 percent deforested. (Wood exports from Haiti ended by 1900, so this deforestation can't be blamed on international exploitation, as it can be in many other parts of the world.) Haiti's population is now about seven million, growing at around two percent annually. Over half of the original good cropland of Haiti has been destroyed by erosion, and the farmers are destroying the remainder at about five percent a year. From 1950 to 1990, the per capita arable land dropped from about one acre to one-third of an acre per person.

The per capita income of the average Haitian in 1987 was $360 and declining. Rural illiteracy is close to 90 percent, among the highest in the world. And the average Haitian only gets 80 percent of their required calorie intake.

My driver pulls up to a river outside of the city of Port-au-Paix, on the north coast. This will be the only surface water that we will see for the next 50 miles. We descend a steep path to its edge. Hundreds of people in the river wash clothes, themselves and food. Children play and swim while mothers load their heads and backs with large containers of river water for drinking and cooking. My guide says that, during the drought, some of them must walk over 15 kilometers to get water here. In the rural villages, he adds, there used to be running water, some electricity, even phones. But no more. The wells are going dry, and the electricity and phones stopped working years ago. I look at everyone in the river and wonder if amoebic dysentery, intestinal parasites, cholera don't lie just around this river's bend...

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