The Design Observer Group

Posted 09.20.10

Deborah Gans

Haiti and the Potential of Permaculture

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.