Oxfam Agronomist Wasley Demorne speaks at AGM.
The Haiti Support Group held its Annual General Meeting in South London at Stockwell Methodist Church Hall on 19 June. A new constitution was adopted, an Executive Committee elected and the members who attended also heard a talk by Wasley Demorne, a Haitian agronomist working as Oxfam’s livelihoods project officer.
Wasley outlined the context of the 12 January earthquake by linking the increasingly high death toll of ever more frequent natural disasters in Haiti with the country’s political instability and mounting environmental degradation. “What we have here is a vicious circle,” Wasley said introducing a talk entitled Confronting Political Instability: Environmental Damage and Natural Disaster in Haiti. “Political instability has compounded the weakness of an already feeble state apparatus. That leads to all types of injustice – social, economic and political, most obvious in rural areas in uncontrolled land use, and in particular deforestation and the loss of topsoil associated with it.”
Such environmental degradation stimulates a continuous rural exodus and a corresponding concentration of people in urban areas. “In the cities and towns, density and poor construction standards – again the result of a feeble state which has little resource for urban planning or building code enforcement – make new migrants more vulnerable to natural disasters.” Wasley cited the huge loss of life and property in the floods in and around Gonaives in 2008 and the earthquake in January this year, as just two recent examples.
Wasley produced some startling figures. In just 55 years, from 1950 to 2005 Haiti’s population nearly trebled, from 3.22 million to 9.29 million. In just 25 years to 2005, the Haitian coastline lost 23% of its mangroves, nature’s buffer against the tropical storms and hurricanes that threaten the country from June-October. An estimated 43 million cubic meters of topsoil are washed away annually from the denuded slopes of Haiti’s fields and mountains. In the 21 years to the year 2000, the country’s forest cover was reduced by 53%, with some estimates putting the annual toll at more than 10 million trees a year.
Wasley argued that NGOs should be striving to build-up government capacity to take over their role even as they answer the call for emergency assistance by more than 1.5 million Haitians left homeless by the earthquake.