Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Rural Haiti Struggles to Absorb Displaced

This article has been published on March 16, 2010, in New York Times, Americas.
I´m only reproducing some excerpts that are significative to show what could happen with overpopulation and migration after urban catastrophes. All pictures here are published in New York Times, in this article´s gallery.

 ¨Life has come full circle for many Haitians who originally migrated to escape the grinding poverty of the countryside. Since the early 1980s, rural Haitians have moved at a steady clip to Port-au-Prince in search of schools, jobs and government services. After the earthquake, more than 600,000 returned to the countryside, according to the government, putting a serious strain on desperately poor communities that have received little emergency assistance.
“There has been a mass exodus to places like Fond-des-Blancs,” said Briel Leveillé , a former mayor and founder of the leading peasant cooperative in this region, which includes Nan Roc. “But the misery of the countryside is compounding the effects of the disaster. I’ve heard people say it would be better to risk another earthquake in Port-au-Prince than to stay in this rural poverty without any help from the government.”
Indeed, some have already returned to the capital seeking the international aid that is concentrated there. But if the reverse flow continues, it could undermine a primary goal of the Haitian government and the international community: to use the earthquake as a catalyst to decentralize Haiti  and resuscitate its agricultural economy, said Nancy Dorsinville, a special adviser to former President Bill Clinton,  the United Nations  special envoy to Haiti.
“If we really mean what we say about decentralization, then we have to think fast about a more robust distribution of food to the countryside, cash-to-work programs there, and assistance to agriculture,” Ms. Dorsinville said.
Decentralization has long been championed by many advocates for Haiti because the countryside endured decades of neglect while the Port-au-Prince area gained dysfunctional congestion. Now, with the capital city battered, it has become a policy buzzword, even as food is growing ever scarcer in the countryside.
“It is only a matter of time before we start seeing severe malnutrition in Fond-des-Blancs,” said Conor Shapiro, director of the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation, which runs a 60-bed hospital and community development organization here.
Fond-des-Blancs is a remote, mountainous area 75 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, accessible only by a rocky road impassable by vehicle after heavy rains. Community leaders say the population, counted at 45,000 by a government census in 2001, has swelled by at least a third since the quake.
The growth is hard to measure, but the community leaders point to a few indicators. Some 300 needy families surveyed reported taking in an average of five earthquake victims each. St. Francois Xavier, a secondary school, has seen its student body increase by half with 150 displaced teenagers. And an additional 500 to 600 earthquake refugees are seeking to resume their studies although Fond-des-Blancs has only two government schools (and neither goes beyond the ninth grade).
By 1982, Fond-des-Blancs, deforested, was at its nadir and the exodus to Port-au-Prince was under way. At the same time, help began arriving: a relatively successful reforestation program and a health clinic started by a Catholic parish in Quincy, Mass., which became St. Boniface Hospital.
Projects like the crossbreeding of scrawny local goats with large Dominican studs breathed some life into the economy (with Fond-des-Blancs aspiring to be known as the goat capital of Haiti), but the area still struggles.
Worried about the impact of the returnees, local leaders have decided to unite their myriad community groups to figure out how to absorb the newcomers while using the earthquake to draw attention to the plight of rural areas. At a recent New England-style town meeting, they summed up their resources succinctly on a blackboard: “Public health: nonexistent; electricity: nonexistent; water: insufficient.”
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