The earthquake that struck Haiti four years ago this Sunday was the deadliest natural disaster in the history of our hemisphere.
But it wasn’t the strength of the quake that primed Haiti for such unimaginable death and destruction.
Instead, the forces that drove the death toll so terribly high were decades in the making and largely human-made: a long history of poor governance and economic and ecological injustice. Most of the estimated 250,000 killed lived in Port-au-Prince, where nearly 2 million people were packed together in an urban area with a crumbling infrastructure barely suitable for 100,000.
Concrete homes and schools quickly collapsed because of substandard construction. Even before the earthquake, buildings would periodically collapse under their own weight.
The overcrowding was a consequence of colonial-era policies that exploited the best land for cash crops and quick profits and marginalized runaway slaves in tiny remote mountain enclaves where, to survive, they slashed, burned, farmed and moved on when exposed mountainside soil washed away.
Successive governments after Haiti’s independence left the best land in the hands of wealthy absentee landlords and invested almost nothing in rural infrastructure.
Rural farmers – largely ignored except for taxation and political repression – had to fend for themselves on eroding mountain land that become less and less productive as the population grew.
The result: a decades-long steady stream of desperate ecological refugees to Port-au-Prince.
But that’s only part of the story.
It’s becoming more and more clear that global climate change played an equally key role in creating the environment that led to such death and destruction on January 12, 2010.
Observers increasingly believe that the steep drop in rural food production in Haiti is tied to rapidly changing weather patterns created by global climate change. Instead of two consistent rainy seasons each year – one in the Spring and one in the Fall – Haiti now has two short, inconsistent seasons marked by cycles of drought and torrential storms.
And now I’ve come to see how – without intending to – my carbon footprint contributed to the global climate change that played a part in making Haiti’s earthquake so deadly.
Worse still, my carbon footprint continues to contribute to the hunger and desperation that millions of rural Haitians still face.
I know that climate change still seems like a theoretical threat to many in North America. Until recently we simply hadn’t seen much dramatic evidence of it in our country. But climatologists are increasingly linking super storms like Katrina and Sandy to climate change. Drought and devastating fires in the U.S. this past year also touched the lives of thousands. But for most of us, climate change still presents little felt inconvenience.
In Haiti, however, that’s not true. Rural Haitians may not know why the rains have become so rare and so devastating when they do come, but they experience climate change every day in their inability to feed their families.
In fact, according to the latest studies by a respected global risk analysis firm Haiti ranks as the most vulnerable nation on earth to the negative impact of climate change – this despite the fact that the typical Haitian has almost no carbon footprint.
The average American adds 19 metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere each year, more than 95 times as much as the average Haitian.
I have to tell you that after taking all this in I feel compelled to act. I’m working with my family to reduce our carbon footprint. We now buy wind-generated electricity from our utility. We’re trying to walk more and use public transport instead of driving. I’m trying to eat more consciously, knowing that certain kinds of agriculture produce significant quantities of greenhouse gases. At work, beginning this year Beyond Borders will be buying carbon offsets for the flights we take to and from Haiti, and we will try to be more judicious about traveling.
While important, admittedly the actions I’ll take have a limited impact because of the structure of our economy. Changing our carbon-based economy requires a movement. That’s why each of us has a role to play. Anyone who cares about Haiti (or who just cares about the kind of future we’re leaving our children and grandchildren) can find a way to help slow and reverse global climate change. If each one of you reading this made one change in your life to reduce your carbon footprint you’d be in effect joining the movement.
In Haiti, Beyond Borders is joining the movement by investing in the rural communities where we work through sustainable farming practices that make better use of water and soil.
We’re promoting reforestation and better land management. And while these efforts have no appreciable impact on global climate change, they are helping these communities better cope with the changes. In this way, rural farmers can stop some of the hunger, which is the first and most devastating impact of global climate change that unjustly afflicts those who have contributed the least to creating it.
The mission of Beyond Borders is to help people build movements for liberation in Haiti. While these movements are rooted in Haiti, there are many important ways non-Haitians can contribute as well. Your support for our Model Community Initiative and your efforts to reduce your carbon footprint are concrete ways you can help make a difference.
These efforts, together, with God’s grace, can help ensure that, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the arc of the moral universe continues to bend toward justice.
With a broken heart for all who died needlessly and great hope in our capacity for change,