Finally, Some Good News from Port-au-Prince
by Sasha Kramer
Dear friends and supporters,
I am ashamed that this letter is so long in coming. I know that the last time we wrote to you SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) was facing a major crisis, and I am so grateful to those of you who reached out to us during that difficult time. I know that many of you may have been wondering if we still exist and I am thankful to be able to share good news with you in this letter.
In mid-June, just when we were certain that we would have to close our Port-au-Prince office and cut off our emergency services, a miracle happened. An old friend of mine put me in touch with a foundation in Palo Alto, California called the 11th Hour Project. After several phone conversations we realized that we shared the same philosophy and, within one week, the 11th Hour Project was able to send us the funds to continue our emergency work in Port-au-Prince for 6 months. Since that time we have redoubled our efforts, and though we may have been working under the radar, our team has managed to accomplish incredible things.
Before I tell you what we have been working on, I want to take a moment to give an update on the current situation in Haiti. Sadly, when looking at the big picture, change continues to be slow. There is less rubble visible in the streets but the number of people living in tents is still shockingly high, with estimates ranging from 300,000–500,000 people. I am disappointed to say that perhaps the most evident feature of the reconstruction effort is the lack thereof. With the exception of a luxury hotel complex in Petionville and several lucrative business establishments, there has been almost no reconstruction within the city of Port-au-Prince. Residential reconstruction has been restricted to single-family temporary shelters, which are scattered throughout the city, houses made of tarps and plasterboard, houses that generally lack the basic necessities such as water and sanitation. Often, as we drive through Port-au-Prince, I find myself gazing into the empty spaces where buildings once stood wondering why there has been no construction of multi-story apartment buildings. What will happen in 3-5 years as these temporary houses begin to decay; is the current approach to housing only prolonging the disaster of January 2010?
From the perspective of sanitation, the emergency is far from over. In the months after the earthquake, an astounding 11,000 toilets were constructed. Recent reports from the Haitian government, however, indicate that at least 50% of the toilets in camps are no longer functioning due to disrepair, and many are overflowing, creating serious public health risks. Cholera continues to be a serious threat in many communities, with over 6,000 lives lost in the past year; six thousand dead from a disease that is completely preventable. The only way to prevent the spread of cholera in the long term is to put in place adequate sanitation facilities, and not only to build them (that is the easy part) but also to make sure that they are maintained. A recent New York Times editorial correctly stated that “cholera victims are among the many casualties of the unfinished rebuilding of Haiti.”
There is no doubt that countless lives were saved by the actions of emergency relief organizations and that cannot be overstated; however, what is left behind as the international community pulls out? Dilapidated toilet structures, empty water bladders, and a general mistrust of the international community. Very few emergency projects are able to successfully translate in to long term development work and SOIL is proud to say that this is where our work is different. Our emergency interventions have led to the construction of composting infrastructure that will serve Port-au-Prince long after the emergency while our educational campaigns have reached thousands and inspired a new appreciation for the potential of sanitation as a source of livelihood. We are now actively working to capitalize on the investments SOIL has made during the emergency to serve a springboard for development projects and this weekend we will be launching our long awaited household ecological sanitation project.
Thanks to the support of the 11th Hour Project and our amazing base of individual supporters we are proud to say that we have accomplished the following in the past 4 months:
- Continued to serve over 15,000 people with safe and dignified sanitation in the camps of Port-au-Prince and in numerous underserved neighborhoods in northern Haiti.
- Maintained our Cap-Haitien compost site and established a new temporary site in Port-au-Prince. Our compost sites are producing over 15 tons of compost per week and it looks amazing.
- Established experimental gardens and fielded numerous requests for compost from organizations and communities.
- Provided ecological sanitation training to over 50 national and international organizations.
- Commenced planning for Haiti’s first National EcoSan Conference for December.
We also recently received the good news that our work will also be supported by a group of Chinese artists spearheaded by the internationally renowned Cai Guo Giang. These artists generously auctioned their work in support of Haitian earthquake victims and several weeks ago SOIL received a grant from the administering foundation, the Rattray Kimura Foundation. We are incredibly grateful to these artists and the 11th Hour Project, which have kept us afloat over the past months but we cannot underestimate the importance of donations from individuals like you. It is these individual acts of kindness that give us the inspiration to continue with our work.
Today marks 21 months since the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Once again we ask that you commemorate the lives lost in Haiti by making a donation to sustainable change in Haiti. Please consider becoming a monthly donor to SOIL or making a one-time donation. Every penny helps, but most of all we need your love and solidarity. Please take a moment to visit our new website (www.oursoil.org) and show your support for Haiti.
I would like to close by acknowledging the dedication and persistence of SOIL’s team in Haiti. We currently have 46 full time Haitian staff and 8 international staff and each day I am so proud and inspired to work alongside this group of people. Every single person working with SOIL is endowed with impressive compassion, creativity and courage. The compassion necessary for one whose job requires that the needs of others take precedence over personal struggles; the creativity required to understand the transformative nature of SOIL’s sanitation work; and the courage to see through all the misinformation about the communities in which we work. The SOIL team has taught me to act with trust over fear, to see beauty where others would see desolation and to strive for understanding in place of anger.
Thank you for your kindness and patience. We hope to be in better touch over the coming months and we urge you to contact us if you have any comments or requests at [email protected].
With love from Port-au-Prince,
Sasha Kramer is an ecologist and human rights observer who has been working in Haiti since 2004. She received her Ph.D. in Ecology from Stanford University in 2006 and co-founded SOIL that same year. As SOIL’s first project, Sasha completed a postdoctoral research position with the Collaboratory for Research on Global Projects at Stanford where she coordinated an ecological sanitation project in Haiti in collaboration with Stanford’s Engineers for a Sustainable World. Sasha is currently an Adjunct Professor of International Studies and a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami.