Back on Sept. 22, 2004, I wrote a post about "Valuing Eco-Services". Celeste promptly turned around on the 29th and applied its concepts to the disastrous 2004 floods in Haiti.
Now the Miami Herald chimes in with Haiti: A ravaged land more bleak by Susannah A. Nesmith. When it comes to Haiti's deforestation and the economic/ environmental devastation it has wrought, there's a lot of blame to go around: NGOs, government, even Haitians themselves. Haiti's poverty isn't a conspiracy from abroad, it's the product of choices. If those choices don't start changing, neither will Haiti's fate.
Belmont Club, discussing similar issues in the Philippines, called it "Death By Insanity" - and the term is apropos. Dysfunctional cultures, corrupt governments, and (worst of all) a lack of understanding of economics or the importance of property rights add up to a toll of doom across the 3rd world. Haiti is just one example, albeit a very illustrative one. So let's take a closer look:
Over to the Herald article:
"The reasons behind the failure of so many reforestation projects seem as numerous as Haiti's bald and barren hillsides.
Projects have been stymied by Haiti's crippling poverty, widespread corruption and recurrent periods of instability. Foreign development organizations brought their own problems to the table -- short-term goals that changed with the political winds in Washington or at the United Nations in New York and ill-conceived projects that tried to impose reforestation on wary peasants."
Well, yes, but that's not all. A strong undercurrent of Western guilt may be a fashionable pose in many discussions of 3rd World poverty, but Haiti illustrates a different truth: in many cases, 3rd world counries are poor because of the choices their own people and governments make. Choices about property, about governance, about culture.
Unless and until that lesson is understood and acted upon, attempts to address the issue of 3rd World poverty aren't going to accomplish much for their intended beneficiaries. Unless, of course, the "intended beneficiaries" are the governments, international bureaucrats, and "Toyota Taliban" NGOs who find ample pickings in the current international system.
Fortunately, there are some Haitian success stories:
"Finnigan's group, the Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment, began in 1985 with a simple strategy -- to turn native mango trees into moneymakers by grafting them with the Madame Francique strain, prized by U.S. importers.
"Back in those days, a lot of reforestation projects were with forestry trees," Finnigan said. "But farmers want something that makes money."
That's what happens when NGOs hostile to basic economics and capitalism run development projects. Fortunately, Finnigan understood the lessons Crumb Trail worked to convey in Valuing Assets and Who Pays? One is that "...the insight that it is the value to others of an intact asset such as a forest that leads the owner to preserve it, and perhaps even improve it, is the key to understanding why "conservation is business". The other is that it is "unfair to expect a localised minority to pick up costs that ultimately benefit a dispersed majority."
In other words, make sure your conservation projects are tied to some form of real ownership and address the economic interests of the locals, or you'll fail. So, what did Finnigan do?
"He secured $6.8 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development and other organizations over the years and even branched out into grafted avocados and oranges and fast-growing bamboo -- anything that would be more valuable to the peasants than the charcoal they can make when they cut down a tree.
Finnigan estimates that the trees that his group helped plant earn $6.6 million every year, with much of that going to the hundreds of thousands of peasants who own them.
Nice return on aid.
"Mango grower Wilyo Pierre agrees. "The people around this area, they don't cut [mango] trees anymore," Pierre said. "Since people here found out about grafting, they see it's better than charcoal."
It certainly is, and Celeste's Haiti post included some interesting ideas along similar lines. Commenter Bart Hall, who has worked in Haiti as an agronomist, filled in some relevant historical background. Some of it was depressing:
"Much of the difference between the DR [JK: Dominican Republic] and Haiti is the result of different colonial masters and the attitudes they instilled. Haiti also for many years treated its forests as a common resource, whereas in the DR it was always held privately."
On the other hand, Bart also provided similar Haitian success stories from agronomists Pierre Leger (vetiver grass, lime) and Rodney Babe (vetiver grass, tilapia).
So far, just another happy success story or three, and a profound demonstration of the human importance of concepts like property rights and of justifying ecological aid in terms of local economic costs and benefits.
Remember those themes. We'll get back to them later.
NGOs may share part of the blame for development failure, but Haitian culture and governance are far bigger contributors. Despite years and even decades of attempts to improve the situation, we're reaching a point where it's legitimate to wonder if any outside measures short of colonialism or international trusteeship will really help Haiti improve. Back to Nesmith's Miami Herald article:
"Bannister and Gerry Murray, a University of Florida anthropologist, worked on a project that gave peasants fast-growing trees that could be harvested for their wood and would grow back.
...."The problem is there's no government in Haiti," Murray said. "They can't even collect the garbage." Murray blamed much of the problem on corruption. "The only thing that the Haitian government has been hellbent on doing is getting as much money as it can in Swiss bank accounts."
And the picture gets darker still. Would even a clean government be able to fix the underlying problem of a country so heavily invested in superstition and widespread "cargo cult" style beliefs? For instance:
"The Rev. Wilner Donecia, the parish priest in the town of Gros Morne in the mountains above Gonaives, remembers one foreign aid group that paid peasants to plant trees and install erosion control walls on their own plots.
"If you pay [the peasant] to fix his own land, he's going to destroy everything once you leave so you'll come back again and pay him again," he said. In the end, the project did more harm than good, Donecia said, as other peasants denuded their land, hoping for pay to undo the damage."
There may be ways to sidestep this kind of mentality, but I can't think of many offhand. This goes beyond a culture of dependence, and right into outright self-sabotage.
As a result of these consistent failures, and ongoing chaos in Haiti's governance, reforestation programs are no longer being financed by large donors:
"The U.S. Agency for International Development is no longer financing reforestation in Haiti. The projects ended in 2001, after tainted elections led to an international aid embargo against the government of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
And the $1.3 billion aid plan cobbled together by foreign donors after Aristide was ousted last February allots only $8 million for environmental programs -- none of it for reforestation. The World Bank also is not financing any reforestation."
Even Finnigan's successful mango tree project is facing funding issues - and worse:
"A local irrigation system built by French colonists in 1759 and restored in the 1950s by the Haitian government is on the verge of collapse. The Ravine du Sud river that feeds the system is choked with boulders and silt washed down from bald mountains where peasants have yet to plant mangoes.
Last year, the boulders and silt choked off the natural flow of the river and diverted it through Camp Perrin. After several days, Finnigan and other farmers used heavy equipment to unblock the river."
A temporary fix is planned for the irrigation system, but Finnigan expects the whole system will be choked beyond repair within 5-6 years. That would leave his mangoes without water, and bankrupt the local economy.
Thus ending one of Haiti's few success stories.
Why all the silt choking the irrigation system? The answer is revealing:
"One of the mountains above the river is a national park, where there is not supposed to be logging or farming. But about 2,000 families are farming there.
They're destroying the watershed for 600,000 people," Finnigan said. "It's suicidal."
Well, it's Haiti.
This is what happens when property rights are a joke, and so is enforcement. Next time some idiot tells you that property is exploitation, point to Haiti and talk about what the alternative looks like.
Belmont Club, who has seen a similar situation first hand in the Philippines, writes:
"The real answer to the denudation of the tropical forest consists of two things. Tree plantations, which can be grown on the flat and not on the original site of the natural forest and the granting of land rights to people who will farm timber. Tree plantations can be devoted to quick rotation species and their timber will economically destroy the incentive to "illegally log". Why go through all the trouble to annihilate the last dipterocarp up in the Sierra Madres when you can buy the timber by the roadside from a tree farmer? Alas, tree farming has been vehemently opposed by Friends of the Earth, the World Wildlife Foundation and Greenpeace as the "capitalist solution" and they have effectively killed it."
Lovely. What were we saying earlier about eco-imperalist NGOs who are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution? Back to Belmont Club, who describes the alternative "public" solution of graft, corruption, and exploitation:
"The way NPA illegal logging works is the concessionaire works a specified number of days for the benefit of the local thugsters as a form of 'revolutionary taxation'. The trees are felled, bucked, transported and sold in the usual way but the money goes to supporting the Commie bosses in the Netherlands. This replaced the former methods of cash payments prevalent when logging was in flower, before the forests declined. Then the concessionaire could no longer guarantee an amount certain to Jose Maria Sison and his cohorts in Europe because they could not guarantee the required amount of timber would be found. By switching to an "NPA logging days" arrangement, the Communists were forced to bear the risks of supply and price fluctuation. The same model is used to pay off the Philippine bureaucrats, army and any other group which has enough guns to swing the grift. As a result, everyone has their "logging days" until the whole calendar is filled. There is in addition a whole bunch of subindustries, such as the 'escort' of logging trucks and extortion at checkpoints, which are put up by anyone with enough firepower to make it stick. The result is an immense pressure on the forest resource which is mercilessly destroyed until the abused slopes generate floods such as have recently killed a thousand break out."
He then adds:
"It is also important to grant land rights to tree farmers. Half of the Philippines including all the uplands as defined by the criterion of slope belong, in perpetuity to the State. That's why all logging is done on concessions. No one can own forestland. This restriction was at the insistence of 'nationalists' who would insisted it would protect the 'patrimony of the nation' -- essentially by making them the Commons. If this sounds ridiculous, well it is.
Indeed. To admit otherwise would shatter illusions that many would prefer to leave undisturbed. Illusions that cost lives, by perpetuating failed approaches that cannot deliver ecological or economic sustainability. Not in the Philippines. Not in Haiti.
Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has opened a lot of eyes by discussing the link between property rights and development. Haiti, the Philippines, and many other banana republics and failing states show the flip side: the link between lack of these rights and devastation.
So, let's review. We have nearly complete failure to create and enforce an effective regime of property rights, exacerbated by:
- International Aid agencies often coming in with "eco-imperialist" approaches that fail to take local economic needs or ecological timeframes into proper account.
- A local culture of profound poverty, superstition, and cargo-cult dependence that is extremely difficult to undo, and essentially mandates ruin and poverty for those who follow it.
- A government that is almost wholly corrupt and ineffective, often sabotaging the rare local successes and contributing to the local culture of dependence and despair.
This "Iron Triangle" may go a long way toward explaining why Haiti remains a hellhole even by comparison with the relatively-poor Dominican Republic. That country shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, but has a significantly better economy and environment (population 8.8M vs. 6.6M for Haiti, infant mortality of 3.32% vs. 7.43%, life expectancy of 67.6 vs. 51.7 years, per capita GDP of $6,000 vs. $1,600 for Haiti).
Handouts will not solve these problems. Neither will intermittent armed interventions aimed merely at propping up a failed state and a failure culture.
Breaking Haiti's Iron Triangle remains a worthy goal, even as we doubt its realism. So what might work?
Bart Hall draws on personal experience in his assessment of Haiti, and offers a more optimistic view of reform:
"The weak link as I see it is lack of access to capital for female entrepreneurship. There is no clear title to property, and consequently a great deal of real wealth is tied up in "capital dormant" -- sleeping capital. Women are by far the better and more responsible entrepreneurs and it is there that the greatest leverage is probably to be found.
Vetiver grass, reforestation, fruit trees, and micro-loans for women. It won't solve everything or turn Haiti into Hong Kong in a generation, but in the circumstances it's not a bad place to start."
These approaches seem like a fine place to start, and the D-Lab project (charcoal from sugar cane waste) project that Celeste chronicled may be another step forward. The question is, will Haiti's failed government and failure culture offer a foundation for these opportunities, or devour them?
Most evidence seems to point to the latter conclusion. Even the "Oil-for-Food Swindle" U.N. has a better record than this crew. Which may explain why some people are even considering Haiti for status as a U.N. Protectorate.
That approach would fail, of course. Would a U.N. protectorate forcibly evict the Haitians living in the common forests, destroying the watershed for hundreds of thousands, and endangering hundreds more in the next floods? Or would it pretend the problem didn't exist and ask to manage future flood aid - thus ensuring an enlarged staff and facilities for the local Toyota Taliban? Would it institute and enforce a regime of property rights, thus embracing a concept that most of its members see as alien? Or would it ramp up international demands for aid entitlements to manage? Would it confront the gangs and other bad actors at the heart of the violence and insecurity? Or would it stand back and give them free reign as it has in many African nations? To ask these questions is to answer them.
If change is to come, it must come from two sources. One is the Haitians themselves. The other is from those of us in the West outside both the world's failed states and the U.N.'s unaccountable kleptocracy.
These changes won't always be comfortable, but they will be necessary if 3rd-world development really becomes a serious issue per the core vs. gap thesis at the heart of The Pentagon's New Map.
Success will require a nation-building imperative that is acknowledged by a key cadre on the Right. They can then produce development aid templates that owe more to free markets and local economies than handouts and loan-financed megaprojects, and see ecological services and stocks as an important underpinnings of economic flows. An important but related change will involve reclaiming the traditional conservative respect for the wisdom of local culture, while avoiding the classic "multiculturalism/diversity" trap and remaining clear on the items that cannot be compromised if success is to be achieved.
Only then will we see a centre-right with a distinctive and authentic voice in the development debate.
Success will also require a key liberal-left cadre that prefers results on the ground, as opposed to feel-good turnovers that amount to a new neo-colonialism, and only internationalize the kleptocracy and lack of accountability that lie at the heart of so many 3rd world failures. It requires a cadre that rejects politicism, and sees property as a necessary, emancipatory good within its government oriented framework. One that sees economics as a necessary corollary of ecology. An important but related change will involve a recognition that social changes take time, rather than looking for instant perfection or phony 'spokespeople' who will repeat their Marxist illusions back to them a la Rigoberta Menchu.
Only then will we see, at long last, a human and humane liberal-left that can hope to genuinely address the challenges of global poverty in the 21st century.
A tall order, indeed. Can we see our way forward toward a genuinely bipartisan discussion that checks abuses, offers continuous impetus for progress, and fosters a genuine debate? Can we offer an alternative path for many "gap state" basket cases that has much hope of helping them to "un-choose" poverty, if they truly wish it?
In an age where access to destructive technologies is being driven lower and lower down the food chain, can we afford not to?
"I've tried to build bridges
But they all fell down
I've taken to the air on wings of silver
But always hit the ground
Island I see you in all of my dreams
But I'm a man with no means to reach your distant shore..."
-- Jimmy Buffett, "Island"