Last night’s Unreported World followed reporter Aidan Hartley and Producer Alex Nott as they visited Haiti, which is just a relatively short journey from wealthy Miami, and what they found there was truly shocking.
I must be honest and say that until I watched this show, I’d been ignorant about Haiti; for me, Haiti has always been synonymous with voodoo and little else. I was – to my shame – unaware of the scale of the humanitarian crisis to which this beleaguered island is subject. And a crisis it is; between hurricanes, poverty and the inability to grow crops due to the lack of tools and seeds, these are a people on the brink of almost total annihilation…
Haiti hit the headlines last year when it was devastated by yet another hurricane, and as Aidan and Alex found out, a year later, the island is still in a state of emergency.
The footage resembled that which we’re used to seeing from Ethiopia and similar countries where malnourished children die on a daily basis and residents live in poverty in makeshift and unsanitary shanty towns or refugee camps.
Aidan and Alex began their journey in the village of Baie D’Orange, where 26 children have died of hunger since the most recent hurricane and I’m sure that figure has increased since the film was made. On arrival, the team was immediately surrounded by starving children as a huge crowd awaited a United Nations helicopter delivery of food supplies; that’s all that’s keeping them alive.
But as the hungry Hatians queued up – and often violently fought – for grain, the local farmers told Aidan that they want help to rebuild their lives by having the seeds and tools to grow their own food and help themselves, rather than constantly relying on handouts. It’s as that old saying tells, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life.”
Haitians have to cut down trees wholesale in order to make charcoal for the local women to cook with but this is leading to deforestation which is in turn leading to erosion, all of which is depleting not only the landscape and the wildlife, it’s destroying the fertility of the land… what land is left that is. Flooding from the hurricanes has literally drowned whole swathes of Haiti leaving thousands homeless, penniless and with nowhere to grow crops.
Imported American rice sells at half the cost of Haitian rice so naturally enough, the poverty stricken residents are buying imported rice so the problem regarding selling local crops is self-perpetuating its own downward spiral.
The crew met many local people who had some heartbreaking stories to tell. One such story was that of Irene who told Aidan that one of her nine children had died of starvation and she’d had to “give away” two more to “richer” relatives in order to save their lives.
She also told him that her husband gets angry when she refuses his demands for sex because she fears becoming pregnant again as she can’t feed the children she has now, without adding to their brood. She and her six remaining children often go for days without eating but as a result of her husband’s sexual appetite, he’s had five children with other women who were more accommodating of his sexual demands, thus adding five more malnourished children to this impoverished and decimated island.
Now I have to say, the point I’m about to make is nothing to do with this programme but it is one of my biggest head-scratches about any country that’s similarly afflicted by poverty and where children die in their thousands from starvation; surely it would make sense to introduce a program of mass long-term contraception if not sterilisation?
I appreciate that most Haitian’s are Catholic but surely – as with Ethiopia or any similarly devastated and desperately poor country – the issue of constantly producing more children whom the parents simply cannot feed is infinitely perpetuating the problem? Wouldn’t it make sense to introduce a mass program of giving women a contraceptive implant – which will prevent pregnancy for up to three years – at a cost from around $18 per implant?
When you consider that the programme stated the UN helicopter aid costs around £4,500 per day to drop food aid to the people of Haiti, surely it would make sense to halt the population growth for just three years, or more appropriately at least a decade, to give these poor people time to ‘catch up’ and start to rebuild their island and lives rather than adding to the amount of people who’re rapidly consuming all the contents of the island?
We heard in the programme that many Haitians accuse the relief agencies of not assisting them to move on from crisis relief to development efforts to end their poverty. However, efforts to end poverty in Haiti, which once fed and supported itself, are rendered null and void by the ever increasing population.
The team then moved on to the slum district of Cite Soleil in the Island’s capital, Port-au-Prince where we heard there are just 25 Haitian police officers to keep law and order amongst the 400,000 populous in the slum areas and UN peacekeepers have had to be deployed to end the chaos that’s largely part brought about by hunger as people fight over food.
The team then travelled to yet another village with a UN aid mission where hungry mobs have pillaged similar flights, and it’s again increasingly clear that the country is chronically dependent on aid…
This was a shocking, distressing and depressing film, and here’s what Aidan wrote on Channel 4’s website about his time in Haiti…
“The Island That Ate Itself about Haiti was among the most distressing films I have ever reported.
By the end of the shoot both producer Alex Nott and I were ill with dysentery and every time I slept I was having nightmares.
At dawn each day we hitched rides on United Nations helicopters flying food out to villages cut off from the outside world, but hemmed in by hunger and despair.
Each flight was over hills so eroded by deforestation and hurricanes they seemed to be melting into the Caribbean.
Each journey landed us in another tale of tragedy that left me feeling hopeless.
There was Baie d’Orange, where nurses weighed skeletal infants in a malnutrition clinic – struggling to stop a rising death toll that had claimed 26 toddlers’ lives so far.
There was Irene, a charcoal seller chopping down the last trees on her smallholding even though they were the only thing protecting the soil from being washed away. Irene was so poor one of her nine children had died of hunger and she had been forced to give away two others to relatives who could better take care of them.
And there was the village of Bombardopolis, where the population is exploding so fast that the dying soils cannot yield enough food. Malnutrition has become endemic year-to-year.
It’s a crisis that never ends. It has become the permanent emergency. When I asked the nurse in the Bombardopolis church hospital how the situation could be turned around she shrugged.
‘It can’t. All we can do is try to care for people with love.’
Each evening Alex and I would chopper back to port-au-Prince and our hotel Oloffson’s, a ramshackle gingerbread timber hotel that once inspired the gothic cartoons of Charles Addams in the New Yorker.
It was on the Oloffson terrace that Noel Coward – who along with many other famous types including Mick Jagger came here in better days – wrote his song:
You do something to me,
Something that simply mystifies me…
Do do that voodoo
That you do so well…
In those intensely humid, hot evenings, as the sounds of carnival bands wafted across the rotting city, I would indeed think about what Haiti was doing to me.
I realised that everybody we talked to seemed mystified as to what the solutions were.
OK, so Haiti’s forest cover, once 80%, is now one per cent. Haiti sits in the hurricane belt and is hit every year. Haiti can’t compete with U.S. rice imports and cannot feed its runaway population growth. And Haiti has been so mismanaged by its rulers that the United Nations MINUSTAH peacekeeping forces are in many ways the de facto government.
But what are the solutions? The U.N. cannot feed and police Haiti’s streets forever. And I realised the only hope came from what the Haitians themselves said to us.
Our translator Lynn Hyacinth, an educated and delightful woman, said ‘Nobody can end Haiti’s problems except Haitians.’
There was Pastor Michel Morisset, who said Haiti needed. ‘Help to help us do without the help’. He said that while standing in a tented camp of canvas tents resembling a refugee centre on the edge of a war, whereas in reality the people had been made homeless by relentless floods and mudslides.
And in Baie d’Orange while the mothers queued for bags of food I met two farmers looking sadly at the sky.
They were proud men fallen on hard times. They had been forced to live on food handouts but this was the last thing they wanted to do. They wanted a hand up, not a hand out.
‘Look at the rain’ said one. ‘We should be planting our crops – but we have no seeds or tools.’
But all there was from the outside world in Baie d’Orange was food aid, keeping people just about alive until the next crisis hits.”
Again, at the risk of touching on the very emotive subject of human and civil rights, I personally believe the absolutely fundamental starting point for Haiti – and all the other dreadfully impoverished places around the globe where people die in their thousands of starvation – is a program of long-term contraception if not sterilisation for just one generation.
Then perhaps it would be possible to stop playing catch-up – and trying desperately to keep everyone alive – to moving forward and rebuilding these countries so that when the population boom ends, money can be usefully deployed long-term to help future generations have the ability to sustain themselves, to grow crops and to build an economy.
What did you think of the programme and what do you think is the answer? Please let us know your opinion.