Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Narrating Haiti: The Sound of Steel on Wood:

I brought a jump rope to Haiti to try and get some exercise. I take it to the driveway that runs down one side of the rooms where we stay. I skip for as long as it takes for me to say five decades of the Rosary. The rhythm of the Hail Mary also helps me set my cadence.

One morning as I was jumping, I heard the whack, whack of metal on wood. It’s a sound that’s not unfamiliar in Haiti: that of a machete biting into a tree trunk. I peered over the six foot wall that separates our lodgings from the field next door. On the other side of the wall, a row of thin, scraggly trees rises 30 feet into the air. I could see a man working diligently to fell one of the trees. It’s amazing how much Haitians can accomplish with a machete.

What seems to be an innocuous act takes on more dire connotations when one considers the fragile ecology of Haiti. In plain English, the Haitians have cut down so many trees that the topsoil is eroding. Now, in parts of the country, growing crops is difficult. And when the hurricanes and heavy rains come, no earth slows down the deadly waters. Haitians who cut down the trees don’t intend to ravage the environment; they simply have no other economic options. They make charcoal from the wood of the trees and sell it to people for cooking fuel.

The poor 21st century Haitians aren’t the first to ravage the trees. This deforestation has been going on for centuries. The French cleared land (or rather had the slaves do it) for sugar cane plantations.

“Narrating Haiti” is a phrase attributed to Dr. Paul Farmer in Tracy Kiddor’s book about the good doctor, called “Mountains beyond Mountains.” Dr. Paul takes a fact, say the existence of a dam in the Artibonite plain, and explains, more fully then I did above, what this fact says about the history and exploitation of Haiti. There is usually a deep well of truth buried under the simplest occurrence.

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