Sustainable relief in Haiti through permaculture

A well known quote in permaculture is: “The problem is the solution.” In the case of Haiti, urbanization has been a significant problem that devastated the relatively stable economy made up of many small farmers. Not too long ago, Haiti exported rice, sugar cane and many other crops and grew enough food to feed itself. What happened? Well that is a sordid and complex tale, perhaps best illustrated in a novel of intrigue, but when subsidized corporations go out of their way to undersell local rice farmers and put them out of business, one has to wonder - why? Especially when viewing all the suffering that has occurred as a result. The cost has been much higher than any possible profits made by those companies.


Currently, the water situation around Port Au Prince is grim. Well water has been compromised, pumps are down, water mains are broken, and it is the dry season so water tanks are low, if they weren’t ruined completely in the earthquake. Sanitation is also a major issue – there is a danger that human waste will get into groundwater supplies and other vulnerable areas, spreading disease like cholera and typhoid in a city of 3 million.


What permaculturists can do for these problems is to put in sustainable water supply and sanitation systems that will be permanent and will also return a yield. Rainwater catchment systems will prevent the water from running into the ocean, and with greywater systems it can be used more than once before leaving the site. Human waste is one of the best sources of nitrogen, potassium and phosphate around (the three major nutrients for agricultural use).


Permaculture sanitation experts know how to safely process human waste to make it into an asset. Solving the sanitation problem can also provide the fertilizer that is needed to revitalize degraded farm land and allow the people to once again grow their own food in this country of abundant potential. After the earthquake, an exodus back to the country began – this could be a positive thing, but only if people can regenerate land that has been strip mined and terribly degraded by cutting down trees and unsustainable farming methods.


Permaculture design offers many low tech, inexpensive or zero cost methods of capturing and filtering water, providing fuel-efficient stoves (cutting of trees for fuel is one of the major environmental problems in Haiti, causing significant erosion and soil loss), building stable, earthquake resistant homes from existing resources (earth, Urbanite, etc.), and regenerating ecosystems and creating a stable food supply. Out of this disaster can come a much stronger economy and better environmental conditions. The resourceful people of Haiti can rise, like a phoenix from the ashes. Low tech water filters (solar, straw filters, etc.), building materials for latrines, water catchment and housing, seeds, permaculture instruction and other sustainable resources will go much further to improve conditions long-term in Haiti than temporary aid.


We are working with Haitians in Miami, and are coordinating with the Ministry of Environment in Haiti as well as rescue organizations and non-profits on the ground already operating in Haiti to get sustainable solutions implemented. Wouldn’t it be nice if Haiti came through this much stronger and self-sufficient?


For more info on the projects ongoing or to make a donation, see permacultureguild.us and permaculturehaiti.org.


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I had just finished teaching the first weekend of a Permaculture design course at Earth N Us Farm in Little Haiti, Miami, when the earthquake hit in Haiti. The response was instantaneous in the neighborhood, with fundraisers started the following day and the continued outpouring of support. Our discussion questioned how we could get aid to Haiti that would be truly sustainable and not just a temporary handout.

Talk turned into action and five permaculturist water and sanitation specialists arrived in Haiti last week, with a dozen more lined up to travel there. In the midst of getting first responders there, the Permaculture Relief Corps was formed.

For those not familiar with the term, permaculture means "permanent culture" and is a design science based on how nature and natural systems work – by working with nature, one can tap into the power and abundance of nature.

The beauty of permaculture design is that even in the most horrendous disaster, one can take action that will have long-term beneficial effects that will expand and last for generations.

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