There is no away
On some philosophical level, most of us recognize the truth in this adage which has gained traction in recent years.
In developed nations, it is still possible to fool oneself into thinking one can throw something ‘away’ thanks to comprehensive waste (which I prefer to refer to as ‘mismanaged, underutilized resources’) management, recycling and, increasingly, composting: after doing our part, unwanted material is removed from sight by the trucks and/or employees (or subcontractors) of a municipality.
In many areas of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, however, the results of this line of thinking are readily visible, and painfully tangible, on a daily basis.
Parc de Martissant serves as a striking example.
To those few travelers wanting to avoid the press and bustle of the downtown area by taking the ‘Martissant shortcut’ from Petionville through the historic neighborhoods of Turgeau and Pacot, skirting Carrefour-Feuilles, is an unpolished jewel coming as a pleasant surprise and last stand of green before the choke of Carrefour, to reach the southwest beaches beyond.
After driving through the Martissant neighborhood with its monotony of unpainted concrete-and-concrete-block houses jostling for space against each other on hillsides, the streets lined with brightly painted shops and informal markets selling produce, soda, shampoo, etc., arriving at the park itself is like entering a forgotten world; Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs.
A leafy canopy filters strong light.
Climbing plants scale the trunks of mature trees.
The remains of a hotel from the 1950’s, plaster crumbling, lend the air of a less grand version of Angkor Wat or, at least, something from the director’s cut of ‘Apocalyspe Now.’
At this writing, the park is effectively a nature preserve, a ‘public utility’ intended to become a public park of approximately 15 hectares (37 acres), assembled from three private properties – one of them the properties of the family of Albert Mangonès, influential Haitian architect and creator of ‘Le Marron Inconnu’. Unfortunately, the park is not yet open to the public.
We’ll return to Parc de Martissant in later posts to address its long history and ambitious plans for its future.
For now, let’s use it to illustrate an analogy.
As one walks through the trees, winding up a path along a wooded ravine stabilized with recently constructed concrete canals – the steep sides planted with understory plants anchored by geotextile fabric – one reaches the top of a hill which signals the beginning of the lower part of Leclerc bidonville in Martissant. A concrete cleanout – a ‘cattle-catcher’ of sorts – prevents garbage from the neighborhoods along the northern ridge of Morne l’Hopital mountains from flowing into the park.
Our guide, Marc Bungener, a Haitian urban planning student studying the park for his Masters thesis, explains the years of marginalization the Martissant neighborhood faced – including at least a generation of no regular trash pickup – and the extensive community partnership between the neighborhood of Martissant and the Fondasyon Konesans ak Libète (FOKAL) since 2008 to do, among other things, ravine cleanups.
He points to the left of the canal outflow, to the steep side of the ravine. Cut by the flowing and scouring action of water, the earth is exposed to show the stratification of layers of garbage. “It’s amazing: trees are literally growing on top of, and out of, garbage – plastic bags, a shoe…” notes Marc.
Again, the analogy is visceral: some communities are built, quite literally, on their own garbage, and ravines, as they wind their way through, ever deeper, expose this truth.
Start high, work your way down
As noted in part 1 of this series, ravines are born in the mountains.
To address violence and underemployment in Martissant, locals were employed by MINUSTAH, a peacekeeping mission of the U.N., in the mountains of Morne l’ Hopital above the neighborhood of Martissant. Teams built dry stone retaining walls and planted some 2 million bamboo plants and vetiver, a local grass variety with a modest root system good for anchoring banks.
Why do I single this example out?
Because it uses readily available local materials – grass and rocks (ever-present in agricultural fields) – and simple, appropriate technologies and techniques – stacking rocks.
The project attacks at its source high in the mountains the problem of environmental degradation affecting an entire watershed (and many neighborhoods) below with a strategy more sustainable than simple cleanups. Rather than relying on out-of-scale ‘hard’ technology deployed further downstream – namely concrete canals which divert water from place to place without actually treating and using it:
“These banks and thresholds should allow rainwater to infiltrate the soil and thus reduce the risk of rockfalls and landslides,” said Felder Théolin, the Coordinator of the National Organization for Young Professionals Save Haiti (ONJPSH), initiator of the project.
Best of all, using local labor not only helps by providing livelihoods, it exposes them at an early age to something easily replicable, involving them in long-lasting solutions, and, hopefully, strategic thinking about problems others dismiss as un-fix-able.
With tweaks such as adding hardwood and fruit tree varieties within terracing, as NGOs such as ORE do, projects like these would come closer to helping address a key environmental challenge for Haiti – reforestation.
Next time, we’ll continue to explore some responses to the complex challenges ravines present with more examples of projects.