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Haiti, North America
  Tiso Latour


Tiso Latour, composer

Tiso Latour and his band rehearse his latest composition on a roof overlooking the seaside town of Jacmel.

They are a new group and the music is a modern interpretation of traditional Haitian tunes. Tiso's dream is to earn a living playing for wealthy tourists. It's a dream that has little chance of becoming a reality.

Andre Pierre


Andre Pierre, painter

Andre Pierre is a voodoo priest and, at the age of ninety 90, he is also one of Haiti's most celebrated artists. Pierre still paints everyday. His art is filled with the symbols of his Voodoo religion - consciously avoiding the harsh reality of Haiti's daily life.

Pierre's works are similar Haiti's other leading artists. They all seem to glorify a way of life that no longer exists; idealized distortions of a countryside that has been literally destroyed.

Thirty years ago Jacmel, located on the Caribbean island nation of Haiti, 600 miles off the coast of the United States, was a thriving resort for the rich and famous. Today, its beaches are badly neglected and the hotels are without guests. Buildings are decaying; fading memories of early Spanish and French colonization. Open-air markets have little to offer. As a tourist destination, Jacmel is a total disaster.

Presidential Palace

Presidential Palace

As a nation, Haiti is steeped in poverty, a case study of a country verging on complete environmental and economic collapse. It was never meant to be this way. In front of the Presidential Palace there's a heroic statue of a slave's call to revolution — a vivid reminder that in 1804 Haiti rose up against European colonialism to become the world's first black republic.

Two hundred years later Haiti is still independent and deeply spiritual. Seeking relief from the hardships of poverty, eighty percent of the population are devoted to the Catholic church. But nearly everyone clings to their African heritage by practicing Voodoo.

Brought to Haiti aboard slave ships in the 17th century, Voodoo is a religion hidden in secrecy and symbolism — a combination of West African and Roman Catholic beliefs. It not only provides a strong sense of identity; it gives the people a Haiti an outlet to express their fears and hopes.

Hope is not often in great abundance. In the hills not far from Jacmel, workers struggle to save Haiti's deforested and the badly eroded slopes. It's not an easy task.

Nearly 70% of the country is mountainous and the soil is hard to hold in place — but even worse — for every tree planted six are chopped down. Eighty years ago 60% of the country was covered with trees. Today less than 2% remain. Uncontrolled logging and the conversion of forests into farmland has contributed to an environmental nightmare. But the use of wood as an energy source — in the form of charcoal — is the major cause of deforestation. Sold on nearly every street corner, it's easy to use and inexpensive. For the impoverished there's simply no alternative, and so the deforestation goes on, causing additional environmental and economic pressures.

Workers plant trees on hillside in Haiti

Workers plant trees on hillside in Haiti

Deforestation has affected the lives of the fishermen of Luly. Once, catches of snapper and spiny lobster used to be good enough to support a family... but not any more. Haiti's waters are over-fished. Worse, every time it rains, eroded soil washes into the sea, polluting the water and wreaking havoc on marine life.

Olivant Valcin has worked these waters all his life. Today his efforts bring little reward. He'll earn about a $1 for his labor — a sad economic fact that drives Luly's young people to Haiti's Capital, Port-au-Prince in search of work.

Many end up in Citie Soilel, the city's poorest slum. This is where 400,000 thousand people live in extreme environmental squalor. Sanitation and health care are non-existent and residents are forced to pay exorbitant prices for clean water. Poverty and frustration leads to instability, as the streets become a battle ground for rival gangs.

Funeral processions are common in Port-au-Prince. This is a country with the highest infant mortality rate and lowest life expectancy in the western hemisphere. But Haiti's chronic impoverishment is not only about a degraded environment, it's about a long history of repressive dictatorships and political corruption — factors that have influenced large scale migrations.

Poverty and frustration leads to instability as the streets become a battle ground for rival gangs.

Over the years 2 million Haitians have fled to the United States — legally and illegally. Many were boat people. Some never survived the 600 mile ordeal, and most were returned to Haiti where living conditions deteriorated and people became victims of extreme human rights violations.

Just outside of Citie Soliel is an abandoned military airfield, a reminder that American troops have occupied this country several times over the past hundred years, most recently in 1991 when more than 20,000 United States Marines were part of a UN intervention. Their objective was to restore a democratically elected government ousted by a military coup. In the end, the insurrection was put down and the troops pulled out.

Street in Port-au-Prince

Street in Port-au-Prince

But Haiti's problems deepened. The political turmoil never ended, corruption and human rights violations intensified and financial aid from most outside countries was cut off.

The problems of deforestation and poverty remain. Until they are addressed, the people of Haiti are no different than millions of others around the world — those who seek refuge from severe economic and environmental stress. It will require enormous faith on the part of the people of Haiti to overcome the hardships of the past.



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