For Haitian Artisans, Recycling Is Survival

The Caribbean nation of Haiti is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, suffering 60 to 80 percent unemployment, a longstanding AIDS epidemic and environmental devastation. But one of the country’s many challenges, garbage, has become a tool for sustainable development.

“Because people are poor and hungry, they cut trees and the environment is destroyed,” says second-generation Haitian metal craftsman Jean-Wilbert Bruno. Only two percent of Haiti’s once-lush mountain forests remain; much of the rest is used for fuel. The deforestation ag-gravates flooding and soil erosion, leaving little arable land for subsistence farming and adding to the mountains of garbage cluttering the landscape.

“It’s hard to find a street that isn’t completely littered,” says Hugh Locke, executive director of Yelé Haiti, a foundation established in 2005 by Haitian-born musician Wyclef Jean. Locke says Haiti lacks regular municipal sanitation services and garbage is still relatively low on the embattled federal government’s priority list.

But refuse has become a key way for Haitians to tackle poverty. In Croix des Bouquets, scavenged 55-gallon oil drums are the raw material for rough-hewn yet delicately detailed metal sculptures called fer de coupe. Craftspeople cut the drums apart, hammer them flat, draw a design with chalk, then hand-chisel them into the desired shapes. In Jacmel, papier-mã{99}
é artists fashion old cement bags into carnival masks. In Port-au-Prince, street kids collect white plastic jugs, snippets of which they shape into graceful floral pins and AIDs fundraiser ribbons.

“Haitian craft is defined by recycling, an important strategy in a country with little in the way of resources [and] money to import,” says Alden Smith, Haiti program officer with the nonprofit Aid to Artisans. And the color and texture of the materials makes for a unique and quirky aesthetic. Moreover, he says, creating “junk” art “creates buyers and sellers of garbage, and eases the trash problem a little.”

ATA’s and Yelé Haiti’s efforts are part of a steady trend of small collaborative projects and training programs. The goal: jump-starting a former $30 million craft industry that crashed after the 1994 UN trade embargo but remains the number two source of employment.

Cement bags become bowls.© aid to artisans

The strategy seems to be working, with Haitian objets d”art appearing everywhere from the shelves of Neiman-Marcus to the Ten Thousand Villages website. Garden stores snap up the oil-drum sculptures. Artisans can make a decent, if not always steady, living. Pierre-Richard Desrosiers runs his own shop and helps support a family of eight children through his signature line of painted, seaweed-shaped bowls made from scrap metal he finds near airports and factories.

Craftwork, Locke observes, is “an irrepressible part of Haitian culture, with a great deal of potential that hasn’t been fully tapped.”