Week of 01/24/10

Dear EarthTalk: What are the primary environmental concerns in the aftermath of the big earthquake in Haiti?

—Frank Dover, Portland, OR

As would be the case after any natural disaster, water-borne illness could run rampant and chemicals and oil could leak out of damaged storage facilities as a result of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that ripped apart Haiti on January 12. Surprisingly, no large industrial spills have been found during initial post-quake rescue efforts, but of course the focus has been on saving human lives and restoring civil order.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the biggest issue is the building waste; some 40 to 50 percent of the buildings fell in Port-au-Prince and nearby towns. "Thousands of buildings suddenly become debris and this overwhelms the capacity of waste management," says UNEP’s Muralee Thummarukudy, who is directing efforts to collect the waste for use in reconstruction projects.

Even before the quake Haiti had major environmental problems. Intensive logging beginning in the 1950s reduced Haiti’s forest cover from 60 percent to less than two percent today. This lack of trees causes huge soil erosion problems, threatening both food and clean water sources for throngs of hungry and thirsty people. "If you have forest cover, when heavy rain takes place it doesn’t erode the land," UNEP’s Asif Zaidi reports. "It doesn’t result in flash floods." He adds that, due to its lack of forest cover, Haiti suffers much more during hurricanes than does the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Even before the earthquake Haiti had major environmental and economic problems. Intensive logging beginning in the 1950s has reduced Haiti's forest cover from 60 percent to less than two percent today. This lack of trees causes huge soil erosion problems, threatening both food and clean water sources for throngs of hungry and thirsty people. The earthquake has only exacerbated problems in this country of 9.7 million people that is the poorest in the Western hemisphere.© Remi Kaupp, Wikipedia

Compounding these ecological insults is Haiti’s fast growing population, now 9.7 million and growing by 2.5 percent per year. This has pushed millions of Haitians into marginal areas like floodplains and on land that could otherwise be used profitably. "Most fertile land areas are often used for slums, while hillsides and steep landscapes are used for agriculture," reports USAID’s Beth Cypser. The resulting sanitation problems have stepped up cases of dysentery, malaria and drug-resistant tuberculosis among Haiti’s poverty-stricken population. Trash-filled beaches, smelly waterways, swarms of dead fish and tons of floating debris stand testament to Haiti’s water pollution problems—now exacerbated by the earthquake.

"We need to
create mechanisms that reinforce better use of natural resources,” says UNEP’s Zaidi. Prior to the quake, UNEP had committed to a two-year project to bolster to restore Haiti’s forests, coral reefs and other natural systems compromised by the island’s economic problems. Providing access to propane to encourage a shift from charcoal-burning stoves is an immediate goal. Longer term, UNEP hopes the program will help kick-start reforestation efforts and investments in renewable energy infrastructure there.

Perhaps the silver lining of the earthquake in Haiti is the fact that millions of people around the world now know about the plight of the country’s people and environment, and donations have started to pour in. Anyone interested in helping relief efforts in Haiti can send a text message triggering a small donation to the American Red Cross (text "HAITI" to 90999 and $10 will be donated and added to your next phone bill). Those concerned about clean water specifically should donate to World Water Relief, a non-profit focusing on the installation of water filtration systems in Haiti and other distressed areas of the world.

CONTACTS: USAID; UNEP; American Red Cross; World Water Relief.

Dear EarthTalk: We’ve all heard about the abysmal food served in prison, as well as the economical, nutritional and even therapeutic value of growing one’s own food. Are there any agricultural programs or garden projects in U.S. prisons?

—Jerry Mullins, Tennessee Colony, TX

Several prisons in the U.S. and Canada are embracing the notion of getting inmates involved in on-site food production. Proponents say inmates who participate have a much lower rate of re-offense once they return to life on the outside and tend to adopt healthier, more constructive lifestyles. Pictured: An inmate tends the garden at the McNeil Island Corrections Center near Steilacoom, Washington.© McNeil Island Corrections Center.

While there is no nationwide program administering prison agriculture programs, various individual prisons across the country are embracing the notion of getting inmates involved in on-site food production and agricultural research. According to Howard Clinebill, a Ph.D. who has written extensively about environmental psychology, prison gardens offer people looking to turn their lives around a place to reconnect with their natural rhythms, get healthy exercise in the fresh air, work cooperatively with others and care for the Earth in a healing manner.

Perhaps the best known prison garden project in the U.S. is at the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, California, where inmates have been working steadily since the mid-1980s to clear away weeds and rubble from some eight acres "inside the fence" and replace them with fresh-grown vegetables—some of which make their way into prison meals while others are donated to needy food banks, housing projects and senior centers. According to program coordinator Catherine Sneed, who pioneered the project, participating inmates learn not only practical skills but also report that they are better able to communicate with one another and resolve disputes amicably.

"Each person cares for particular plants and learns, by watching them grow, the true nature of this life: growth, renewal and perseverance," Sneed reports. "Somewhere during the time spent quietly working the Earth, something happens and something changes. Witnessing the cycle of growth and renewal allows the prisoners to see their own potential for growth and change." She adds that program "graduates" have a much lower rate of re-offense once they have served their sentences and return to life on the outside.

Further north, at Washington State’s McNeil Island Corrections Center, a team of students from nearby Evergreen State College has been working with inmates there for the last couple of years to turn a one acre patch of grass into a field of organic tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins and other veggies used by the prison kitchen for meals. A small on-site composting unit keeps the soil healthy. Inmates manage McNeil Island’s garden as part of their work detail on the prison’s horticultural crew, and plan to expand into additional grassy acreage during the coming year.

Meanwhile, in Canada’s British Columbia province, a pilot project at Matsqui, a federal women’s prison near Vancouver, has been successful in teaching an ethic of stewardship, respect for natural processes, and a sense of accomplishment. Inmates worked with landscape architects to develop of master plan and then implemented their designs with native ornamental and food plants. "The garden is a learning environment that allows people to slow down, listen, look, and learn on many levels," reports University of British Columbia landscape architect Tracy Penner, who helped launch and continues to work with the Matsqui program. "When released, these gardeners are more successful at integrating into society
with an ability to grow and adopt healthier, more constructive lifestyles."

CONTACTS: San Francisco County Jail; McNeil Island Cor

rections Center; Sustainable Prisons Project.

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