I try not to be tender about Haiti but I’m feeling a little tender and defensive now, as I think about how hard it would be — how hard it is — to regulate environmental protection there, and why. As I noted in my last post, the Martelly government has banned the sale and distribution and importation and manufacture of plastic containers and bags as of October 1. However, as astute Associated Press reporter Trenton Daniels noted in a recent dispatch from Port-au-Prince, Haitians on the ground are happily ignoring the ban and selling bags and using plastic food containers just as if no ban had ever been announced.
Of course it’s entirely possible that most Haitians barely even knew about the ban (except for those hailed and questioned by the intrepid Daniels). But in Haiti news travels fast, even if you don’t have a radio or television, which many don’t.
Anyway by now the diligent AP has spread word of the ban through the byways and markets of the capital. Seems to me the man and woman in the street who sell the black, supermarket-style bags everyone uses (who sell the bags by the piece, just as cigarettes are sold by the piece: poverty is the master of one-by-one; there are no economies of scale for the destitute) — as I was saying, it seems to me that those vendors will sell right up until a cop comes to confiscate their wares. And knowing how economies like Haiti’s work, I assume that the cop will probably give the confiscated bags to a relative in the countryside to sell away from the watchful eyes of people like him in the capital. Or he’ll accept a small bribe himself from the vendor, and turn away.
It’s not so different in my home town, Los Angeles, where the city council debates banning plastic bags, and then it rules on the ban, and eventually it does indeed ban the things, but then the ban never seems to go into effect.
Why? Because the bags are so useful to us, at the supermarket and elsewhere. Just as the bags are so useful to Haitians. Now that Angelenos and Port-au-Princiens are used to them it’s hard to give them up. Many countries in Africa have the same problem. I know of a French travel photographer who was sent on assignment to Senegal, and was horrified when she got there because there was so much litter. And it got in her way. “I can’t take pictures of garbage.” Plastic bags in trees are not picturesque.
A friend of mine who lives in Port-au-Prince wrote recently, when considering the new ban and the whole waste/pick-up/recycling situation, that “occasionally in the past there have been [garbage] pick-ups around residential areas, but they are so rare as to be practically nonexistent.” She pointed out that Port-au-Prince produces 1,200 metric tons of garbage per day, but there is no method for collection or disposal. She and other people who can afford it pay to have their garbage picked up by a private company. Otherwise there has been no real viable sanitation plan for the capital. (Haiti is the actualization of Ronald Reagan’s dream of a country where private enterprise has replaced the state.)
Garbage hills are almost like natural phenomena in Port-au-Prince. There are some that have been growing for so long on the same corners that a frequent visitor might feel an old landmark had been lost, were these hills someday to be leveled and carted away.
Where should you dump your garbage in a country as super-populated as Haiti? Private haulers and the occasional government truck used to put garbage, when they put it anywhere, on salt-destoyed coastal plains where no one lived. But since the earthquake, even the driest, most ungiving, most sun-blasted spots have been turned into tent cities for the catastrophe’s displaced, so if you dump stuff there now, where private companies have been accustomed to dumping, you are polluting places where actual people are currently living.
The tangle of cause, effect, and consequence is very hard to sort through. You can’t blame Martelly for trying an outright ban (as long as he’s also trying to stop people from the Dominican Republic importing the stuff over the border — haven’t heard yet what’s happening there). He knows the plastic problem is out of control, and also he has a bunch of foreigners clamoring for some beautification of the Haitian landscape, both for Haitians’ sake and because bags in trees offend the outsider eye, and are no good for plans to turn Haiti into a tourist destination — like preCastro Havana, some are fantasizing.
Before these items were imported, Haitians managed quite nicely without plastic bags and containers. Port-au-Prince was not luxurious, except for the very few, and it wan’t clean because the means weren’t available to clean public places. But it wasn’t at every turn a litter spattered place, as it can seem these days.
Still, not to be sentimental, but you can go into the most extreme poverty in Haiti and watch people sweeping in front of their houses with the most anorexic-looking brooms; and washing their laundry in old gray water in buckets outside the house. The one fork and the one spoon and the two plates of the household are scrubbed and shining. This is not the exception, but the rule.
These same people, perfection in their housekeeping, will not worry about throwing a plastic food container onto the ground on Grande Rue downtown, nor will the big bourgeois, riding in his big SUV up the hill, feel any twinge of conscience as he tosses a similar container to the curb, quickly rolling the window up again to keep in the friz, Creole for air-conditioning. Since public functionaries do not make the state function for the citizen — neither for the poor woman in the shantytown nor for the rich trader in his fancy car — the Haitian citoyen is not likely to think twice before dirtying the public arena.
No ban on anything can fix this attitude, but only responsible government, properly funded, properly run. Haiti can have that — Haitians certainly want it, most of them — but it can only have a decent and transparent government of goodwill if the outsiders who control so much right now in Haiti can figure out how to militate for that, rather than for dependency and pauperism.