We are used to hearing that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Recently, Haiti’s devastating earthquake has focused the world’s attention on this beleaguered nation and its long-suffering people. Yet rarely do we hear that at one point in its history, Haiti was the wealthiest colony in the New World. The coffers of its colonizer, France, swelled with the riches extracted from Haitian sugar cane and coffee plantations.
So how have things gone so wrong for this country? Years of economic and political chaos in Haiti have led to environmental devastation and crushing poverty. The two are inextricably linked. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Haiti
shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic (DR). The DR was colonized by the Spanish, and luckily for the population of the DR, the Spanish were more focused on extracting gold from Mexico than developing sugar cane and coffee plantations in the Dominican. Haiti, which was three quarters covered with forests when Europeans first came, is now 99% deforested. In contrast, the Dominican Republic remains one third covered in forests. Haiti’s lack of trees contributes to mud slides, flooding, and soil erosion that greatly increase the suffering of the Haitian population during natural disasters like hurricanes and tropical storms which hit the island regularly. Their neighbours in the Dominican Republic generally suffer far fewer deaths during these disasters. Reforestation efforts in Haiti are hampered by the widespread poverty and lack of alternate fuel sources; without other alternates, desperately poor people cut down any trees that have been planted to use in heating and cooking.
Haiti’s environmental destruction serves as a warning lesson to others that the destruction of our natural environment comes with a price that future generations will bear. It underscores
the need to follow and strengthen environmental regulations – not undercut them. For example, the Canadian province of Alberta is currently flush with oil money at great expense to its natural environment. The Alberta tar sands are the “dirtiest project on earth” according to the Council of Canadians. George Monbiot, a British author and environmental activist, describes the oil sands this way:
Canada is developing the world’s second largest reserve of oil. Did I say oil? It’s actually a filthy mixture of bitumen, sand, heavy metals and toxic organic chemicals. The tar sands, most of which occur in Alberta, are being extracted by the biggest opencast mining operation on earth. An area the size of England, of pristine forests and marshes, will be dug up, unless the Canadians can stop this madness. Already it looks like a scene from the end of the world: the strip-miners are creating a churned black hell on an unimaginable scale.
To extract oil from this mess, it needs to be heated and washed. Three barrels of water are used to process one barrel of oil. The contaminated water is held in vast tailing ponds, some of which are so toxic that the tar companies employ people to scoop dead birds off the surface. Most are unlined. They leak organic poisons, arsenic and mercury into the rivers. The First Nations people living downstream have developed a range of exotic cancers and auto-immune diseases.
Refining tar sands requires two to three times as much energy as refining crude oil. The companies exploiting them burn enough natural gas to heat six million homes. Alberta’s tar sands operation is the world’s biggest single industrial source of carbon emissions. By 2020, if the current growth continues, it will produce more greenhouse gases than Ireland or Denmark. Already, thanks in part to the tar mining, Canadians have almost the highest per capita emissions on earth, and the stripping of Alberta has scarcely begun.
While Haitians’ environmental situation has been caused by centuries of economic and political chaos, Canadians know better. In the 21st century, none of us can claim with integrity that we don’t know that there is a price to be paid when we wantonly destroy the environment for short-term material gain. We live in a stable democratic country, one of the richest in the world. Canada can do better. Send your elected representatives the message that Canadians choose the path of long-term economic and environmental stability for ourselves and future generations.
To learn more about the Alberta tar sands, watch this video from the Council of Canadians, and then go here to sign their petition telling Canadian leaders to stop this madness. The Alberta-based Pembina Institute’s Oil Sands Watch is a good place to get more information about the tar sands.