How to put a brake on the Haitian exodus

The thousands of Haitians flocking to the United States are political refugees -- that is, refugees from the politics of poverty. In spite of the $75 million aid pouring into Haiti each year ($25 million from the US), the effects are disappointingly slow. Too much is being tried with too little. The aid programs lack focus and fail to concentrate on root causes of poverty -- overpopulation, deforestation, and natural resource depletion. Needed is a US- funded job program that would tackle these problems.

Once known as the "Pearl of the Antilles," Haiti is now one of the poorest countries on earth. The last of the trees of a once lush Caribbean country are being felled by peasants trying to eke out a meager existence (30 to 40 cents a day) by making charcoal which serves as the main source of energy in Haiti. The Haitians ar literally burning their future.

Some estimate that 40 percent of the income of the urban poor is spent to purchase charcoal to cook the daily meal. Thus, Haitians have been forced to give up one hot meal each day and to reduce consumption of foods that require cooking. This contributes to the malnutrition suffered by three-quarters of Haitian children.

The mountain sides have been stripped of lush vegetation needed to cool the earth, induce rainfall, and to intercept rain, allowing it to infiltrate into the soil rather than rushing unimpeded downslope, causing foods and accelerating erosion. haiti is now beset with drought, floods and hurricanes, and the peasant, undernourished, sich and illiterate, reels under the blows. Those who can scrape together the money to pay passage, join the "boat people" in what has become Haiti's most infamous export -- people.

The major factor contributing to this year's steep increase in the number of illegal immigrants is knowledge that the United States is not sending them back. As one refugee cried, "It would be a political crime to send us back to Haiti, where there are no jobs, condemning us to a life of poverty and hunger." If the Haitian government tried to stop the flow of refugees, it would create anger and resentment at home as well as cries of political repression from abroad.

Some 20 percent of the 5 million population of Haiti fled the fiefdom of the notoriously brutal regime of the late "Papa Doc" and his Tonton Macoutes. Today's Tonton Macoutes ar overpopulation, deforestation, and erosion.

The US can reduce today's exodus from Haiti, thus lessening its burden, by providing meaningful jobs there. To do so, it must effectively attack a basic cause of poverty -- the deterioration of the resource base that prevents increasing agricultural production. this results in the stagnation of an already bankrupt economy and a Malthusian nightmare.

Many people, Haitian and foreign, see industry and agricultural self-sufficiency as the only long-term solution for Haiti. However, Haitian agriculture is increasingly unable to feed its growing population. Agricultural production cannot be increased until the denuded hillsides ar revegetated, erosion checked, and the water flow stabilized. a major effort to restore the environment of Haiti is imperative. The United States should take the lead by funding a movement in Haiti similar to our CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), which planted trees and carried out soil conservation measures in the 1980s. This Corps was an unarmed paramilitary organization formed to give jobs to the masses of unemployed during the depression and to restore the environment destroyed during the disastrous dust bowl era of the '30s.

Such a movement in Haiti would give the destitute potential refugees jobs, shelter, clothing, and food at a much lower cost than welfare payments in the US. It would allow them to maintain their dignity while rebuilding Haiti's natural resource base and braking the impasse of poverty. such a corps would provide a mechanism for supervision by an organization, such as Amnesty International, to insure that returning refugees would not be persecuted.

The refugee problem is not easy to solve while preserving our American heritage of welcoming the world's "huddled masses." Such masses of humanity may soon overwhelm our absorptive capacity, especially during the current serious economic recession.

"The case has never been stronger than it is today for the United States to extend the leadership that is needed," says one high- level official. "nothing less than survival is at stake." This is the opportune moment to launch a desperately needed effort to overcome Haiti's losing battle against poverty and at the same time reduce the flow of refugees -- refugees from the politics of poverty.

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