A Permaculture Strategy for Port-au-Prince

As Evan Hansen noted in an earlier post, the Haitian recovery will have to be down to earth, literally. Local food production is invaluable in a country where people struggle to feed themselves. For advice on this I sought out Geoff Lawton of the Australian Permaculture Research Institute. He answered my questions about how to strategize and deploy sustainable permaculture solutions across the country.

EVAN O'NEIL: Given the ecological degradation in Haiti, and the need for food and fuel, how can permaculture projects help rehabilitate the landscape and provide sustainable livelihoods?

GEOFF LAWTON: Permaculture projects can help through a holistic design approach that integrates people's ability, ingenuity, and skill-sets with the available resources that are locally understood. Integrating local people's skills together with local resources can increase community members' sense of self-reliance, have a unifying effect on the community, and empower local people to provide for their own needs, with the minimum amount of assistance from the outside world.

This process fosters and creates a sense of independence for local people in a situation that can be portrayed by the outside media as insurmountable. So the psychological and physical result of permaculture projects is that it creates a beneficial turnaround for the people and the landscape from a disaster situation to a meaningful future and recovery.

EO: What role can permaculture play in urban environments such as Port-au-Prince?

GL: Major solutions emerge out of major problematic situations. In Port-au-Prince, there are many solutions that can emerge, including the restructuring of built infrastructure in a way that creates hard-surface water runoff aimed at productive urban gardens; creating a microclimate through the recycling and redesign of the landscape; and implementing biological cleaning of urban grey- and blackwater waste.

Organic materials can be converted into high-quality inoculum compost useful for the production of extremely high-nutrient-dense food gardens within the urban and peri-urban landscape, where gardens would also include small animal systems, small aquatic systems, and medicinal food gardens.

Introducing and demonstrating appropriate alternate energy systems that can operate on a low economic investment and supply people with electricity would be an ideal inclusion and inspiration for local people as part of an empowerment and cooperative model.

A key reference and example for what is possible is given in the case of Cuba, with further information being available at www.pathtofreedom.com.

EO: Organizationally is there a management or ownership structure that you’ve found most sustainable? Do permaculture projects work best at a certain scale?

GL: The organizational structure most suitable for permaculture projects is management by a local nongovernmental organization operating as a nonprofit education and demonstration entity, where information is networked by the project locally, nationally, regionally, and internationally with the support and partnership of an internationally connected nonprofit NGO. This helps to pool the international skills and experience of its students, teachers, administrators, and project managers.

The education center functions best when it teaches courses for 25–35 people per site, and it is crucial that the education facility be open not just to local students but also to international students who are prepared to pay first-world international prices for education and internship programs and are inspired and encouraged by the fact their tuition provides a major part of the project's funding.

The infrastructure on these projects needs to operate as a dual-function example of local and renewable housing—i.e., energy efficient, constructed of local materials which are readily available, and affordable to local people.

An ideal land area for a project is a site that is typical of local land use, somewhere where the land is no longer productive or is a difficult production area for local people; somewhere where the land is not the worst, or the most difficult land and not the best or ideal land, but a piece of land that represents an average example of what local people have to deal with in their everyday life.

EO: How would you strategize the best sites around the country? Are there any challenges unique to the Haitian landscape?

GL: The over-exploitation of natural resources and the depletion of biodiversity in the landscape of Haiti creates a situation where the prioritization of good key-point positions in the landscape would be an imperative for a fast result, and getting a fast result would be a powerful way to inspire local people to extend and replicate the permaculture model. A key strategy is to identify specific water-harvesting points at the tops to the mid-slopes of watersheds, in order to supply gravity irrigation and organic nutrient flow to areas that are appropriately shallow in slope for an intensified, diverse, and interconnected productive yield.

These systems need to be set up within a practical distance of the population so that numbers of local people can be involved in the implementation and establishment, and through their involvment in this process they can get the added educational benefit of acquiring new knowledge and skills that can support them in supporting themselves, now and into the future.

EO: Some conservation organizations use the concept of cores and corridors to protect wildlife. Are there analogous benefits in permaculture? Would it make sense, for example, to connect farms to the national parks, or to the forested Dominican border, in a larger green network?

GL: Ecosystemic processes and principles are inherent and central within the design science of permaculture planning and recovery and blend perfectly with natural and conservation forest ecosystems within a contoured corridor pattern, watershed dendritic pattern, and also along human transport routes, within the urban or larger landscape area. Permaculture project designs always emphasize the integration and integrating benefits of harmonizing with natural landscape forms and profiles.

[PHOTO CREDIT: Manioc on a steep slope. By Nick Hobgood (CC).]


Climate Patriotism Will Only Cause More Problems

Robert Dujarric writes in the Christian Science Monitor that the Obama administration should appeal to patriotism to get Americans motivated to kick the oil addiction. Bush tried this approach back in 2006, but his weak solution was to fund more research (a form of delay) and to prioritize ethanol (which often equates to oil hidden in fertilizers and pesticides, and has unsavory consequences for world food prices).

Dujarric notes that historically in times of war the U.S. government has successfully played the patriot card for various goals: recruiting, war bonds, rationing, etc. Sociologically this argument is dead. America today is a post-sacrifice dreamland. In an economy driven by consumption, there are no costs, only opportunities.

[This is the fluff fed to the American people through marketing, from the bully pulpit (go to war and lower taxes), and by a media that sanitizes the true human experience of war or revolution. (The photos leaked from Abu Ghraib were an exception to this taboo, and the Neda Sultan video a stark intrusion of the Real.) Little wonder our fictional visual media constantly grow more casual, visceral, celebratory, and creative in their depiction of torture and murder. The problem is less that these media motivate violence and more that they are an expression of our repressed refusal to maturely engage the ongoing violence and evil of our world, whether banal or dramatic—poverty, rapes in Congo, strip mining.]

Practically speaking Obama has been reluctant to coax or force people into cutting oil consumption. During the campaign he rejected the idea of raising gasoline taxes, which would have satisfied Dujarric's desire to make life harder for authoritarian petrocrats. And now the administration is handcuffed by the need to stimulate the economy, while the underlying fundamental problem has not been solved: the economy equals pollution. Dujarric rightly notes that the global recession has been the only effective means of slowing emissions.

But the major fault line in his argument is its appeal to a very retrograde expression of patriotism, one based on fear, hate, enemies, and "the other." Gone are the days when we can blanket lump and demonize a "foreign" people to accomplish domestic or international goals. Destabilization of regimes and democracy promotion of this stripe is dead.

If Obama wants to appeal to American patriotism, he should elevate the debate. Americans pride themselves on being the type of people who don't run from their responsibilities. And when you look at current, cumulative, and per capita emissions, Americans bear a lot of responsibility for the current crisis.

Going forward, successful nations will be defined less by whom they confront, and more by what they can construct (and how they share it). This in the end is one symbolic lesson of the falling towers of 9/11: What have we built?

Given the urgency of global warming, the situation has moved past specific battles like saving polar bears to the idea of saving civilization. But this requires that we also be civilized. To achieve this, honesty is the change people have been waiting for, not jingoism.

Aid and Technology Innovation Intersect for Haiti

I sat in on a conference call yesterday with Forum One and OneWorld U.S. concerning the use of technology to direct earthquake relief and recovery funds to Haiti. There were some innovative orgs on the line, many of which have already been covered extensively in the media, so I'll just summarize some of the main points here.

Michaela Hackner of Forum One emphasized the transformation we're witnessing as charities reach out to people online and through their mobile devices. She said the crux of the new paradigm is money, connections, and awareness. You could also add speed: Michaela cited stats from the Red Cross indicating that they raised $10 million in 48 hours via text-message donations.

There is also software springing up to assist aid workers, such as the Ushahidi Haiti map, and a Creole translation app emerging out of Crisis Camp. Of course with the new frontier that digital technologies make possible there is also room for abuse, such as the false rumor that American Airlines would be donating relief flights.

Michaela's key conclusion was that humanitarian and development aid and technology innovators need to get in the same room to understand challenges and share data. This would not only make the current response more effective, but could also help with longer-term questions of planning, transparency, and sustainability.

Andy Carvin of NPR presented a high-resolution map of Port-au-Prince that volunteers have helped build from satellite imagery, tagging hospital locations and other useful data. He said the map is downloadable to GPS devices for navigating the city. He also mentioned the Google People Finder tool, which the State Department has embedded on their website.

Jacob Colker of The Extraordinaries described a crowd-sourced system whereby global volunteers help process missing persons data from their home computers. Haiti earthquake images are pulled from news stories and Flickr and uploaded to a system where volunteers tag the photos with various characteristics—female, living, etc.—to populate a search engine. Matches in the search engine are then used to try and identify or connect people on the ground. He said that of 750 potential matches generated this way they had tried to reach out to 60 families, but had found it very difficult to get in contact.

Clearly some of these collaborations and projects are in early stages and rapid response mode, but there is a lot of potential for funding long-term, innovative crisis management strategies and technology infrastructure.

[PHOTO CREDIT: Georgia Popplewell (CC).]

#DontForgetHaiti, How Social Media Can Help the Restoration

I attended a great Social Media Week panel on the future of Haiti yesterday at the New York Times. While the majority of the discussion analyzed social media and citizen journalism in crisis zones, several Haiti-specific lessons also emerged. Here's video; below are my highlights from the panel.


Jason Cone, communications director for Médécins sans Frontières (aka MSF or Doctors without Borders), said that the Haiti earthquake had really been a "game-changer" for his organization. Subscribers to their social media platforms multiplied rapidly and he said that going forward social media would likely be the "most important place we interact with the public," outstripping their main website and the traditional press release model. Their Twitter feed pretty much speaks for itself.

MSF had staff already working in Haiti when the quake hit, so first priority was to make sure their people were alright. The staff mobilized for disaster relief but found that they were "rapidly blazing through emergency supplies," which was compounded by their relief planes not being allowed to land in Port-au-Prince. The control tower was down at the airport and the U.S. Air Force had taken over to direct traffic, but coordination was difficult and MSF planes were diverted to the Dominican Republic multiple times.

This prompted MSF to engage the U.S. Air Force on its Twitter page, with an assist from NBC journalist Ann Curry. Saying to herself, "Lives are at stake," Ann decided to reach out through personal channels to Adm. Mike Mullen to lobby on behalf of MSF and secure access for its relief supplies, including an inflatable hospital. She had seen MSF doctors working literally at gunpoint in other conflict zones and had admiration for the organization's effectiveness. Eventually her networking plus MSF's use of traditional contacts to coordinate flights paid off, but Cone said it was a "firestarter to have this conversation online."


Moderator Andrew Rasiej of Personal Democracy Forum asked Rob Mackey of the New York Times Lede blog how they filter social media to find relevant information when a major event floods the web with status updates. Mackey indicated that live blogging the 2008 Mumbai attack was nearly impossible, but that techniques have improved since then. The location feature can be useful, but it is still necessary to investigate and verify a person's details. For example, as we saw with the Iran election, Twitter users were encouraged to change their locations to Tehran in "I am Spartacus" solidarity with the protesters, to make it harder for authorities to track and persecute people.

One method is to find a nodal person on the ground such as a photographer and build a filter based on their contacts. Ann Curry did something similar with Luke Renner, a humanitarian worker based in Cap-Haïtien prior to the quake. He reached out to her via Twitter and gave her his phone number. She put him in touch with NBC Nightly News, they vetted him, and the next day she was interviewing him live as cohost of the Today Show.

Later that day her team was en route to Haiti and trying to figure out how to connect with Luke once there, as most of the communications channels were down or unreliable. Through a mix of Blackberries, Twitter, satellite phones, and Skype they eventually managed to coordinate a rendezvous at the airport. Ann's experience of watching Luke start to double as a humanitarian and a citizen journalist drove home the message that "Twitter is teaching people the power of information."

Rasiej asked whether citizen journalism and Haiti have changed our relationship with traditional media. Mackey responded that the change began during the Iran election when hundreds of YouTube videos were uploaded daily. He said that when you're relying on anonymous sources from the web you have to have a transparent discussion with your audience about that fact. Rasiej noted that in some cases the veracity of video clips has even been crowd-sourced, with viewers pointing out continuity mistakes in the shadows of different scenes.

Curry described an emerging ethos where people with useful info express a "real wish to serve" and a desire to "be part of a force for good" by passing that info to the right people or simply retweeting it to their networks. But the buck stops with the reputation of the journalist when it comes to responsibility for vetting the info. If you let yourself be misled you will end up misleading. She mentioned that a lot of biased info came out of Iran, specifically regarding torture, and it was "never backed up."

Cone noted that it is easier to preserve neutrality in a humanitarian situation like Haiti than in a political crisis like Iran. In the case of MSF, their effectiveness depends on depoliticization. He said that in Haiti they turned to traditional radio interviews to debunk rumors that going to a hospital meant certain amputation.


After seeing the horrible human devastation of the earthquake, Curry feels that a lot of humanitarian workers and Haitian citizens alike will need post-traumatic stress counseling. Cone agreed, noting that they have already started to rotate out some of their original response staff, debriefing them in the Dominican Republic. Curry says that seeing bodies everywhere and looking into the eyes of people you know are going to die provokes a lot of survivor's guilt. Psychological restoration in Haiti will be an important component of long-term stability.

On that note, Andrew Rasiej asked whether social media could be used to keep attention focused on Haiti. Cone said MSF will continue its social media efforts despite reconstruction stories being less dramatic than the original event. Ann Curry noted the media's tendency to lapse into disaster fatigue, citing the bloody and drawn-out conflict in Congo, which Nick Kristof revisited again in a recent column. She said network coverage of Haiti started to fade while the topic was still trending high on Twitter. This prompted her to go to her boss and ask if they should cover it more. [Used in this way, there can be self-reinforcing feedback with trend metrics, as people tend to tweet what they're exposed to—a new media Ouroboros.]

Curry also predicted that social media would continue to nourish niche knowledge, speculating that disasters will leave in their wake a "tough core group that continues to be informed," which pretty much sums up the HaitiRewired mission. Rasiej cited stats about mobile phone penetration worldwide, saying we might see global consciousness before we know it, even in places like Congo.


Several elements emerge from this picture as key focal points for the HaitiRewired community: Fund-raising, Distributed energy, Mobile phones, and Psychological restoration.

It's clear that the success of text-message donations in this crisis means that we'll see a proliferation of organizations using such services the next time disaster strikes somewhere. In this vein, it may also be relevant to explore microfinancing and peer-to-peer donations as a source of sustainable development income.

Communication on the ground is crucial in emergencies, making mobile phone service a priority in Haiti. Of course, the phones and other relief services need power that can't be knocked out easily, which is why a distributed network of energy sources is necessary for resilience.

Finally, the psychosocial restoration of Haiti must be taken into account when exploring design options for urban infrastructure. Of course, the greatest stress relief for the Haitian people would be an end to their crushing poverty.

[PHOTO CREDIT: Georgia Popplewell (CC).]