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A Revolution Out of Garbage in Haiti

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HAITI AID
AP

Marche Chempin in Cap Haitian, Haiti is bustling with everyday marketplace activity. To the left, men are hacking pieces of meat surrounded by flies. To the right, tables are littered with soap, deodorant, hair extensions, diapers, and safety pins. The center of the marketplace is a maze of women squatting under makeshift tents of old bed sheets and tarp, selling garlic, shelling beans, peeling carrots, sifting spinach. At their feet lie their discarded vegetable scraps, disregarded as they chatter away to each other. Hungry children wander around, pilfering whatever they can get their little hands on. It's business as usual.

Follow a winding path to the back of the marketplace and you'll find a little revolution taking place in the area behind the charcoal merchants, enclosed by the bamboo fence. A white pickup truck pulls up, and a crew of 16 Haitian youth descends, wearing crisp collared shirts and gloves. A few little children hang about, studying the activity. An old man stops by, curious, and peers in. When he sees the site and the young people running it, his face lights up, "This is exactly what we need here," he says. "How can I help?"

The youth are lugging heavy wheelbarrows and giant garbage bags filled with rotting organic waste that will become the nourishing black compost so desperately needed to bring life back into the Haitian soil destroyed by years of deforestation, erosion and chemical fertilizers. Thirty-six giant bamboo "Barbie" boxes (nicknamed because of the fluorescent pink string that ties the bamboo together) are filled with piles of organic waste in various stages of composting. The heap near the entrance has turned almost entirely into a nutrient-rich black.

I hop into the back of the truck and head off with Wilner and six others as they make the waste collection rounds. We first stop at a few participating restaurants. Heading through the back alleys into the kitchen, a cheerful woman stirring a giant pot nods her head towards an overflowing giant black garbage bag surrounded by flies. Three or four restaurants later, we hit a marketplace. The young crew descends, and immediately gets to work. Every few feet, one stops to gather vegetable scraps under the feet of a vendor. Bags fill up and are dumped in back of the pickup truck.

Wilner shares with me as an older woman sweeps the bean pods from under her table to hand to him. "We attract a lot of attention because we're young, well dressed, and well mannered. We don't look like people who would collect trash," he says. "Some people are suspicious -- why would we want their trash? But we don't mind. Others are very curious as to why we're doing this and when they understand, they're inspired, and want to help us."

We pass by two middle-aged merchants who gossip about me "the foreigner" as I walk by. They call out to me in Kreyol, "What are you doing here?" At first I walk by, then I turn back and respond in Kreyol, "I'm their teacher." Grinning, they respond, "You should be proud."

And I am proud. These young men and women have just completed three months of intensive leadership training in community empowerment and sustainable development through the Nouvelle Vie Haiti program, a project of the International Association for Human Values. They were selected because of their capacity to innovate and inspire and their tireless dedication to volunteer service. They're helping Haiti battle the resignation -- reinforced time and again by failed leadership and broken trust -- that in Haiti, things can never change.

The unique cornerstone of Nouvelle Vie Haiti is to shift the mindset of an entire generation. Wilner and the rest of his team are doing just that. They have learned that true leadership means taking responsibility for both oneself and one's community. These youth are pushing Haiti forward with local, sustainable solutions to key challenges they want to address in their communities -- like gender issues, trauma, environmental degradation, and lack of food. Nouvelle Vie Haiti co-creates low-resource solutions to help these youth leaders bring progress to Haiti from within, rather than wait for aid from without. It is short-sighted for the international community to swoop in with aid but forget that these young leaders are the future of Haiti. Only with dedicated attention to developing their frame of mind and capacity can this next generation change Haiti.

Leaders like Elmane who, back at the Barbie boxes, is following the miraculous compost recipe. She shovels a layer of carbon-rich bagasse (dry brown waste) onto a heap of vegetable scraps in a newly constructed box. Patrick waters and turns the compost and steam rises as heat activates microorganisms that will transform the waste into nutritious soil. In the back corner grows the small vegetable nursery of swiss chard, beans, and tomatoes that Lesly tends to, shaded by palm leaves. Vines have been planted throughout to eventually cover the entire area with natural shade.

Finishing up the waste pick up rounds, Wilner's crew heads back to the truck to deliver our yield to Elmane and her team. On our way out, a tiny girl toddles up to us with a shy grin on her face. She hands over two clammy fistfuls of orange peels. "Me, too," she says. We smile back at her and nod, then we move on.

For more information, please visit www.nouvelleviehaiti.org. This project was funded by USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI).

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