THE BLOG
01/12/2016 04:35 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2017

Preventing the Next Disaster in Haiti

By Ellie Happel and Mark Schuller

The earthquake that rocked Port-au-Prince and killed hundreds of thousands of people six years ago today is often misrepresented as a principal cause of poverty in Haiti. Rather, the Goudougoudou, as the massive tremor is known to Haitians, unveiled and intensified the human suffering created by centuries of debt, occupation, grinding inequality, and state failure.

International attention to periodic, cataclysmic shocks--hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, political coups--too often overlooks the root causes of Haiti's instability. Haiti will remain unable to avoid disasters until it addresses its intractable, underlying problems, among them environmental degradation, and ineffective and corrupt government institutions.

Given current international attention on elections that at the very least were hampered by massive irregularities in which the government acknowledged that it failed to adequately train poll workers - which tipped the scales in favor of President Michel Martelly's ruling party - it is tempting to pin all the blame on Haiti's leaders. However, structuring the poverty and inequality that destabilize the country is a world system consistently applying pressure and draining Haiti's resources. The U.S. Occupation in 1915 set the stage for dictatorships, dependency, massive urbanization, and centralization in Port-au-Prince. This was followed by the application of neoliberal economic policies since the "transition to democracy" began in 1986.

Haitian analysts point out the differences between events like the earthquake and disasters, resulting from what scholars call "vulnerability."

Today, another potential disaster looms on the horizon, this time entirely made by humans: the risk of deleterious environmental and social impacts of industrial open-pit gold mining. Unlike an earthquake, however, the worst of these risks are predictable, and can be avoided.

On this sixth anniversary of the earthquake, Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California will host a briefing to explore the risks of gold mining in Haiti and the role of the U.S. government in supporting the Haitian state to protect human rights and the environment. The briefing will feature speakers from Oxfam America, NYU's Global Justice Clinic (GJC), and a coalition of Haitian organizations called the Kolektif Jistis Min, or Mining Justice Collective. GJC will discuss a new report, Byen Konte, Mal Kalkile? Human Rights and Environmental Risks of Gold Mining in Haiti, which it coauthored with the Haiti Justice Initiative. Byen Konte presents the findings of more than two years of field research and legal, economic, and environmental analysis.

There are no active metal mines in Haiti yet, but the Haitian government considers the mineral sector key to the country's economic growth and has encouraged foreign investment. Between 2006 and early 2013, two Canadian and two U.S. companies reportedly spent more than $30 million on exploration for gold, copper, silver, and other metals.

Company activity is currently on hold as the industry awaits adoption of a new mining law, a draft of which was written with World Bank technical support in 2014. Because the political situation remains uncertain, however, legal changes are in limbo--and so too is the future of gold mining in Haiti.

As Byen Konte demonstrates, the draft law fails to adequately protect the environment or the human rights of the Haitian people. It also falls short of protecting rights guaranteed in the Haitian Constitution, including the right to a healthy environment, the right to property, and the rights to information and participation. One proposed article--dangerously out of step with recent trends toward industry transparency--would require all mining-related information to be kept confidential for a period of ten years, effectively foreclosing meaningful public oversight of mining activities and regulatory compliance.

The strength of the legal regime governing mining in Haiti depends not only on the text of the statute but also and equally on the capacity of the State, and its ability to implement and fairly enforce those laws. On this score, there is ample evidence in Byen Konte and in Haiti's long history that the State is woefully unable at present to fulfill these obligations.

To date, the development of Haiti's mining sector has been characterized by an "information blackout." A Haitian Senator who chaired the parliamentary commission responsible for overseeing mining told the GJC that he learned the government had granted gold and copper exploitation permits via the radio. People who live in the mountainous areas of northern Haiti where companies have built paths, drilled, taken rock samples, and conducted other mineral exploration activities are similarly excluded. Some residents recount that companies entered their land without seeking their permission, and that they signed land access agreements with their thumbprints without understanding the contents. Abandoned by the government, many families in the rural north fear that if mining continues they may be left on their own to negotiate with powerful multinational companies.

Those who are well informed of the risks that gold mining poses doubt the capacity of the Haitian state to oversee such a complex and dangerous industry. A 2012 audit showed that the office responsible for energy and mining in Haiti had only five functioning vehicles. Former director of the office, Deiusel Anglade, who served in that post for more than twenty years, told reporters, "The government doesn't give us the means we need to be able to supervise the companies."

Even in countries with more robust governance and oversight institutions than Haiti, industrial-scale mining has contaminated water resources, destroyed livelihoods, increased security threats, forcibly displaced thousands of people, and damaged entire ecosystems for generations. Recent mining disasters in Brazil and the United States provide sobering reminders of the tremendous risks that Haiti faces and the enormous challenge of preventing mining-related harm.

On this anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, Haiti stands at a crossroads. For foreign mining companies, the prospect of gold mining in Haiti glitters on the horizon. For Haitian citizens, the reality of an uncertain political future, weak institutions, and widespread impoverishment glares in the foreground. Minerals can be exploited only once. Without inclusive and participatory governance, Haiti's apparent bounty of mineral resources could quickly transform into a curse.

This moment, before mining has begun, presents a unique opportunity for the Haitian people to engage in a robust public debate about the risks and benefits of mining for gold - and, hopefully, to predict and prevent avoidable mining-related disasters. Haitian community leaders are asking foreign citizens to guarantee local communities have a seat at the table, and for us to slow this juggernaut for dialogue to be possible in the first place.

Ellie Happel is the Haiti Program Attorney with the Global Justice Clinic of New York University School of Law. She is based in Port-au-Prince, where she has lived for the past four years. Ellie is also co-author of Byen Konte, Mal Kalkile? Human Rights and Environmental Risks of Gold Mining.

Mark Schuller is Associate Professor of at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d'Ethnologie, l'Université d'État d'Haïti. Supported by the National Science Foundation and others, Schuller's research on NGOs, globalization, disasters, and gender in Haiti has been published in two dozen book chapters and peer-reviewed articles. Schuller is the author or co-editor of seven books, including Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti and co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. Recipient of the Margaret Mead Award, Schuller serves on several boards, and is active in solidarity efforts.