01/17/2013 02:10 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

Could the Road to Haiti's Recovery Run Through French Guiana?

Shortly after the January 12th earthquake rocked southern Haiti three years ago, an intriguing suggestion was made by Abdoulaye Wade, the then president of Senegal. Thinking about the devastating conditions facing displaced residents of Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, and other cities leveled by the quake, President Wade offered Haitian refugees a chance to resettle in his country, a stable, albeit poor, nation at the western end of Africa's semi-arid Sahel. While a planeload of Haitian students took him up on the offer in October 2010, the idea never resulted in the trans-Atlantic exodus that Wade might have envisioned. Still, it led me to ponder a resettlement solution that might be more plausible.

One avenue for relieving pressure on Haiti's over-taxed relief efforts could involve controlled emigration to an area where displaced Haitians would develop agricultural management practices and other skills applicable to the climate and geography of the Caribbean. If executed properly, this initiative could serve the dual goals of encouraging sustainable self-sufficiency and incubating best practices for the redevelopment of Haiti. A candidate location for such a project is a sparsely populated Francophone territory several hundred miles southeast of Haiti, French Guiana.

Rebuilding Haiti will require a radical rethink of the country's settlement patterns and economic structure. With an estimated population density of more than 900 people per square mile, Haiti is a crowded country. Spread across ridges and valleys in the western third of Hispaniola, Haiti, the poorest nation in the Americas, has a severely under-developed infrastructure. Three out of every four roads are unpaved, electricity is delivered intermittently by generators running on imported fuel, and social services, where they exist, are insufficient to meet demand. Denuded mountain slopes in rural areas stand as testament to centuries of deforestation and agricultural mismanagement by colonial planters, rapacious regimes, and subsistence farmers. With less than two percent of its original forest cover remaining, Haiti, in stark contrast to its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, has become a land of barren hills. With each passing year, these mounds steadily erode into the country's lowland valleys and coastal plains on their way to the Caribbean Sea, causing devastating mudslides in port cities like Gonaïves during the most severe tropical storms.

Housing, educating, and employing all Haitians would be tough under the best of circumstances, but with many left homeless by the earthquake in southern Haiti, the challenges have multiplied. Even with billions in debt forgiveness and foreign aid support from international organizations like the European Union, the situation on the ground remains bleak, with cholera and exposure to the elements contributing to a sense of hopelessness in squalid shantytown camps.

Regional neighbors like Canada and the United States relaxed their immigration policies to deal with the disaster, but in both countries, the measures only allowed for temporary stays, delayed deportations, or adoptions of orphaned children. If the international community really hopes to pivot Haiti towards a more sustainable recovery, it should consider ways for Haitians to develop the tools needed for rebuilding their devastated nation.

French Guiana represents the sort of transitional economy, party developed, partly developing, that could serve as a template for growth in Haiti over the next several decades. Though it is an overseas department of France, French Guiana is not as rich as its metropolitan counterparts. GDP per capita in the South American territory, at approximately 14,000 Euros, is about half that of France. The region's unemployment rate, sitting north of 20 percent, is roughly double that registered in the European departments. Still, French Guiana is considered legally as French as Brittany or Champagne, and thus benefits from inclusion in programs and initiatives of the European Union. This could prove helpful in providing expertise and material support for pilot resettlement projects for displaced Haitians.

A small but growing percentage of Guiana's energy is derived from hydroelectricity, a viable option for re-application in Haiti's mountainous interior. French Guiana's economic activities include timber processing, commercial fishing, and eco-tourism, sectors that could be transferable to Haiti given proper understanding forest and fishery management there. In addition, French Guiana offers room for a large scale program of temporary resettlement and retraining. The Austria-sized territory, covering nearly 32,300 square miles, is three times the size of Haiti but has less than 3 percent of its population. Much of its densely forested interior is sparsely inhabited. It might make sense to allocate a section of Guiana for model farms and factories as a sort of training ground for a renewed Haiti.

Some might question the motivation for establishing a large intentional community of Haitians in the South American jungle. First, the idea of model settlements as instructive tools for agroecological and social development is not new, as evidenced by the kibbutzim in Israel and the Millennium Villages spread across sub-Saharan Africa. While the relief profile of French Guiana is much flatter than that of Haiti, both lie within rainy areas of the tropics, and crops like rice, sugarcane and manioc grow in both places. Second, I think it would be better for international organizations and donor countries to preempt and enable emigration from Haiti before conditions push people towards risky attempts at escaping the country's poverty. Third, my suggestion about resettlement in Guiana would not preclude countries like Canada, the United States, and Senegal from taking in thousands of orphans and refugees from the earthquake zone. Fourth, I still believe that training and resettlement programs abroad should be juxtaposed with institution building in Haiti, as the skills learned by Haitians in Guiana would serve as complements, rather than wholesale substitutes, for reconstruction, health and education initiatives in the home country. Finally, the Guiana experiment, if successful, could allow Haiti and its former colonial ruler, France, to write a new page in their shared history, established not on recriminations over past wrongs, but on future ways for ecological and economic restoration to take root in the Caribbean's most populous French-speaking country.

I do not know if a massive airlift from Port-au-Prince to Cayenne will ever happen, but I think that major donors and organizations should seriously consider the potential benefits of controlled Haitian emigration to French Guiana. If a few Haitians are given the opportunity to develop models for sustainable development in the forests of South America, those techniques might germinate and thrive in the quake-ravaged ruins of their mother country.