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Why international support for Haiti must include climate security

Floods in Marigot, Haiti

This story was originally published by The New Humanitarian.

A few weeks ago, the UN acknowledged for the first time that climate change adversely impacts food security, water scarcity, and the humanitarian situation in Haiti, aggravating existing instability. This is a step forward, taken as the UN agreed to continue supporting wide-ranging work in the country, and as momentum builds for a “multinational force” to be deployed to help rein in rampant gang violence. Up to now, international interventions have focused on political and security approaches to cure the symptoms of Haiti’s ills but have failed to address their causes.

Without properly addressing climate and environmental challenges, the violence, exclusion, and poverty that confront so many Haitians are doomed to spiral further and become entrenched in daily life.

With the international climate conference COP28 — the first ever COP with a thematic session dedicated to relief, recovery, and peace — fast approaching, it is time for multilateral and bilateral donors to rethink climate finance so it finally serves the needs of those living in fragile and conflict-affected states such as Haiti. 

Haiti is the most vulnerable country in Latin America and the Caribbean to climate change. Rising temperatures and declining rainfall have intensified drought, contributing to the food insecurity that affects 4.9 million Haitians, almost half the population. Climate-related storms are also growing more intense, causing devastating flooding. In June alone, floods and landslides affected more than 37,000 people. The impact of extreme weather is magnified by a history of poor natural resource management and overexploitation — rooted in the policies of the country’s colonial past. Deforestation and unmaintained drainage infrastructure add to the devastation of climate-related storms. 

Today, 85% of Haiti’s soils are severely degraded, and tree cover, mangrove forests, and coral ecosystems have been lost. As a coastal nation, Haiti is also at a high risk of sea level rise, which threatens the lives and livelihoods of many people living close to the coast. These risks are all set to intensify over the next 30 years.

Going beyond militarised solutions

International support must move beyond the “crisis of imagination” that has applied militarised solutions to symptoms instead of addressing root causes. Tackling environmental degradation and the impact of climate change on livelihoods must be a priority.

“Opportunities in cities are scarce as well, and community and networks are limited.” 

Traditionally marginalised communities — youth, women, the disabled, and those living in remote rural areas or high-density urban centres where government reach is limited — are hit especially hard. Already struggling to make ends meet, many do not have the means to adapt even if they want to. For example, Haiti’s “Madan Saras”, female merchants who play a key role in selling food and other commodities, have seen their incomes plummet as the current drought diminishes crops and gang-related violence continues to make it difficult to reach local markets. As a worker with an international NGO that focuses on food security told us: “More and more products are imported, and rural areas risk losing their purpose.” 

Faced with this situation, many Haitians, especially young people, are moving to the Dominican Republic or the United States, even though they then face discrimination, racism or are forcibly sent back. Others move to cities — especially the capital, Port-au-Prince — and end up living in makeshift accommodations in hazard-prone shanty towns controlled by armed gangs. As one social worker in Cité Soleil, an impoverished and densely populated area of Port-au-Prince, explained: “Opportunities in cities are scarce as well, and community and networks are limited.” 

Ways to help

How can international efforts effectively support Haiti as it addresses issues of climate security and builds a future for its people? We offer three suggestions, based on our recent research on climate and security in Haiti.

First, climate security and environmental protection and restoration needs to be at the centre of all economic, political, and social decisions driving the country forward. A high-level vision built through multi-sectoral dialogue should guide these efforts — a vision that reflects the priorities and values of all Haitians, while also taking advantage of opportunities for cooperation with regional and international partners.

This does not need to be built from scratch; it can and should reflect existing climate policies and strategies. One of them is Haiti’s National Adaptation Plan (NAP), launched in January, which identifies four priority areas — agriculture, water, health, and infrastructure — and through a participative and iterative process suggests next steps. While addressing the impacts of climate change on the economy, it’s key that efforts are also made to rebuild cohesion and trust within and across society.

“The link between Haitians and their natural environment must be re-established as the foundation to tackle broader insecurity and violence.”

Second, responses must be decentralised, empowering local communities. Solutions to Haiti's multiple crises must come from Haitians themselves; some of the most innovative and sustainable initiatives are found at the local level. This approach also fosters social cohesion within communities.

For example, as conflicts over dwindling fish stocks mounted between Haitian and Dominican fishermen in the country’s northeast, FoProBiM, a Haitian environmental NGO, brought them together to discuss solutions. As an environmental peacebuilder who works in the north of the country told us: “In Haiti there is a saying that goes, ´you cannot impede someone from feeding his or her family´. The art is to convince this person that harming others eventually also affects their family. The best conflict prevention tool is economic incentive.” 

Like FoProBiM, many other Haitian NGOs and community-based organisations have used the environment as an entry point for dialogue and peace. Their initiatives should be scaled up. This means international groups must work with Haitians as rights holders rather than passive recipients of charity, and establish clear mechanisms for accountability.

Finally, the link between Haitians and their natural environment must be re-established as the foundation to tackle broader insecurity and violence. Community-based responses to environmental management and sustainability can go a long way toward this. Nature-based solutions should be at the core of this strategy. Agroecological approaches, for example, can have a real impact for resilience-building and income diversification.

Inspiration can be taken from the work of the Haitian NGO Partenariat pour le Développement Local. In northern Haiti, it builds on farmers’ knowledge and practices to encourage farmer-to-farmer learning in an effort to stop the practice of “slash and burn” and encourage soil conservation. Promoting agricultural initiatives in urban areas, for example, can help ease food shortages and generate income, particularly for low-income, unemployed, or underemployed groups such as women and young people.

This year, the UN-led humanitarian appeal for Haiti requested the highest amount since the 2010 earthquake, $720 million. So far, donors have only committed to 22.6% of that amount. On top of the humanitarian appeal, Haiti is likely to need more and varied financing to tackle and offer co-benefits across the climate-peace-humanitarian nexus. Haiti’s international partners should put their money where their mouth is, and commit the resources that the people of Haiti need to reverse decades of climate-related indignities and build a peaceful and sustainable country for themselves.


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