Balancing human well-being with environmental sustainability: an ecologist’s story of Haiti

“Parc National La Visite is one of the few remaining refuges for Haiti’s once-remarkable biodiversity. It is also the only refuge for over 1,000 desperately poor families, the poorest people I have encountered anywhere on this planet. Naked children with bloated stomachs stood next to pine-bark lean-tos and waved shyly to me as I walked through the forest. Their parents eke out the meanest existence from small gardens and, if they are fortunate, a few chickens.”

This is how ecologist Norm Christensen from Duke University began the story of his journey in Haiti. Christensen’s article, featured in the “Trails and Tribulations” column from the March issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, touches on a sensitive but vital subject: What does “sustainable development” mean to those who are barely making it day-by-day?

“In the context of places like Haiti and the other desperately poor areas, sustainable development—to think of it or define it—is in terms of improving the prosperity of some of the world’s very poorest people in ways that are not going to compromise opportunities for future generations and indeed are going to enhance those opportunities,” Christensen explained in a recent Beyond the Frontier podcast.

Last year’s earthquake in Haiti caused severe widespread damage to the country’s already fragile infrastructure. A subsequent cholera outbreak added to the devastation. In times of such palpable human suffering, it can be difficult to imagine the role of the environment; however, Haiti’s history of deforestation is a strong example of the link between people and ecosystems—that is, the connection between infectious disease and a decline in biodiversity. As Ethan Budiansky explained in a Huffington Post article:

“Over 98 percent of [Haiti] has been deforested by logging and improper environmental management. The resulting lack of biodiversity leads to impoverished soil, which is more susceptible to erosion. The eroded hillsides cause deadly mudslides during heavy rains and pollute drinking water. Farmers find it harder to grow nutritious food, and Haitians become malnourished, leaving them vulnerable to diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and cholera.

The chain of events moves forward with a cold logic; an unhealthy ecosystem results in unhealthy people. Fortunately, it can be reversed by planting trees through sustainable agro-forestry and following basic plant and soil management techniques.”

While committing to sustainable development is certainly dependent upon those who choose to practice it, Christensen explained in the podcast and article, it is not solely their responsibility.  Everyone—whether they live in a developed or underdeveloped nation—is a steward of the planet. And our actions affect more than just our immediate environment.

Read more in the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment article “The road to sustainable development and conservation” or listen to the Beyond the Frontier podcast.

Photo Credit: United Nations

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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