Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haitians Battling Over Toxic Debris

By Emily Troutman

MEYOTTE, Haiti — Mountains of rubble arrive daily in this small community of displaced people, just north of Port-au-Prince, putting it on the front lines of Haiti’s newest environmental battle.

The Meyotte River is strewn with thousands of tons of debris, which threatens the residents’ health, as well as their protection from flooding. Every day brings another face-off between this desperate community and angry truckers.

Even before the earthquake created miles of rubble, the area was plagued with illegal dumping. Port-au-Prince has a large, municipal landfill, but it has no government-run trash collection service. Outlying communities are often without a landfill at all. People can pay to have their garbage removed privately, but it’s difficult to know where it will end up.

Illegal dumping in Haiti's Meyotte River.

Emily Troutman for AOL

For Haiti, the dumping of garbage in rivers and canals was a perennial problem. By dragging families out into the streets, the earthquake has made it more urgent.

“We never paid attention before. We were in the house,” says Ariane Pierre, whose family of four is now camping next to their home beside the Meyotte River, which is dry because of the season.

The Pierres and thousands of others living near the river now find themselves in quiet conflict with the trucks and drivers who use the area as a dumping ground. The people are concerned about the threat of disease, as well as the threat posed by blocking this important waterway as the rainy season approaches.

Illegal dumping in Haiti's Meyotte River.

Emily Troutman for AOL

“Mostly, they come around 9 or 10 at night,” says Lituna Montour, Ariane’s neighbor. “They were hiding bodies in between the rubble. That’s why we don’t want them here; the smell, the bodies, it’s not good for our children.”

The government removed most visible human bodies from the river, but the smell still emanates from some piles of trash.

At 9 a.m., Lituna’s 2-year-old daughter, Nedgie, slept peacefully in a bed set up under sheets and tarps. The family’s house, just meters away, is irreparably damaged by the quake and will have to be demolished. One of Lituna’s major challenges these days is finding a safe place to entertain her baby, away from the garbage, human feces and filth of the river.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that planned efforts will soon be under way to remove debris from high-priority areas, beginning with the downtown neighborhood of Delmas. The efforts are only a small step forward. A U.N. official estimates Port-au-Prince is covered in 20 million cubic yards of rubble.

To begin, the Haitian government will move the debris in Delmas to multiple, temporary staging areas at the periphery of the city. There it will sit until, “potentially,” says one official, machinery can be brought in to recycle the debris.

Most of the rubble is concrete, which can be re-ground into cement, but the process would require large-scale equipment that is not yet available in Haiti. Removing and burying decomposing body parts will also be a challenge.

Illegal dumping in Haiti's Meyotte River.

Emily Troutman for AOL

Across the city, people are already beginning to clear their own lots. But areas like Meyotte have no designated place to put the rubble and no protection against illegal dumping.

The men in this community mounted a defense against the dumping by digging large trenches in the sand, every 50 meters, to prevent trucks from driving through the riverbed. On Tuesday, their plan was foiled when a dump truck arrived and its drivers fought back.

The truck was hired by Claudy Laurent, a nearby resident whose house was demolished.

“This is my rubble from my house,” he said, indignant. “And I want to put it in the yard of my friend, who lives here. He is in New York, but he said I could.”

Claudy led me to a small, empty lot that has become a toilet for the neighborhood.

“What I want to do is put the rubble over the feces, then build a fence to keep people out of here,” he told me.

As the truck descended from a small bridge into town and attempted to drive onto the riverbed, dozens of people came out of their tents to confront Claudy and his driver, Bellony. Claudy is a familiar face to the residents here. His home is a few hillsides away, and no one believed his proclaimed plan to scatter the rubble and build a fence.

Illegal dumping in Haiti's Meyotte River.

Emily Troutman for AOL

While the local men argued and yelled, their young sons — boys only 7 or 8 years old — picked up medium-sized rocks and piled them in front of the truck’s path. Their efforts were especially poignant; none of the boys is much taller than the wheels of the truck itself. When it became clear that no one would be able to stop Claudy and Bellony from proceeding, the boys stepped aside and the truck rolled easily over their rocks.

A few meters later, two men on the truck descended with shovels to fill the trench dug to stop them. The truck continued until it reached the empty lot, supposedly belonging to Claudy’s friend. But then, the truck stopped short and dumped the rubble near the center of the riverbed.

Illegal dumping in Haiti's Meyotte River.

Emily Troutman for AOL

In only a matter of minutes, everyone’s efforts to spare their small village from the rubble were made futile. Hundreds looked on from the dry banks of the river — angry, but not surprised.

I asked Claudy if he considered his neighbors’ concerns and requests.

“I live here, too,” he replied. “What about what I want?”

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