Reframing the Climate Crisis

The young environmental world leaders from Cité Soleil, Haiti you have not heard about…yet.

By Nancy Young

There is an increasingly common climate crisis story structure that starts something like this:

Scientists have made the dire prediction that BAD THING — rising temperatures, ocean levels, fires, species and plant die-offs — will happen in 12 (11, 10, 9) years if we don’t do anything (and, of course, we are not doing anything).

Well, folks, the FUTURE IS NOW!

This is one of those stories — because the future is now in Haiti.

But this is not one of those apocalyptic indicators in nature — like how in some places we are already seeing a two-degree or higher increase in temperature.

This is a story about an unnaturally occurring climate crisis phenomena: a gas shortage in Haiti that has shut down the country.

So as I write this on a #FridayfortheFuture, where thousands of young people around the globe are on strike from school to force leaders to act on the climate crisis, kids in Port-au-Prince are home from school because they literally can’t get there because of the gas shortage as well as the explosion of anger about its causes (government mismanagement, corruption, the usual suspects).

Streets are barricaded with burning tires and a general strike has been called so you go out at your own risk.

This is all happening under a hot, bright sun that Haiti never has any shortage of and which could be its dominant source of power.

In another, easily imagined and yet seemingly impossible world, the people of Haiti, upon hearing the news that there is a gas shortage could be saying, “That’s ok, we don’t need it. Who even uses gas anymore?”

But just because the children of Haiti might not be striking from school today because they can’t get there to walk out, doesn’t mean they aren’t leading an environmental movement and battling the climate crisis all the same.

Welcome to SAKALA.

When I am in Haiti, I stay at the SAKALA community center in Cité Soleil.

SAKALA was founded in 2006 by people who grew up in the neighborhood and wanted to give kids growing up there alternatives to joining gangs.

So they started with peace-through-sports programs, which were also a way to get kids in school or even to get them a meal they otherwise might not have had and which alone could be the difference between feeling like you have to join a gang just to survive.

Even though it has never had nearly enough resources, somehow SAKALA has grown to include educational, agricultural, and entrepreneurial training programs. It is home to Jaden Tap Tap, Haiti’s largest urban garden, built on the site of an old dump that was adjacent to their soccer field. One of its leaders and co-founders, Daniel Tillias, was recently named a CNN Hero for 2019.

SAKALA is a place where the seeds planted grow under what can be incredibly harsh conditions and yet yield something more beautiful and impressive than I have seen anywhere else in the world.

And when I say this I don’t mean, good for a poor place, or good for Haiti, I mean objectively better in quality and spirit than anything I’ve seen anywhere else.

It is also a place that is constantly under siege. Sometime literally — it has been the site of massacres perpetrated by people in power who perceive a threat in Cité Soleil.

Daniel can recall in the years before SAKALA was founded hearing leaders on the radio discussing the pros and cons of bombing Cité Soleil. SAKALA was started in part to battle the idea that there are any “pros” to bombing children who just want to play and go to school and dream big dreams like the rest of us.

But sometimes the siege, the danger, is more subtle.

During my morning run in the garden the other day I noticed small, well-worn pieces of glass pushing up through the soil. I am almost certain they are not new, but years old — remnants from the time this garden was a dump and that this dump could reclaim this beautiful place if we are not vigilant.

Isn’t this supposed to be a climate crisis and gas shortage story, Nancy?

It is.

Let’s start with the garden. SAKALA does not have enough water.

This is a problem that has been getting worse over time. The rainy season is not as rainy as it used to be, sometimes it is bone dry drought. And while we don’t have resources to test it, this, combined with its location near the ocean, probably means salt is getting more concentrated in the soil, making it tougher to grow things.

And when it does rain it is more likely to be crazy downpours that carry away the soil rather than be absorbed by it. A 10-minute rain can flood the streets and homes, especially in Cité Soleil, where drainage canals cut through the neighborhoods that are home to 300,000 to 500,000 people, most extremely poor.

Drainage canals should be a good thing, but I actually had to search my mind just now for what they are supposed to be, because the word “drainage” is so far from the reality, I normally call them trash canals.

They are typically stuffed many feet deep with trash that not only does not prevent flooding but exacerbates it and leaves people having to clean up not only water damage on a regular basis but the trash that comes with it.

Trash canal in Cité Soleil just over the wall from the SAKALA community center. The trash is frequently burned to get the volume down.

One other thing about the water. They have lots of kids coming to play and learn at SAKALA. These days at least a couple of hundred or more children come every day as the economic and political situation in Haiti bottoms out. The people of Haiti are constantly finding that you should never think bottom has been reached because there is always someplace lower.

These hundreds of kids need water and we try to supply it, buying countless 5-gallon refillable bottles. There is no clean, running water from the tap here — and in most places — no running water at all.

What they normally do is gather up all the empty five-gallon bottles at once, put them in a trailer pulled by a motorcycle and go get them refilled.

But, no gas now. Or only super expensive gas now — $5 to $10 per gallon (or more). And even with the super expensive gas there is no guarantee on quality. You can get that same good price-gauging money with gas doctored with water — in fact you make a better profit if you do that.

Oh, and the no-gas thing? Hurts trash pickup too — always spotty in Port-au-Prince — and so the waste is piling up everywhere, even in neighborhoods with money who normally can get it carted away. This last is less an issue for Cité Soleil as the trash trucks don’t go there anyway.

I’ve learned in my years talking about Haiti and SAKALA and Cité Soleil that if I go on too long — or even at all — about the problems, people tune out. They get bummed, feel hopeless.

It is a weird part of human nature — that I have too of course — that you could be drinking your pumpkin spice latte that costs more than the daily minimum wage in Haiti and still be made more hopeless and inert by just hearing about the problems than the people who actually have to deal with them with no pumpkin spice comfort at all.

So let me get back to the beauty of this place. And we will start with the trash.

Earlier this year, SAKALA started an environmental art program called FatraKa (Haitian Creole for Trash Can). When Daniel Tillias first explained it to me, he said that they would use recycled objects they found in the trash and turn it into treasure. I thought it was a nice idea — and it was symbolic too of SAKALA’s increasing focus on the environment.

And I expected that when I saw what was produced I would of course love it because I love these kids and would happily put up on the refrigerator their pictures even if no one else in the world would see the value in it.

But then I saw the first pieces — frames mostly — and they were not just nice, they were a revelation. Distinctive and beautiful and cool and funky in a way I had never seen before.

And they transformed me from someone who is the most reluctant saleswoman ever (as a child selling boxes of oranges door-to-door for a school fundraiser my pitch was, “You don’t want to buy any oranges, do you?” )

Suddenly I couldn’t wait to show these to the world, to lug my suitcases filled with SAKALA frames, annoying people on the NYC subway by taking up more than my share of space, pushing the limits of what I could carry and how far I could carry it. Thankful to yoga for giving me a back that did not snap too easily.

You know how I was saying earlier that what I have seen at SAKALA, the spirit there, the creativity, was the best I have seen anywhere, well these frames were a way to bring that to people who were never going to visit SAKALA, never going to visit Haiti, because maybe they were scared or just not interested. This was a way for me to carry this excellence, this spirit back with me.

These frames became a symbol for me of how we could take anything that was thrown at us and transform it into something ingenious, artistic, useful — whatever the occasion we had to rise to, we could.

And yes, even the climate crisis, because, yes, this is about the climate crisis too. We could say suck it, climate crisis, suck it injustice and greed, you’re not going to beat us. We shall overcome.

And so, yes, I became an evangelist for these frames (a very low-key evangelist, I am still the little girl who says “you don’t want to buy oranges, do you?).

And in the beginning I watched closely for people’s reactions, I waited for them to feign politeness, to think the frames were nice because I’m nice and it must be fun for the kids to make these and that was nice. We’re all nice people. And that sometimes happened.

But, mostly, the genuine reaction I got was, “Wow!” To which I would I say, “I know, right?” And words I never thought I would say, “I’m going to start an Etsy shop.”

And so today at this time, I should be writing this with a slightly sore back after lugging a big suitcase filled with frames, through airports, subways, and bus stations.

But I’m not.

Just a carry-on filled with clothes and a laptop.

Because there is a gas shortage in Haiti. And people can’t go anywhere — or have to spend the day getting a gallon or two of a maybe gas/water combination that will damage your engine.

This situation went on for the past couple of weeks when on Sunday there was a spontaneous enough-is-enough furor in the air and barricades and burning tires went up in the streets because if I can’t go anywhere, you can’t go anywhere. If I can’t make a living, neither can you.

So on Sunday, when I was staying at SAKALA, and while the streets were still relatively clear, we thought maybe it would be better to go to a place nearer the airport, where, if worse came to worse, I could always walk to make my Tuesday flight.

So in a rush, I packed just what was needed, thinking I would be able to come back for the frames Tuesday morning before my flight because SAKALA is only about three miles from the airport.

But by Tuesday morning it was clear nothing was getting through, that the situation was worsening, not easing. Daniel tried to bring in his car the one frame he had with him, one that he had made for a customer with a special request, but the main road and bridge between where he lives and the airport was blocked and no cars were allowed through.

So he went back home. Ditched his car and tried to get to the airport on the moto taxi. I walked to the airport and I checked my carry-on and waited until the last minute to go through security in case he could get there.

But he couldn’t. He and the moto driver breathed in a lot of smoke from burning tires looking for a path through, but there wasn’t one and they had to turn back

It might seem crazy to risk that, to drive into chaos, for a thing, for a frame.

But it was not just a thing, it was not just a frame Daniel was carrying, it was hope and excellence and beauty, which we need here as much as there.

Because we are in a climate crisis. You may not feel it like they do in Haiti yet, where the future is now.

And to fight it, to transform it into something better and transcend it, we need all the hope and excellence and beauty we can get.

And who better to learn from than the youths growing up now in Cité Soleil, city of the sun.

Sunrise in Cité Soleil.

Writer and admirer of Haiti, specializing in environmental, health, and social justice issues

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