PORT-AU-PRINCE – All day the trucks come and go from across the capital to Laboule, 30 minutes drive into the hills south of Port-au-Prince. Towering above the village stands a mountain cut in half. Where cows once grazed and farmers grew potatoes is now one of the biggest sand quarries in the country. The trucks carrying away the mountain one load at a time are supplying the building blocks for the construction boom going on all over greater Port-au-Prince as the city struggles to house its burgeoning population.
As Haiti’s cities grow at an annual rate of three percent, dozens of quarries have opened up around metropolitan areas throughout the country in order to provide the raw materials for cement and concrete out of which the vast majority of buildings are constructed.
The quarries also mean thousands of jobs for quarry workers, truckers, cement block makers and mechanics, in addition to supplying the construction industry – a major economic engine – with vital material.
“It’s a gift from nature geologically speaking,” said mining expert Claude Prepetit, of the natural sand deposits all over Haiti. “All you need to do is mix it with water and cement and you have concrete.” Haiti is not only self-sufficient but exports sand to neighboring islands.
But Prepetit and other experts warn that the unchecked and unregulated growth of sand quarrying all across Haiti is literally eroding the country’s environmental systems and could spell serious trouble if nothing is done.
Deforestation has already made the country vulnerable to flooding and erosion, illegal sand quarries amplify the problem in a host ways said Astrel Joseph the director of soils and ecosystems for the Ministry of Environment.
Quarried hillsides are even less able to absorb rainwater than deforested ones, contributing to flooding in low-lying areas. Sediment from quarries blocks drainage systems and fills up riverbeds making floods more severe and damaging infrastructure.
Ludner Remarais, the Ministry of Environment’s director for the West Department pointed to landslides and flooding last week that killed at least five people in Carrefour, a suburb south of Port-au-Prince. He said the government had tried to close the quarries above Carrefour six months ago but some were still in operation.
Quarrying next to lakes and the ocean is altering aquatic environments and causing water levels to rise. Dozens of sand quarries have been carved into the hills along the southern shore of Lake Azuei, Haiti’s largest expanse of freshwater. International highway 4, which passes between the quarries and the lakeshore on its way to the Dominican border is completely flooded in stretches.
At the border crossing of Malpasse, a row of trucks sits half submerged in the lake. A few yards away on the Dominican side, a brand new border post has been built to replace the one that was flooded and remains under water since a series of hurricanes and tropical storms hit Haiti a year ago.
Dr. Valentin Abe an aquaculture specialist who works with fishermen in Lake Azuei says silting from sand quarries was one of the reasons the water level was rising along parts of the shore.
He added that runoff from quarries was disturbing the lake’s ecology and its fish population. Abe said that fish breed “on the shoreline where you usually have lots of natural food,” but sedimentation from nearby quarries was altering the ph of the water thereby reducing the supply of food. Abe said the fish population had fallen in the last 10 years but there have yet to be studies to determine the precise causes.
In the lakeside village of Fond Parisien a group of farmers said rising lake levels had submerged their vegetable plots.
In an effort to regulate quarries whose output has been tripling every ten years according to Prepetit, the Haitian government established a certification system in 1984. Any prospective quarry owner is required to submit an application to the Bureau of Mining and Energy. Only after satisfying the requirements of an environmental impact assessment and guaranteeing that the site will be rehabilitated, are permits granted for 5-year terms.
In reality, “the majority of quarry owners have no permits, have no intention of asking for any, and generally don’t care about environmental regulations,” said Dieseul Anglade, Director of the Bureau of Mining and Energy.
While the law is on their side, Bureau employees said they can’t enforce the rules or shut down mines. When they determine a quarry poses an environmental hazard they ask the owner to close the quarry. “We stop the quarry one day, it starts up again the next,” said Prepetit who works as an advisor to the Bureau. “We send the case to the courts, and we hear nothing more.”
“There are big interests,” said Prepetit, “there’s a lot of money being made.” Prepetit said colleagues at the Bureau have been attacked when they have tried to stop illegal quarrying. He said he was a guest on a call in show discussing illegal quarries and someone called in to say “I know where you live, go ahead close the quarry and see what happens.”
There have been several attempts by the state to shut down illegal quarries. The first was in 1983. Jean Claude Duvalier who had a house in Laboule was said to have been nearly run-over by a truck carrying sand. He immediately ordered the quarry closed.
In an effort to rehabilitate the land, the government created a park on the site and planted pine trees.
But as soon as Duvalier was overthrown, the trees were cut down and the quarry reopened. “The people said since Duvalier was the one to shut the quarries down and he’s gone we will reopen the mines,” Anglade said. “When we went there, they said we are part of the revolution and you can’t stop us, and we couldn’t do anything to stop them,” said Anglade.
Lesly Jean Baptiste one of the quarry owners at Laboule told the Haitian Times he was operating legally, something vehemently denied by government officials. “We’d shut the quarry down today if we could,” Remarais said.
Occasionally the government steps in as it did on Morne Kabrit where sand was being extracted from underneath pilons carrying electricity from Peligre to the capital. “We put up barbed wire fences. To stop the trucks we built trenches,” said Prepetit. But he said as soon as the police left, the trenches were filled, the locks cut and the quarry reopened.
The last concerted attempt to shut down illegal quarries was in 2004 under the interim government of Gerald Latortue.
All illegal quarries were ordered closed and a public education campaign was launched to raise awareness of the threats posed by these activities. But with no army and a small national police force overwhelmed with violence in Port-au-Prince, the state didn’t have the means to enforce its order. Anglade said the government asked the UN peacekeeping force for help; they refused.
But it’s not simply a lack of enforcement that is preventing the government from addressing the problem. The quarries and the economic activity that surround them provide income to thousands of mostly poor people who are not making a fortune but just getting by.
On a recent weekday, Osnel Louis stood under the mid day sun beneath the towering rockface of the Laboule quarry, waiting for a truck to come so he could make some money by loading sand into it. The father of three said he usually made about $1.20 per truckload. “Some give more,” he said, “but some days there are no trucks.” Still he said it provided a steadier source of income than his old job as a mason.
As a freelance shoveler, Louis’ is the worst paid quarry job. He said he hoped to find work on a truck. Working in teams of three, including a driver, a conductor and a shoveler, these workers deliver truckloads of sand to construction sites for a profit of about $44 per load.
As Louis waited for work, Gereval Vilsain, 17, steered an empty orange Mack truck into the quarry. As part of a team he said after expenses he took home around $7 a day.
The director of the Bureau of Mines says that any permanent solution must address the needs of these workers. Looking back at earlier attempts to shut down illegal quarries, Anglade said they were doomed to failure. “It’s like with tree cutting,” said Anglade. “If we let thousands and thousand of people earn miserable wages in that sector for years, you can’t shut it down with a simple communiqué.”
What’s needed, Anglade and others argue, is a holistic solution in which the government doesn’t simply shut down the quarries but helps workers to relocate to other environmentally appropriate sites.
And Prepetit says Haiti can sustainably mine the sand it needs by turning increasingly to riverbeds. He says not only do these quarries spare environmentally sensitive hillsides but they increase the carrying capacity of riverbeds which have silted up.
The hindrance, says Prepetit is that these quarries are more expensive to operate because while the sediment is of higher quality, it requires more sifting. In addition sand drawn from mountains contains a natural bonding agent that makes the creation of cement blocks – a popular building material in Haiti – easier.
Prepetit says he produced a plan 12 years ago that identified sustainable sites for quarries in the West Department – which includes Port-au-Prince and seventy percent of Haiti’s quarries. To this day, Bureau officials said, no money had been made available to put the plan into effect.
Prepetit says the government needs to stop burying its head in the sand.
“All the plans are in place,” said Prepetit, “all the recommendations are there, it’s a question of political will and having the means to help provide an alternative.