Photo credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre
Photo credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre.
Photo credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre.

By Garry Pierre-Pierre

Interim president Jocelerme Privet announced recently that removing the mountains of trash pilling up in seemingly every corner of Port-au-Prince, will be one of his top priorities.

President Privert’s announcement brought cheers to me. For more than four years I have lamented over the dirtiness of this capital city and other major cities across the politically-troubled Caribbean nation of more than 10 million people.

A few years ago, Delta Airlines and the Ministry of Tourism brought a group of Latino journalists from the United States to Haiti to showcase their efforts in wooing tourists to Haiti.

My colleagues, who hail from Columbia, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and other nations, were shocked at the amount and ubiquity of the trash. One of them told the minister of tourism that removing the garbage off the streets would go a long way. While Haiti is poor, the stench of the garbage and the unsanitary conditions are a bigger deterrent to tourism than the poverty itself. But that common sense advice was not heeded.

Regular readers of this column know very well my position on this. When I travel to Haiti I spray perfume on my wrist to inhale, as I navigate the putrid odor oozing from the trash.

I’ve written a series of articles on this subject and last week we published a photo essay on the garbage issue. Some of the pictures were so shocking that we decided not to publish them. The situation is bad enough.

I’m not sure if my reporting was the catalyst for President Privert’s actions. It doesn’t matter. I hope that next time I fly down to Port-au-Prince, I land into a much cleaner city, and don’t have to overspray my body with cologne.

Photo credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre
Photo credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre

While I bask in this good news, I want to caution that keeping Port-au-Prince and the other major cities clean require more than just trash pick up. That is a small part of the solution. Most of Haiti’s major cities don’t have the infrastructure to deal with the rapid growth they’ve undergone in the last three decades. For example, Port-au-Prince and its suburbs were built to accommodate about 200,000 people. Now there are more than two million inhabitants. The city and many others are bursting at the seams.

Part of the strategy in cleaning and keeping Haiti clean is to decentralize the large cities, where more than three quarters of the population live. You cannot keep up with the cleaning with that kind of density.

Furthermore, leaders need to undertake a significant public relations campaign to encourage every Haitian citizen to take pride in a clean environment. They need to understand that they are as responsible for the trash problem as the government and that officials need them in this valiant fight.

The health issues created by the trash problem have a detrimental effect on people’s health, making the country vulnerable to all kinds of communicable diseases.

The irony in all of this is that the average living room in a Haitian home may be modest but is spotless. The government needs to empower people and show them that the streets belong to them just like their living room, and have a stake in keeping the common space as clean as their abode.

I truly believe that if the government thinks that tackling the issue is a matter of garbage removal, it will be in for a rude awakening. It will be yet another good idea that was poorly executed and in the end doesn’t solve anything. Let’s learn from the mistakes of the past and start being strategic even in trash removal.

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999, he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.

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