The piles of discarded conch shells whitened in the sun, towering above Mary Ange, an ebony-skinned Haitian child, as she trailed her toes in the turquoise sea and sang with laughing eyes to welcome the visitors on the beach. We had come to Leogane, a small community outside Port-au-Prince, to observe her family's way of life. Fishermen, they lived from the ocean, its vastness their only patio, its bounty their only source of protein.
But as the mountains of conch, or "lambi," attested, the people of Leogane were exhausting their resources. The higher the pyramids, the smaller the empty shells. For as the adult lambi disappear, the people have no choice but to eat the young ones, tossing the meager shells to the top of the heap. Soon, even the smallest lambi will be gone.Mary Ange, of course, had no responsibility for the depletion, but she and other Haitian children like her inherited the consequences. These children do not vote in Haiti's elections. They play no part in the regular drama of coup d'etat and countercoup, which was played out again in April. The politics of their country largely pass them by, except insofar as the people in charge control what happens to their natural environment - whether land and water systems survive. And those in power have permitted ecological anarchy to reign.
Their nation bleeds; a natural disaster forms beneath the feet of the Haitian people.
Our teams blanketed the island during our expedition there in 1985. I dove in a sea virtually empty of life, a sea once so breathtakingly clear, now choking with silt and soil eroding from the parched, increasingly treeless Haitian hills. I saw fisherman at Leogane, 10 grown men, thin and weakened from a lack of regular eating, haul in a net sprinkled with fish so tiny that they stuck in the fishnet webs. I watched helplessly as the fishermen picked the nets clean, knowing the fish to be too young but knowing too that the people were very, very hungry. Mary Ange's supper would not have even filled the palm of my hand.
In Haiti, a magnificent people have been left to languish in ignorance and poverty, to relentlessly chop trees to make charcoal to cook undersized fish and roast undersized lambi. We met people who actually tore the roots of cut trees from the soil to produce one final charcoal supply, the equivalent of putting a match to their last life asset. A once lush landscape is gutted with potholes; precious topsoil, no longer held in place, escapes to the sea with each refreshing rain. Haitians will have no earth left in which to grow food.
We also met some dedicated Haitians and foreigners eager to replant, trying to meet the future with hope. Yet a Ministry of Agriculture official confided that his best plans were futile. His agency never had enough money in its budget to pay for gasoline for jeeps that carry seedlings to the countryside. The Ministry of Information, on the other hand, fueled a fleet of gleaming four-wheel drives to distribute government propaganda.
The priorities of any future leader in Haiti will be as obvious as the official gasoline allotment.
In Haiti, civil order cannot long exist without ecological repair. The Haitian people cry out for more than truth from their government - they cry for their land and water system, the sustenance on which justice must rest. If they are heard, then the dreams of all the millions of Haitian children who sing the innocent seaside songs of Mary Ange.