Ginette Sejour will tell you scouring through other people’s garbage is a dirty, smelly way to make a living.
But six days a week, this mother of seven and dozens of others trek through a slum once controlled by gangs, and arrive at a garbage processing plant where they spend the day sorting glass from metal, and plastic from paper.
As one team dumps the recyclables into color-coded bins, another gathers and rips discarded paper and cardboard into bits. Using a technique that is as frugal as it is green ? it requires little more than water, sawdust, a wooden mortar, rusty 32-ounce tomato cans, sawed-off PVC pipes and a locally made press ? they crush wet paper into slow-burning logs, a cheap alternative known as briquettes.
With 20 million trees chopped down each year in Haiti, an over-reliance on charcoal has created a barren nation with less than 2 percent of tree cover. Environmentalists and others say these factors have made Haiti one of the nations most at risk to the impact of climate change.
The Obama administration’s $1 billion pledge last week to protect the world’s tropical forests ? a critical move toward breaking a stalemate between rich and poor nations in climate change talks in Copenhagen ? demonstrates how central deforestation remains in the debate to curb global warming.
For a country like Haiti, where back-to-back hurricanes and tropical storms cut a deadly path last year, projects like turning garbage into energy, while small, are in the vanguard of efforts to slow and reverse deforestation.
“I am not saying it’s a panacea for deforestation, but it’s one of the activities that if multiplied can have an impact,” said Joel Boutroue, formerly the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Haiti who has been consulting on climate change issues.
In Carrefour Feuilles, where residents are leading the battle to wean Haitians off wood, there is no doubt about their role in a country where at the slightest bit of rain, bare mountains trigger deadly landslides.
“People have been using charcoal a long time, and we know it’s not going to be easy for someone to leave charcoal,” said Sejour, 36, who lives in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood. “But I believe it’s possible.”
The community-driven solid waste processing and recycling project was conceived in Brazil four years ago in response to a Haitian government request to help it reduce violence and provide jobs in this densely populated slum where even U.N. peacekeepers feared entering.
Today, it is not just providing jobs to 385 residents and turning trash into energy, but it’s also gaining momentum and attracting the attention of everyone from former President Bill Clinton to Haitian-American celebrities.
Celebrities took notice of the pilot project, dubbed Love N’ Haiti, after it was named one of 12 finalists in the British Broadcasting Corporation World Challenge ’09 global grant competition. For weeks, entertainers such as Wyclef Jean, his sister Melky, and actresses Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon updated their Twitter and Facebook status with reminders to “vote for Love N’ Haiti.”
“I have always said: ‘It is up to us, the Haitians abroad, to rally support and raise awareness and funds to help eradicate poverty in Haiti,” said singer Melky Jean. She calls the project “a perfect opportunity for Haiti to help itself.”
Their efforts were joined by others, including embattled former city of Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who had been helping Port-au-Prince solve its garbage woes.
For a while, the efforts appeared to have paid off after the eco-friendly project won enough votes to place it among the top three finalists. Then BBC News announced that it was being disqualified because its investigators failed to realize that the government funding exceeded amounts set out in contest rules.
Charcoal is the main fuel source for households, bakeries and rum distilleries in Haiti. As a result, a number of fuel alternative programs, including the fabrication of briquettes, have been tried through the years with limited success.
The efforts have struggled to take off for various reasons, including the affordability of charcoal by a population living on less than $2 a day and the belief that food cooked with charcoal tastes better.
But Carrefour Feuilles stands out because it’s community-driven, said Eliana Nicolini, the Brazilian civil engineer who serves as chief technical adviser on the project to the U.N. Development Program.
“We are giving the residents the opportunity, but they are the social mobilizers,” Nicolini said.
Clinton agrees. After visiting the program this summer as U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti, he’s been touting its benefits wherever he goes, calling the briquettes “my one-cent solution” to Haiti’s deforestation.
He carries a sample of the logs, which resemble frozen hamburger patties, almost everywhere. After pulling one out of a Ziploc bag and showing it off at a recent gathering, he said: “It’s a way to fight environmental damage, put people to work. It’s the kind of thing that has the capacity to sweep the world.”
While the fabricating of the briquettes has garnered the most attention, it is just one aspect of the project, which is funded by India, Brazil, South Africa and the UNDP. In a country where waste management often means allowing the rains to carry the trash across the city to the sea as uncollected garbage piles up on major roadways, the project also aims to keep Carrefour Feuilles clean.
While workers make the briquettes, teams of blue-clad sweepers and waste collectors fan the neighborhood, shoveling garbage and dumping it into wheelbarrows and roaming garbage trucks. There is even door-to-door garbage collection.
For now, the recycled plastic, metal and glass is sold.
Soon the organic waste will be processed into compost and sold to farmers for fertilizers.
With the help of local Quisqueya University, the project hopes to become self-sustainable. The goal is to have the revenues generated through the sales of the recycled products, compost and briquettes cover the operating costs and the salaries of the residents who make $3 and $6 a day.
Recently, workers added a new job description: sales people ? after undergoing training on how to market the logs that sell cheaper than charcoal.
To demonstrate, Sejour walks over to a tiny table and shows off the product: on one side, a gallon of rice, half a gallon of beans and two gallons of charcoal. On the opposite side: 22 briquettes.
The charcoal, Sejour says, costs $1.25 compared to 55 cents for the 22 briquettes. Both will cook the rice and beans, but briquettes will do it faster, she said.
Samuel Toussaint, one of the leaders, says it will take time, but they are already seeing benefits. Among the regular wholesale customers buying briquettes: charcoal vendors.
“We are not here to put them out of business,” he said. “A lot of people who sell charcoal … are searching for survival. Just like everyone, they are searching for a way to survive.”
(c) 2009, The Miami Herald. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.