Starting with a Messy Slate: The Role of Environmental Law in Haiti after the 2010 Earthquake

 Summary: The country of Haiti does not have a history of effective environmental regulation and this has continued after the devastating 2010 earthquake due to a lack of political and economic infrastructure. Deforestation, air and water pollution, and lack of sanitation systems have led to public health problems and resource scarcity. However, by internalizing the role of environmental law and grassroots efforts, there is a hope of success for Haiti’s continued reconstruction and long-term development.


By Marie Hollister

After the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, large parts of the small Caribbean country were devastatingly altered. Along with the Deforested Slopesphysical destruction, a general breakdown of political and economic infrastructure occurred that has contributed to regulatory stalemate and poor environmental conditions. During a recent learning-immersion trip organized through the theology graduate department at the University of Notre Dame, I experienced firsthand these conditions. In Port-au-Prince, the capital, as well as in several towns along the country’s southwestern peninsula, there was a constant smell of burning coal, streets lined with garbage, and views of distant mountains stripped of their vegetation. I also saw the amazing natural beauty and resources of this country, which were overshadowed by extreme poverty. Haiti’s lack of an environmental regulatory framework before the earthquake and absence of control measures afterwards puts the country in a difficult position to move forward sustainably. However, grassroots efforts and strong public policy may be able to effectuate the role of environmental law in Haiti’s future.

After the earthquake, immediate medical assistance and food and water supplies were critical priorities. Environmental concerns took a backseat in the face of scarce economic resources. Environmental action plans suggested in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as the Millennium Development Plan and the Interministerial Commission for the Environment, were defunct once the disaster occurred. While pre-earthquake regulations, such as land and water use and pollution controls were still not effective, Haiti still had some legal framework through the Ministry of the Environment. Haiti is also a party to several international environmental agreements, including the Kyoto Protocol, the Law of the Sea, the Inter-American Convention on the Conservation of Flora, Fauna, and Scenic Beauty, and the Rio Convention on Biological Diversity. Additionally, the 1987 Constitution of the Republic of Haiti contains six articles in Chapter II which pertain to the environment. They include forbidding practices that might “disturb the ecological balance,” making natural sites accessible to all citizens, developing local sources of energy, outlining state’s authority to punish those who violate flora and fauna protection laws, and protect against waste originating from “foreign sources.” Furthermore, in 2006 the provisional president, Boniface Alexandre, issued a Decree of Environmental Management. The goals of the decree were to monitor environmental quality for detrimental effects on human health, put in place plans to protect both farm land and designated no-use areas, and generally rehabilitate the environment. Though these appear to be vague guidelines, they do suggest that environmental protection is an inherent part of Haiti’s institutional makeup.

In these official documents there is no mention of domestic pollution or climate change. This is troubling because these issues are two of the country’s largest environmental issues, along with deforestation, soil erosion, and the lack of clean water. Climate change and the increase in average global temperatures have led to increased flooding and the spread of waterborne diseases, especially those borne by mosquitoes such as Dengue Fever, malaria, and the recent outbreak of chikungunya. Domestic pollution was an issue before the earthquake as well. In urban areas only about 30-50% of waste was collected and recycled; the rest was either burned on-site, which released pollutants into the air, or was drained away by rainwater, polluting natural waterways. Poor sanitation contributed to the spread of diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and tuberculosis. Additionally, the lack of waste management prevented the proper disposal of medical waste such as blood and bandages. Rubble from the earthquake is still a concern, as well as the presence of unregulated landfills, though some measures have been put in place, such as leachate collection for landfills and the use of recycled rubble for new construction.

Another major issue, deforestation, is the result of a surprising incentive. Unlike in many South American rainforests where large international corporations are bulldozing vegetation, farmers and villagers who need wood for fuel in their daily lives are the main reason for Haiti’s deforestation. As I learned from one of our Haitian hosts, Jean Marc, charcoal is created by letting wood burn in a covered pit for an extended period of time. The charcoal is then brought back to homes where it is used mainly for cooking. Another Haitian I spoke with in Léogâne, who is also a part-time law student, is currently a member of an organization that is working to find alternative fuel sources for people’s homes. Another grassroots effort is found in gwoupman peyizan, groups of local farmers who are using agroforestry to improve local conditions. Their method involves crop rotation, livestock grazing, the use of natural boundaries for fields, the replanting of trees, and not growing invasive species. The hope is that these practices will encourage success with their long-term goals of forest regrowth, fertile soil, an increase in food security in both urban and rural populations, and the preservation of biodiversity.

Sugarcane is one of Haiti's natural resourcesHaiti does have many natural resources that could be harnessed, including groundwater from its mountainous areas, open land for agriculture, access to seaports for trade, and a warm climate that makes it conducive to farming and solar energy systems. Unfortunately, the lack of political and economic infrastructure both before and after the earthquake has dissuaded potential outside investors. The most surprising insight from my recent trip was when several people, both Haitian and American, said that a lack of the rule of law was probably the most glaring problem facing the country. Without a legal system that promotes justice, they were convinced that Haiti could not effectively develop. Law might be able to provide guidance for the continued reconstruction of Haiti in a way that can be universally applied to the entire country, but it is also important that the Haitian people believe in the established rule of law in order for it to work. The law cannot be developed by politicians and policymakers who are not in tune with people’s everyday lives and not keenly aware of how people access resources, their agricultural practices, and their sanitary conditions. The “internal point of view,” a phrase coined by jurisprudence scholar H.L.A. Hart, describes that for a legal system to be effective, members of that society have to believe in it, and thereby internalize it. If a system of environmental regulation can be internalized in Haiti and combined with post-earthquake reconstruction efforts, it is likely that the distribution of resources and public health conditions can be improved.

Marie Hollister (JD 2015) is beginning her third year at the University of Notre Dame Law School where she is Submissions Editor for the Journal of International and Comparative Law, and a member of the Environmental Law Society. Prior to law school, she was an American Studies major at Siena College in upstate New York where she wrote her thesis on the commodification of the American environmental movement. Marie is currently interning at the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York Office of the Attorney General and enjoys spending her free time running, biking, swimming, reading, and spending time with her friends, family, and adorable dogs. After graduating she hopes to enter the field of environmental law and policy.