Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ten Commandments for Responding to Environmental Refugees

Aldy Castor, M.D., President

United States: 854 Marina Drive, Weston, Florida 33327
Phone: 954.659.7953. 954.873.0064 fax 954.659.7957

Haiti: 17, 2ème ruelle Wilson, Pacot, Port-au-Prince
25, Rue Sténlo Vincent, Aquin

Dispatch 2
January 16, 2010

Ten Commandments for Responding to Environmental Refugees

[Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 15, 2010, Americans HRDF Director Dr. Aldy Castor of Florida and environmental refugees and ecological restoration specialist Stuart Leiderman of New Hampshire were at HRDF headquarters in Port-au-Prince at the above address. Right before the earthquake, they had returned from a week’s work in the southern coastal city of Aquin, continuing HRDF’s work with residents on disaster preparedness, ecological restoration, flood control and mountainside catchment lakes. The following was drafted in response to requests for guidance in preparing, bringing and maintaining appropriate relief for Haitian earthquake survivors whom Castor and Leiderman consider environmental refugees. They welcome your questions and comments.]

The Haitian Earthquake has caused a “complex emergency” involving most of the country’s population and most of its natural environment. As defined by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a complex emergency is a “humanitarian crisis in a country, region or society where there is a total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict and which requires an international response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single and/or ongoing UN country program”. In the case, the violence has come from the depths of the Earth rather than from the barrels of guns, and the international response must also address the damaged environment before the survivors can reinhabit their homeland.

Therefore both the country’s population its natural environment must be understood and addressed by the visiting teams. For example, it will not be sufficient to treat people in a hospital and send them “home,” because they probably have nowhere to go. Seen this way, environmental refugees suffer more greatly than other categories of refugees. Humanitarian response is necessary but not sufficient. Thus, the following “ten commandments” for responding to environmental refugees are offered to help responders move beyond “necessary” and closer to “sufficient.”

1. Know before you go. In the best of times, it may usually take a week or more preparation for every day’s work in Haiti, depending on whether the work will be for education, construction, health services, environmental research, etc. Post-earthquake, plan on devoting much more time in preparation for each day you will be “on the ground.” Especially because much of the population is or will be in motion, in search of security, supplies and settlement, there must be more precise knowledge of people, places, roadways, access and egress, their interrelations and potential reactions to your presence.

2. If you are a highly specialized humanitarian team, for example a group of surgeons, you will probably be more effective by partnering with a specialized environmental team that may complement your work. For example, an environmental team with expertise in Haitian traditional medicine may help your patients recover more quickly from surgery.

3. No matter what the specialties, all teams should include some members with humanitarian understanding and experience, e.g. with social psychology, grief counseling, family and community dynamics, and some members with environmental expertise, e.g. with water, sanitation, waste management and resettlement needs. This is because many teams may find themselves working all alone in certain areas. It cannot be assumed that one sided response, either humanitarian or environmental, will be sufficient and keep anyone alive for very long.

4. The magnitudes and quality of disaster conditions encountered in Haiti will likely be many times worse than previously encountered elsewhere. Therefore, the teams should be many times more experienced, cautious, funded, supplies and backed up than usual. For example, search and rescue teams in Haiti will not only encounter building debris but large amounts of uncollected garbage, raw and decomposed human waste, and infectious dust and dirt that cannot be avoided.

5. Teams must include articulate and observant Haitian nationals who can bridge and make the best of the inevitable wide gaps in language, literacy, comprehension, stamina, availability and use of technology, performance standards and procedures, and punctuality. For example, where sometimes a team’s sophisticated, high-tech or big -approach may work best, and at other times a native Haitian approach may prove to be superior. This cannot be predicted.

6. Think twice before putting environmental refugees back where they were before disaster struck them. The goal should always be to return them to places that are safer, healthier and more functional than before, in other words, ecologically restored.

7. Teams must stay focused. They cannot allow their mission to be distracted, corrupted, or politicized by the refugees, by the government, by business interest or by any others.

8. Teams should build elements of sustainability into their missions. Investments in infrastructure must also fully include resources for continued operation, maintenance and transfer of knowledge.

9. Every team should have an exit strategy. Preparation and placement for egress can take as much time, energy and expense as the process of insertion and staying in-country.

10. Each team mission should have at least two goals. First, to give teams members the satisfaction of solving problems in their fields of expertise. Second, to bring pride and confidence to the survivors, in this case helping Haitians become independent, ecological, prepared and ultimately capable of assembling and sending their own teams when disastrous natural and manmade events cause environmental refugees in other parts of the world.

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