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Witnessing the Desperation of the Poor

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At the moment the Haiti earthquake struck, two Earth Institute staffers were in Port-au-Prince assessing how to make the country less poor, and less vulnerable to natural disasters. Marc Levy and Alexander Fischer of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network were working with the Haiti Regeneration Initiative, a nascent program to repair Haiti’s poverty-ravaged ecosystems in conjunction with the UN Environment Program. Specifically, they were preparing a study of how to restore watersheds outside the city denuded by decades of deforestation and agricultural overuse, making them vulnerable to landslides during heavy rains—or, earthquakes.

Both men survived. They and a half-dozen Columbia University students also there did what little they could to help, patching people with rudimentary first-aid kits and eventually cramming some of the worst-wounded Haitians into a truck to the airport. But the real help needed, they say, is long term.  “We’ve been talking about how to improve management of resources–this is a really tragic example of what happens when a country is not able to do that,” said Fischer, a political scientist and water-resource specialist.

Levy, also a political scientist, and CIESIN’s deputy director, told the Rockland Journal-News: “Our goal is to provide a lasting foundation for alleviation of poverty in the country. What this experience brings home for me is the consequences of living in a world of extreme inequality. … The people who were very poor were hit very hard. One reason the impact has been so severe in this country is because it so desperately poor. As long as we live in such a world … this kind of suffering will always happen. And so for me, it has redoubled my commitment to try and work to address this inequality.”

Newsweek, National Public Radio, and Levy and Fischer’s hometown papers, carried detailed reports on their experiences and views:

Ecological Recovery Seen as Key to Rebuilding Haiti
Free Speech Radio Network, Feb. 17, 2010

Haiti’s Tomorrow May Be Rooted in Trees, Fertilizer
True/Slant, Feb. 11, 2010

Haiti: How Greening Hillsides Can Help
Huffington Post, Feb. 5, 2010

Greening Haiti Can Bolster Recovery
Water and the World, Feb. 4, 2010

Columbians Recall Haiti Earthquake, Respond to Relief Efforts
The Record, Jan. 28, 2010

Who Should Reconstruct Haiti?
Globo TV, Jan. 26, 2010

Haiti: Addressing the Looming Threat
Newsweek, Jan. 26, 2010

Aid Must Target Haiti’s Underlying Issues
NPR All Things Considered, Jan. 22, 2010

Rebuilding Haiti From the Roots Up
Living on Earth, Jan. 22, 2010

 New City Man Recalls Desperation of Poor
Rockland Journal News, Jan. 22, 2010

Vermonters Recall a Terrifying Day in Haiti
Times-Argus, Jan. 19, 2010

Haiti Quake Shattered Effort to Restore Resources
GreenWire, Jan. 18, 2010

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