By Julia Jolibois
10 years later, a law enacted from July 2013 prohibiting the production, import, marketing and use in any form whatsoever of polyethylene bags and expanded polystyrene objects (EPS or PS crystal or styrofoam), is far from respected. An implantation flouted even by the authorities, starting with the various ministries up to the civil servants, and which include the agents of the private administrations.
Victims of smuggling
Under the blazing sun, the Salomon market in downtown Port-au-Prince comes alive to the rhythm of the comings and goings of merchants, street vendors who gather and appear to be in a hurry, and buyers getting products in bulk. The displays of goods on the sidewalks make it difficult to pass, in the midst of buyers negotiating with sellers, when they find a product to be too expensive (Tèt neg).
Despite the insecurity, people jostle to do their shopping, in a hurry to pick up meat or rice, very popular products at the heart of this busy market. Here, the sewers are clogged with styrofoam objects and plastic bags protruding under the weight of other merchandise. That was where we met Audette Mertyle, a 45-year-old foam products merchant and mother of six children.
“I go to Belladère or Jimani-Malpasse to collect these products. We small traders encounter unimaginable difficulties. To pass with the products, we have to pay customs. If we are lucky, we can pass with them. But more often we are searched and smugglers steal our supplies for the benefit of bigger traders”, says Mertyle, with her face full of indignation, sitting on a bench.
Smuggling is a violation of the customs code of July 13, 1987. If we trust the testimonies of small traders, smuggling is more than flourishing in the border areas. Article 417 of the said code, amended by the law of March 22, 2012 in its article 61, defines smuggling as any import or export outside offices as well as any violation of the legal or regulatory provisions relating to the possession and transport of goods inside the customs territory.
Large scale importers, who return with the foam products without any customs control, participate in this smuggling, but also small traders who wrap the illegal products in inconspicuous fabrics (old dirty bags) and hide them in the dark, such as inside open access product cases. For at least five years, successfully crossing the border to return with products has been far from smooth sailing for small traders.
“Many of us get exploited at the border. Sometimes we come home empty-handed. Unfortunately, some sellers are killed by armed gangs,” complains Mertyle. Those traders who risk their lives hiding at the Haitian-Dominican border, see themselves are often the first to be the victims of the corrupt customs authorities, in cahoots with the major importers of products.
Containers of foam products from major importers are escorted by Haitian National Police officers and official cars, revealed the digital news and investigative media, Enquet’Action, which investigated the matter. This information confirms that the State which prohibits the importation and marketing of foam products contradicts itself to the point of monopolizing this trade to manufacture its own butter.
This smuggling circuit is a fact recognized by the Francophone Action Group for the Environment (GAFE), a civil society organization. “Polystyrene feeds extremely lucrative smuggling circuits with ramifications in the political sphere. The activists even called the Customs to denounce the acts of smuggling” adds Virginie Pochon, project manager of the organization. “ Polystyrene has entered the Haitian way of life. Nothing is more invisible than what extends to everyone’s eyes” adds Pochon.
The official law of August 9, 2012 is the first decision taken by the Martelly-Lamothe government against the re-entry of these products in Haiti. Casually, it was totally ignored to the point of producing another one on August 1, 2013 which prohibits the import and marketing of expanded polystyrene objects on Haitian territory. 10 years later, this law is far from being respected. Decisions flouted even by the authorities, starting with the various ministries to civil servants, without forgetting the agents of private administrations.
“The State has not imposed any sanction against the entry of those products into Haiti. If there were any, the customs officers would not allow these products to enter. The ban you are talking about is more for the poor who buy these products at the border” says Mertyle, speaking to one of her friends at the market who confirms her statements. So many other interviewees who say they ignore the administrative formalities decision to ban styrofoam products in Haiti. This is the case of Jameson Dominique, a 3rd year law student in his twenties, met in a van passing in front of the Salomon Market.
“As a law student, I was not aware of the orders and the law relating to the ban of styrofoam products in Haiti. We see them everywhere, to believe that they are indeed legal on the territory” says Jameson. On the contrary, since the entry of these decisions, these harmful and catastrophic plastic materials for the Caribbean coasts are engulfing the territory.
… the unfortunate cause of those foams in Haiti
The rains of June 3 and 4, 2023 caused enormous damage in several cities of the country, in particular in Léôgane where the floods carried away houses, killing at least 20 people. These floods are causing irrigation canals clogged with waste, including plastics and polystyrene objects. Proof that its illicit products harm the environment. A place in Port-au-Prince holds our attention for the purposes of this publishing. This is the Bois de Chêne river – emerging at the Bicentenaire near the National Theatre. It’s a real dumping ground for plastic waste and the tons of alluvium that accumulates there. Polystyrene plates and containers and there are so many of them.
“There is an emergency in the Bicentenary district not far from the premises of the National Theater. People must stop littering the oak wood already full of rubbish. When the rains come, the foul waters overflow all over the Bicentenary. I was a victim once, the waters almost swept me away” says Marie Jean-Baptiste, a woman in her thirties, close to Mertyle, who joined the conversation to express her frustrations. The State must clean this ravine which overlooks the city of all kinds of rubbish.
As Marie said, there is urgency, and this urgency, if acted on, could help to prevent the growth of plastics which fill all the sewers and pollute all the street corners of the Haitian capital.
Lisez l’article en anglais Haïti: le décret interdisant l’importation et l’utilisation des produits en foam jeté aux oubliettes
Engineer Jean Donald Paraison, former director general of the Metropolitan Solid Waste Collection Service (SMCRS) between September 2011 and December 2013, and between April 2014 and January 2015 explains that: “The foam in themselves are not problematic, because they are well used by other countries. The problem is the management that is done after having used it. But also, the fact of making the street and the ravines their first destinations, which however should be in a dumpster, by having an assigned entity that comes to collect them “.
This was what Marie had to say to us: “What bothers me the most is that other countries use them more than we do. We have a problem from an organizational point of view. These products could be recycled and used to make bags and flowerpots. Why don’t we use foam products?” she asks.
In addition to that, it is known that burnt polystyrene objects can harm our health by inhaling this harmful smoke. Dr. Kerry Norbrun, resident in social work, 28, explains that Haitians tend to burn polystyrene meanwhile this practice is very bad, because they release the styrene contained in its products which is a real health poison. “When we eat food still hot in polystyrene containers, we expose ourselves to cancer” explains the doctor, adding that polystyrene is a source of diseases such as cancer, leukemia and Parkinson’s disease.
Civil society says “Pa gen kanpe”
The Francophone Action Group for the Environment (GAFE), which has been organizing mobilization campaigns against polystyrene for several years, calls on all social strata to rise up against its harmful products. “Every July 10, climate activists from the national citizen movement for the climate Alternatiba Haiti, demonstrate on the occasion of the national day of mobilization against polystyrene. For example, on July 10, 2022, the activists found themselves in front of Customs in Belladère which delivered an official letter” supporting the GAFE project manager.
On July 7, 2022, a 5th documented activity was held in Belladère highlighting innovative environmental initiatives aimed at citizens, political decision-makers, international organizations and members of civil society. In agreement with Alternatiba, a citizen movement for the climate, the environment and social justice, they discussed the commitment of the Haitian and Dominican State for the protection and safeguarding of the island.
The activists say they are indignant to see that despite the initiatives taken and the administrative decisions adopted, the trade and use of non-biodegradable products, such as polystyrene and other plastics of all kinds, is constantly entering the territory. In this case, an open letter was published in the press on April 26, 2018 for the total and definitive banishment of single use food containers on the territory.
The GAFE met with former president, Jovenel Moïse on October 3, 2018, to discuss the harmful dangers of polystyrene. On June 5, 2019, climate activists called customs to denounce the acts of smuggling. Subsequently, in 2020, letters were sent to the concerned ministries by the application of the law from July of 2013. None of these attempts were succeeded, the agents of the Ministry of the Environment mocking the catastrophic situation. Despite everything, the activities of those activists do not end there.
“We can say that this advocacy has succeeded when we no longer see polystyrene in Haiti. Which is unfortunately not the case. Nevertheless, little by little, the practices of citizens and certain civil society organizations are changing and more and more of them are no longer using these utensils and adopting ways of protecting the environment” indicates the GAFE, which feels confident in the culmination of this movement.
Despite the chronic instability, the Groupe D’action Francophone Pour l’Environnement supports several organizations within the framework of specific programs to ban polystyrene and young people in six municipalities. On November 17 and 18 of 2023, the GAFE will organize a regional colloquium on the subject with Caribbean actors.
Impacts on marine ecosystems and the coastline
On July 10, 2020, David Tilus, Executive Director of GAFE invited Haitian director and producer Arnold Antonin to speak on the subject. The latter is the director of the film “Thus Spoke the Sea“, dealing with the wealth and behavior of Haitians vis-à-vis the sea. He spoke by video conference about the harmful effects of polystyrene foam on marine ecosystems and the coast. “The entire coastal perimeter of Haiti is one huge dumpster, full of plastic waste, polystyrene and water bags that number in the thousands. I wonder why the state does not ban their entries. A discharge all along the coast which has a direct effect on the sea” says Tilus.
Plastic waste destroys corals by preventing them from breathing. They kill turtles that ingest the plastics thinking they are jellyfish. Even the herbivorous animals we eat like beef, goats, that are unable to find grass, eat the plastics and die. In the next five to 10 years, there may be more plastic than fish in the seas around the world, explains Arnold Antonin who carried out a survey of the Haitian coasts for his documentary. To believe that we plasticize the planet, and La Gonâve is now very populated. These people can be victims at any time, says the filmmaker and claims that the La Gonâve used to be the adjacent islands of Haiti, nicknamed the Cow Island. Haiti is one of the countries most affected by cyclones. Corals destroyed by plastics can no longer hold back the weather. These areas are therefore under the threat of floods and natural disasters.
Regarding the consumption of fish, plastic waste being composed of chemicals harmful to health, fish that swallow these polystyrene materials among others, become toxic to our body according to specialists. “Many of us are prone to cancer. Therefore, polystyrene and plastics are the worst enemies of man and the environment” insists Arnold Antonin.
What to do and who will do it?
Speaking of harmfulness, many complain about the dangers they pose to the environment. This is underlined by Tanie Gué, a shopkeeper who struggled with her body weight in her fifties who runs a shop in the Nerette district. She was stocking up when we met her. “As she stares at the street corners filled with garbage while”, she says “the state should get rid of these foam products from the street or install garbage cans so that the people who have used them can have somewhere to throw away the plates”.
The merchant also requires the presence of environmental officers to clear the streets of these piles of garbage. “These foam products must be replaced by glass or cement paper containers, as was the case under the Duvalier regime” she underlines, indignantly. To his remarks are added those of Mertyle Audette, that one particular merchant met at the Salomon Market. “I sell foam objects, but I am aware that they dirty the streets of Port-au-Prince, because people, after having consumed them, throw the “bwat blan” in the street. We are the first victims, because the torrents of water with the slightest rain carries its objects inside our homes and causes flooding” complains Mertyle as she gets up to sell to a customer.
A report entitled “Analysis of the 2013-2014 annual programming of the Ministry of the Environment and the associated budget credits: Findings and recommendations, dated September 2013“, written by Joseph Ronald Toussaint, as Special Environment Advisor to the Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, recommends the following: “The continuation of source reduction operations with the establishment of fixed points for agents of the Environmental Surveillance Corps at the level of the Haitian-Dominican border ” but also “ the continuation of seizure and destruction of packaging at the expense of large retailers (supermarkets), importers or holding companies”.
This document was expressly written above all to encourage craftsmen, economic operators and civil society to invest in bioplastics, new plastic materials from renewable resources (plastic resins from plants such as bagasse from sugar cane and other resins from seaweed and to develop craft activities for the manufacture of packaging materials). Unfortunately, from 2012 until today, none of these recommendations have been taken into account.
In the same report, a recommendation was made by a 2nd year student at the National Institute of Administration, Management and Advanced International Studies (Inaghei). A 23-year-old sits next to another student on a public transport bus heading to the market. “In my opinion, people should be encouraged to pick up polystyrene utensils by promising them a reward” she says. Recall that in the past, people collected the plastic soft drink bottles at every street corner to pick them up to bring them to an institution responsible for receiving them, and they used to earn bonuses.
The sun is setting, traders, merchants in Solomon’s market quickly pack up their belongings to head home. Not wanting to be a victim of the insecurity that rages in the country, Audette Mertyle picks up the polystyrene goods to go and deposit them in a safe place. According to her, if the leaders of this country take seriously the living conditions of the poorest, they will find a way to cleanse the country of all this garbage. “But they are interested in the money. They have big economic interests to defend in this plastic case. They have nothing to do with us. Even if I sell these products and they bring in a lot of money, I am for his banishment as long as the State assumes its responsibilities”.
Translate by Moise Lena Jean Louis
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