Haiti’s Poverty and Deforestation

United Methodist missionary Rick Jost and Solar Ovens

Usually I blog about running and health here. My posts here seem often to be about the beauty of nature – trees, birds, wildlife – seen as I run. This is a story about trees being cut down in Haiti and this problem of deforestation.

Yes, earthquakes kill and maim and destroy, rich and poor alike. But the real killer and maimer and destroyer is poverty. Poverty leads to deforestation.

If the same magnitude – 7.0 earthquake that decimated Port-au-Prince – had struck in a country with better infrastructure and less poverty, perhaps a hundred people would’ve died, not tens of thousands. The earthquake of 1989 in San Francisco was a 7.0 magnitude and killed 63 people. So, poverty makes natural disaster thousands of times worse.

Haiti is often called the poorest of the poor. In 2006, I wrote a story for the Global Ministries’ magazine New World Outlook about Solar Ovens in Haiti. I learned that in May 2004, light rains triggered flooding in Haiti. The same rain fell in the Dominican Republic, the country which shares the island with Haiti. In the DR, less than two dozen people died. In Haiti, three thousand people died. The DR is greener and wealthier.

The problems with deforestation cannot be underestimated. Trees mean more topsoil, less runoff, less disaster when flooding hits, less killer mudslides. That’s why people from the Dakotas United Methodist Church supported the Solar Oven project.

The sun’s heat is an alternative cooking source. I really don’t know how having more trees might positively impact a country like Haiti during an earthquake. I have only reported on the natural disaster of flooding.

But I do know, as the weeks unfold, and as yesterday’s Christian Science monitor story suggests, reforestation should be a priority as Haiti rebuilds and returns. Harnessing the cooking power of the sun is preferable to cutting down trees for firewood.

Remembering Clint

I was walking with Clint and Adam on Claremont, heading home from work. They were headed to McSorley’s Pub and invited me to join them. Clint had never been there. I had been there too many times in college. I begged out – kids, husband, dinner to make. (I had wanted to and now, of course, I wish I had.)

For some reason as we walked to the subway that night, we got talking about our cell phones. They both told me I had to get Google Maps. Clint said it was great for getting around the city, for finding your way.  

People are complex. It shows in their friendships. Like the friendship between Clint and Adam.

“Clint and Adam were best friends? But they’re so different!” Charlotte, one of my 10-year olds, told me a few days ago. Not so different – both handsome, quick-witted, global. Their thirty-something year age difference didn’t seem to matter.

Clint saw beyond perceived differences in people. He seemed to make and keep friends easily.

Clint was devoted to his unlikely and diverse family of friends. I realized this during the worship at the fall board meeting a few years ago. During that service, the presiding bishop asked family and close friends who knew each new missionary or had walked with them on their life’s journey to stand. I felt too embarrassed to stand up for anyone, although I knew and liked some of the new missionaries.  

The Vangs are members of the United Methodist Hmong Community of Minnesota. They were being commissioned to serve in Southeast Asia. When the Vangs names were spoken, Clint stood. He stood very tall, very happy, very proud. He was not embarrassed. Afterwards, he hugged the Vangs tightly.

A colleague told me that Clint had a heart for Southeast Asia. It surprised me. I don’t know why. Yes, Clint had a folksy, Texan, big-hearted charm. I just had not seen Clint as the global, diverse, loving man he was until that worship when I saw him hugging the entire Vang family. He was such a gentle giant.

As a tribute to Clint who cultivated such a diverse group of friends like Adam and the Vangs, I, too, want to stand for people who appear different. I think, even better than Google Maps, that was the way Clint found his way around.

Remembering Sam

“I’d like to take a year off to photograph sunrises every day for a year,” Sam had said. “I’m funny like that.”

We were walking out of 475 on Claremont from work at the same time one day, maybe a year ago. This creative and poetic side to Sam Dixon surprised and impressed me. I can’t remember the context of our conversation. Did he say we wanted to photograph both sunrises and sunsets? Was it the beauty of the day’s sunset that sparked this conversation?

I remembered this snatch of conversation on Wednesday when I first heard Sam had been in the Hotel Montana in Haiti during the earthquake. It seemed no one had survived. I felt deeply sad. Sad that Sam wouldn’t get to take that year off to capture those daily miracles.

Then I heard that Sam was rescued on Friday. I laughed to myself and said, “Shoot, I’m going to tease Sam about that conversation. I’m gonna’ ask him when I see him, ‘Will you take some time off now to photograph the daily sunrise?’ I’m gonna’ tell him, “I couldn’t get that conversation out of my mind.” I was so glad he was alive. So glad. Then, on Saturday night, I learned that he hadn’t been rescued at all. So sad.

I remembered one of my last conversations with Sam, a few weeks ago. I was looking for Paul Kong, his predecessor at the development fund, on the 15th floor. Our offices were all discombobulated since the downsizing over the last couple of months. We didn’t know where to find each other. I hadn’t realized UMCOR had moved to the 15th floor. Then, I saw Sam.

He was back in his old office – the same office he’d had when he headed the evangelism department a few years earlier. At that time, occasionally, I’d find myself perched with a notebook in front of the big man and his big desk. He was always accessible, always smart, always kind, always easy-going, always funny, always good with a quote.

“Hey,” I stepped into his office. “You’re back in this office?” I asked. He had his old view of the Hudson, the Palisades, the George Washington Bridge. “It’s nice here. Must feel familiar?” I asked him.

“Yup,” he said, smiling, nodding, looking around. “Kinda’ like coming home.”

I hope that in his death, Sam really is home, more home than in his 15th floor office, more home than in his own home. Maybe in death, Sam is getting to take in the daily sunrise. Maybe, in some way, he’s a part of it.

One way I’m going to remember Sam is by paying attention to the daily miracle of the sunrise and the sunset. I might even photograph a few, just ’cause Sam didn’t get to.