Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Conservation, Development, and American Assistance

Rusty Pritchard


April 27, 2012

By Rusty Pritchard

In honor of Earth Day, we are celebrating efforts by Christians to participate in the redemption of God’s creation.

Working hard to keep my balance, I followed a barefoot 60-year-old Haitian farmer up a mountain gully that sloped at angles exceeding 45 degrees. She moved like a ballerina, floating up over the series of low, rock walls that served as dams to impede floodwaters racing down into the valley. I moved like a slightly tipsy, overly cautious elephant, struggling to find footing as I hauled myself upward.

What we passed along the way were beautiful works of landscape art, like something from an Andy Goldsworthy project. Every 15 to 30 feet were dry-stone walls of intricate construction, fitted together like jigsaw pieces from the irregular stones littering the valley, reaching across the gully as if they emerged from the valley walls themselves. But these dams were not designed to be aesthetic or artistic; they were designed to keep water and soil on the mountain, to slow the rainfall runoff, to create cultivable plots behind each wall and to prevent the mountain soil from burying the city of Gonaives, 10 miles to the west.

Haiti, like many developing nations, is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. The 2010 earthquake devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince, but in previous years other parts of the country also witnessed terrible tragedies. In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne washed much of the topsoil from the surrounding hills into the city of Gonaives, leaving streets, houses, schools and businesses buried in sediment after the floodwaters receded; at the time, the Guardian newspaper called it “a sticky, squelchy version of Pompeii.” In 2008, the topsoil still gone, the subsoil of the hills was washed into the city by four more hurricanes. Tropical cyclones in each of those years found the worst possible spot to stall out, just off the northern coast of Haiti, pumping water from the warm ocean over to the Gonaives watershed, where many valley streams converge into the La Quinte River.

For the past two years, my wife and I have traveled the length and breadth of Haiti, where we saw fabulous works of soil conservation, clean water and irrigation projects in the hills above Gonaives and other populous cities. What we saw were incredible efforts to restore the protective services of forested hillsides, sustaining and reviving the springs that provide drinking water and irrigation to thousands. Other projects capped those springs and fed clean water to public fountains in remote villages. They also lined irrigation canals to increase the productive potential of gardens and cropland, enabling villagers to grow a more reliable and much wider diversity of crops.

Building these projects provided jobs to thousands of refugees who fled earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince, simultaneously providing income to affected families and pumping money into the local economy, supporting local enterprises, farmers and families. The organization administering the work has a philosophy of “cash-for-work” in relief situations, rather than the less-helpful “food-for-work.” Cash-for-work cuts out a layer of bureaucracy, gives power and autonomy to households, lets the free market organize to its maximum extent and lets hungry people choose a diversity of local crops, fruits and vegetables. Food-for-work often ends up benefitting mainly first-world agribusinesses at the expense of local farmers.

The biggest surprise as I observed these projects: the Creole language signs that said, “USAID: Ed Pèp Ameriken” (Aid from the American People). I paid for these kinds of projects in Haiti and elsewhere, and so did you, just by paying taxes. American foreign aid is efficiently promoting free markets, creating jobs, building food security and caring for creation in a country that has had far more than its share of sorrow, corruption and waste. A tiny sliver of our economic product is making a huge and permanent difference in the lives of earthquake and flood victims in a country that has just suffered losses amounting to more than its entire annual economic product.

Only about one percent of U.S. foreign aid goes to conservation. American Christians can help protect effective foreign development assistance from near-sighted funding cuts. Poor people in vulnerable places will thank you, and the world will see what kind of people we are.

—Rusty Pritchard is the co-founder of Flourish, a ministry that equips churches and individual Christians for the work of caring for creation. He is a natural resource economist and consultant to international aid organizations, and in 2010 and 2011 he helped create a nationwide environmental mitigation and monitoring program for development projects in Haiti.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”