Haitian SOIL

The need for soil in Haiti is as great as perhaps anywhere in the world. Given its long history of deforestation caused by its people’s need to cut down trees for firewood, Haiti suffers from an epidemic of erosion. In 2006, Sasha Kramer and Sarah Brownell founded Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL, www.oursoil.org) in part to address this situation. SOIL is a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect the remaining Haitian soil, empower communities and transform wastes into resources. It is the transformation of wastes into resources, however, that provides the foundation on which SOIL’s mission is based.

Sasha Kramer

Initially located only in Cap Haitien and its surrounding communities, SOIL began by focusing on providing public ecological sanitation, or Ecosan, toilets that would drain urine, which is sterile, into the ground, while collecting feces to be composted. The decision to concentrate on public toilets was based on a desire to provide as much sanitation, as well as to produce as much compost, as quickly as possible. Initially, the members of the community where the toilets were located would maintain them, but a basic problem with this system soon manifested itself.

“It’s very difficult to make public toilets work, because people don’t want to clean up other people’s poop,” Sasha told me.

There was also a design flaw in the early toilets that exacerbated the situation. Originally, the toilets had large chambers that took six months or more to fill. When it came time to empty them, it turned out that the feces had not dried out as expected. So the community members emptying the toilets were essentially faced with the task of manhandling a huge vat of semi-liquid feces, clearly an unappealing proposition.

Nevertheless, in spite of these difficulties, SOIL proceeded to establish a pilot composting project in Limonade, near Cap Haitien. There, the human waste from the public Ecosan toilets, together with rum processing wastes, garden wastes and market scraps, are aerobically composted into a high quality agricultural fertilizer. Such naturally produced fertilizer could become a critical asset to Haitian farmers, given the generally poor quality of Haitian topsoil and the cost, more than most farmers can afford, of commercial fertilizers. However, first it must be shown to be safe and effective.

A Haitian SOIL employee checks the temperature of compost

A recent study by John Strutner of Notre Dame University found the SOIL compost to be free of fecal pathogens, including cholera, clearing the way for the compost to be tested on SOIL’s pilot garden in Shada. Even though Sasha is very encouraged by this result, further testing needs to be done before the compost can be put into widespread use. Meanwhile, after the January, 2010 earthquake, SOIL expanded its operations to Port-au-Prince, applying the lessons learned in Cap Haitien.

The first change SOIL made was to switch to smaller plastic drums to collect waste. This was followed by a change in the way SOIL manages its public toilets. Due to the logistics of the situation in Port-au-Prince, SOIL realized it would need to hire someone to maintain the toilets it installed in 23 tent camps and 8 schools around the city. While this is more efficient than having the communities maintain the toilets, funding is an issue.

It currently costs about one dollar per drum, or $300 a week, to collect the waste and transport it to the composting center not far from the U.S. Embassy. In the wake of the earthquake, SOIL has been able to acquire sufficient emergency funding to pay for the maintenance service. But with the earthquake now a year in the past, that funding is fading out and Sasha is investigating alternative strategies. One possibility, for the smaller camps at least, is communal toilets.

A Haitian SOIL employee carries plastic drums to be cleaned

These would be shared by four or five families, with each family having a key allowing access. SOIL would pick up and transport the drums, covering the cost out of its budget. While additional funding sources will eventually need to be found, the cost of maintaining the communal toilets should remain less than hiring someone to provide the service. Eventually, however, SOIL’s goal is to move away from public toilets.

“As an organization, we would like to move to household toilets,” Sasha told me.

Although the design has not yet been completed, what Sasha has in mind is basically a wood box that can somehow be sealed to contain odors, with two five gallon buckets, one for solid waste and one for urine. “It would be good if it looked like a piece of furniture, so it wouldn’t be obvious it was a toilet.”

These household toilets would be placed, at least initially, in urban slums. SOIL would probably start with Cite Soleil, in Port-au-Prince, where it already has a foothold with 19 toilets, although not of the household kind, and a pilot neighborhood composting project. The rationale for such a strategic shift has both a personal and a commercial aspect.

From a personal viewpoint, private toilets are more dignified. No one, or very few people anyway, enjoy being in a situation where friends and neighbors can watch one’s toilet going routine as a matter of course. Also, having a toilet inside one’s house conveys a certain social status that most people aspire to, and can therefore be a boon to a person’s self esteem. As can operating a small business, which is central to the commercial aspect of the rationale.

What Sasha envisions is a situation where, ultimately, members of the community start businesses to deal with all aspects of the process, from collecting the drums and delivering them to the local composting center, to composting the waste, to selling and delivering the compost to local farmers. “I’d like to eventually see a market chain develop.”

SOIL’s role in the development of this chain would be to lead each phase, facing its risks and problems first. “I’d want to see SOIL continue to pilot until all the initial mistakes have been made and the system is working.” Sasha’s dream is to ultimately be able to turn the entire enterprise over to Haitians.

Although she has no plans to move from Haiti, at that point she would basically shift to a consulting role. She would also have time to travel to other countries to spread SOIL’s message of sustainability. This is a long term goal, however. There is still much work to be done in Haiti, and Sasha remains in it for the duration.

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About vichinterlangphotojournalist

Vic Hinterlang has been a photojournalist for the past 25 years. He has worked in Central America, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Israel and the U.S. His photos have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, The Economist and The Texas Observer among other publications.
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