It's hard to make sense of the enormity of what is happening in Haiti. It seems so unfair that some of the poorest people in the world should suffer this blow, delivered by the earth itself. Yet if anything, it is a reminder of how poverty and the environment are interlinked.
An earthquake, of course, is not affected by whether humans are benign or destructive to their environment. We don't yet know whether environmental damage added to the destruction caused by the earthquake, in the way that clearing mangrove swamps in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India for shrimp farms and tourist resorts increased the damage from the 2004 tsunami. We do know that deforestation in Haiti has led to desertification of farmland and growing poverty and left the population vulnerable to floods, such as in 2004 when around 6,000 people died.
I've always found it hard to square the poverty and corruption of Haiti with its history as the first independent state in Latin America and the first post-colonial black run nation in the world. The story of how slave born leader Toussant L'Overture led a slave army to take over the island and repel both the Spanish and the British military forces is awe inspiring. Napolean's army also lost some 50,000 soldiers including 18 generals trying to retake the island, although they kidnapped L'Overture under the guise of a parley and imprisoned him until his death.
By 1825 Haiti was militarily weak enough for France to demand 150 million francs as reparation for lost profits from the slave trade. This contributed to political instability, as did US, British and German military incursions into Haiti. Last century the US held Haiti under military occupation for around twenty years, and then helped prop up the murderous regime of Papa Doc Duvalier and his 'Tonton Macoutes' death squads.
Which all helps to explain the international outcry over the massive US army invasion of Haiti in the wake of the earthquake. While Cuba has been landing hundreds of doctors in Haiti and in fact had hundreds already there as part of an aid program (Cuba exports doctors to poor countries while the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand imports from them), the US has contributed thousands of soldiers. Soldiers can assist in recovery and reconstruction, and there is a concern about security in the face of massively inadequate food and medical supplies, but some US commentators have suggested that air dropping food and water would be a more effective way to reduce looting than flying in the Marines.
The logistics of the aid effort have been shambolic, it seems. Medicins San Frontiers has complained that people have died because of the repeated turning away of aircraft carrying essential medical supplies by the US army in favour of diplomats and US military personnel. Supplies on the ground in Port Au Prince remain undistributed. Tension grows as the population gets hungrier, although US army reports suggest that incidents of violence are below pre-earthquake levels.
I can't agree with Hugo Chavez that this is an occupation of Haiti in disguise. I think that the US effort is motivated by goodwill, but that the USA has come to rely on a military modus operandi. Barking men in camo is the answer to all problems, and so it is logical for the US to show its commitment by the number of troops in its Haiti surge. It's no more than the obvious outcome of an imperial mindset.
Neither do I mean to be unduly critical of the aid effort, since I am sure I couldn't coordinate a better one (but then I am neither trained or paid to do so). One thing we can be sure of is that following the failure of the Copenhagen negotiations the number of humanitarian crises will increase. The impacts of climate change will predominantly be felt by poor countries and they will be reliant on the rich world taking responsibility for the catastrophes it causes. Responding to this scale of emergency is something the world had better get good at.