By Visiting Professor Jeff Thaler
About 10 years ago, when Steve Herrmann began calling 22 other environmental lawyers around the country about starting a new College, I don’t think he or any of us envisioned the American College of Environmental Lawyer’s (ACOEL) reach extending overseas. Yet, over Memorial Day weekend, six environmental lawyers and professors from around the country (dubbed by one as “Lawyers Without Borders”), spent four whirlwind days in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Our key liaison was Widener Law Professor and former Dean Erin Daly who has spent some of her sabbatical year working at the Université de la Fondation Dr. Aristide (UNIFA). The UNIFA, which was founded by former Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide and his wife Mildred Aristide, was our wonderful host sponsor for the trip.
In brief, I arrived a day early with Erin Daly. Our guide, Junior St. Vil, took us to Sakala – a community center in one of the poorest sections of the city. It was Mother’s Day in Haiti, so there was a celebration going on that we witnessed. We also toured a community garden used to teach children how to grow food using recycled tires as planters.
On Memorial Day, I briefly met Mme. Aristide at UNIFA, then went with Junior to “tour” the city. Port-au-Prince was hit hard by the major 2010 earthquake, and most roads are still in poor shape, clogged with motor vehicles and pedestrians. I saw very few traffic lights or cross walks; everyone shares the road. It thus takes a long time to get from one part of the city (3.5 million people) to another, so most of my morning was spent getting a feel for the street scene, and talking with Junior.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. While one College member (who will remain nameless) said that Haiti ranks higher than the U.S. in the Happiness Index, my back-home research found Haitians much less happy than Americans. However, I suspect that may be explained in part by 1) 70% of the 10 million Haitians have no electricity and are illiterate, 2) most water and sewer infrastructure is in disrepair or worse, 3) only 2% of Haiti’s forest is left, with families reluctantly forced to cut remaining trees for charcoal to cook with, and 4) there are significant “rule of law” challenges from lack of enforcement or viable legal remedies.
Thus, lots of opportunities as well as challenges. Our visit focused in part on the desire of UNIFA and local lawyers to develop a 1-year environmental law LLM program. Currently, “law school” in Haiti is a prescribed, 4-year college curriculum with little focus on environmental, energy or land use issues. During our visit, we met with large groups of students and lawyers, as well as smaller sessions with the local Bar President; leading environmental, energy and sustainability practitioners; and a leading urban planner. As a founder and former President of ACOEL, I presented both on the College’s background and scope, as well as my teaching and lawyering work in Maine, including on UMaine’s floating offshore wind project. (Haiti has some great potential spots it turns out!) All were very appreciative of our visit and willingness to share experiences.
For me, it was clear that everyone wanted to develop, with assistance, initiatives to improve the quality of life for Haitian people. They were well aware of the many damaging pollution and climate change forces hurting the populace and economy. A key question was how best to create home-designed programs similar to what we did in the U.S. in the early 1970s when many of our environmental programs were first started.
The challenge is how best to assist and collaborate with UNIFA and others in Haiti, to make a difference. Now that personal connections have been made, hopefully our Haitian hosts will be better able to propose to us possible measures to develop a sustained menu of actions that we can work on together. I hope to be able to work on environmental or renewable energy education or project-specific initiatives with the great people with whom we met in the near future.