Haiti: how permaculture is proving a vital tool in disaster relief

Cory Brennan
Monday, 31st January 2011

When the earthquake hit Haiti in January 2009, Cory Brennan from The Permaculture Guild was teaching a permaculture course in Little Haiti, Miami, Florida. After assessing what was most needed, she assisted six permaculturists and sustainability experts to get to Port Au Prince shortly after the earthquake. This is their story

After receiving reports on the ground, we determined that the major life threatening situations were water and sanitation. There were no city-wide water or sewage systems in place before the earthquake, and water borne disease had always been a problem but in the chaos after the quake, the risk became dire. We knew that resources would be almost non-existent in some areas and rescue organizations might not reach those areas for weeks. Permaculture had solutions, using local resources, that others didn't have for handling human waste and un-filtered water.

Getting There

Port Au Prince airport, the only international airport near the quake zone was closed to everything but military and rescue planes, and other ways into the quake zone, such as the road from Dominican Republic, were unpredictable – many roads had sustained damage in the quake. I arranged for the teams to fly into Port Au Prince via planes chartered by Church of Scientology Volunteer Ministers disaster relief organization and stay at the Volunteer Minister camp. This worked out well with the teams rapidly creating connection with major hospitals, UNICEF, the US Army, ACTED and other major organizations. All of them needed their specialized skills.

The goal was to save lives by getting low tech, sustainable solutions out there rapidly, while establishing relationships with both Haitians and NGOs that could be developed in the future for longer term design projects.

The first team that arrived was Mark Illian and Monika Cikhart, from Nature Healing Nature (naturehealingnature.org), a non profit organization specializing in teaching villages around the world how to filter water via low tech methods, using locally available materials such as sand and plastic bottles, cloth and sand. (For more hi tech methods see www.naturehealingnature.org/resource_pages/pictograms/1_kaf_construction...) The second wave was made up of Rodrigo Silva, a permaculturist and sanitation specialist from Portugal who has built compost toilets for 30,000 people at a time at European festivals; Nicole-Klaesener Metzner, another compost toilet specialist from Austria, and Andrew Larsen, a systems engineer and sustainable sanitation expert from Salt Lake City.


The 'water team' of Nature Healing Nature immediately set to work showing people how to filter their own water. They worked with the sanitation team, but also on their own when it made sense to do so, traveling where the need was greatest. Because water filtration has traditionally been poor in Haiti, their educational work had a lot of potential to save lives – the death rate from dysentery and other water borne diseases, especially of children, was high even before the earthquake. In addition to helping provide a clean water supply, they set up showers for rescue workers, such as medical personnel who hadn't been able to shower for days, helped Haitians link up to organizations that had funding and resources, organized emergency food and water distribution, and did whatever was necessary to facilitate the process of Haitians getting back on their feet in as sustainable way as possible.


Many people who survived the quake were injured, losing limbs or dying because of the horrible sanitation in the make-shift hospitals. All the hospitals in the area were damaged and operations were occurring in makeshift tents with im-provised instruments. There were not enough doctors, so rescue workers with no medical background or experience were instantly deputized to act as surgeon assistants. There was so much chaos that it is hard to comprehend.

The sanitation team's first major project was the main general hospital in Port Au Prince, where sanitation was almost completely out of control. Huge piles of garbage surrounded the hospital with everything from human faeces and body parts to needles and toxic substances in the mass. The toilets were backed up, filthy, and unusable. Our team worked out how to clean the area and arranged for trucks to haul the trash (it was a major feat at that time to get fuel, never mind a truck to put it in), set up proper disposal systems, and got funding to pay local Haitians to clean the trash sites so that tents could be set up to treat patients in a clean environment. As a result of their work, an inspection of the site found almost no garbage anywhere in the vicinity of the hospital. This most certainly contributed to saving lives and limbs.

Their next target was sanitation for a nearby camp. A huge handicap was lack of materials – there was almost no wood or organic material available anywhere. They improvised, using shipping pallets and whatever material they could find. Their initial target was to isolate human waste so it wouldn't contaminate water. In the process, they taught Haitians how to build compost toilets and explored how organic material could be created by growing fast growing plants like vetiver grass and bamboo (both of which grow readily in Haiti). In between, because of the extreme need, they helped distribute food and water, and did anything else that was needed. They inspected wells with the US Army, taught rescue workers how to build safe latrines for their camps, built showers, and they worked with UNICEF to assess sanitation needs for orphanages. Feedback from rescue workers were that their skill sets were very valuable and they would welcome permaculturists and low tech, sustainable solutions at any disaster site.

As systems became more established, Rodrigo started organizing and attending meetings to create recycling in Port Au Prince. The waste streams are impressive – millions of plastic water bottles shipped in during rescue efforts, cardboard, tent material, etc. Nicole started working for an NGO and got them to use arbor loos in one of the camps. Andrew connected with the Give Love project (www.givelove.org) in Cite Soleil, and helped build a compost toilet system for a camp of 2,500 people, with a team made up of Joe Jenkins, Rodrigo and other humanure experts. Paule Jacques, a Permaculture Design Course student from Little Haiti in Miami, hooked the project up with her contact, the Minister of the Environment of SE Haiti, Jean Ked Neptune, who connected permaculturists with Haitian non-profits, so they could 'teach the teachers' sustainable methods of growing food and handling water and waste with workshops.

Rodrigo is a real hero, subsequently volunteering most of his time in Haiti. For a year now, he has been building compost toilets and working on recycling and connecting food to the waste stream all over Haiti. Most recent projects include building compost toilets for 2000 children in a camp in Port Au Prince, and building four community toilets for Tilory EcoSan near the border of Dominican Republic, a givelove.org and one-truck.org project. His Haitian partner Jean Lucho has also been really instrumental in assisting.

Permaculture Education

I traveled to Haiti in May 2010 to assess the projects and the situation in Port Au Prince at that point, and to connect with the Jean Ked. I felt that training Haitians in perma-culture was key, and was able to fund a trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for the Haitian Minister of the Environment and his associate to do the Permaculture Design Course there. We felt Pine Ridge was a very approp-riate venue because of similar conditions of watersheds, economics, and degraded landscapes. Since returning to Haiti, Ked has started a vermicomposting project that will link into creating a stable local economy as well as revitalizing degraded lands, and intends to do village sized permaculture projects.

Hunter Heaivilin, a skilled permaculturist who also speaks French and Kreyo, also linked with Jean Ked and has helped influence hundreds of people in Haiti through his sanitation and permaculture courses. Like Rodrigo, he is commmitted to volunteering if he can simply get expenses covered.

Because of the connections we made through the project, we've been able to link up several permaculture resources across the country with each other so they can exchange energies, and we are currently assisting in the organization of a database of all things permaculture in Haiti, so that more beneficial connection can be achieved. For more information on the database, write to Olivia Jeanne at: [email protected].


There is much opportunity for permaculture in Haiti – hillsides in Port Au Prince are dotted with the Haitian version of three sisters – corn, pigeon pea and squash or melon, plus various herbs and other vegetables. We also saw many mango and neem trees as well as mangosteen, noni, soursop, moringa and other potential value-added foods. Because it is so mountainous, microclimates abound in Haiti and almost anything tropical or semi-tropical could grow here if there is soil. Haitians are already accustomed to low tech solutions and if something works, its use can spread rapidly through grassroots.

In the countryside, housing is similar to traditional quincha mejorada houses in Central America – made of sticks and earth – and can withstand weather and even earthquakes. If bamboo is used instead of sticks, this type of housing becomes sustainable and easy to build. With the right earth plasters, it can be made to resemble the popularly accepted concrete housing in Port Au Prince.

Broadscale reforestation and erosion control is vital – at one time Haiti was the breadbasket of the Caribbean, supplying food for many other countries. Now it imports much of its food and continues to deplete its soils by cutting trees. Many reforestation projects have failed because they did not include human systems in the design process. By incorporating economic solutions, we can ensure that forests remain, once planted. There is opportunity in disaster because systems need to be rebuilt, and can be rebuilt sustainably.

We are in the planning stages on a Haitian reforestation project that incorporates sustainable human systems (financial and social permaculture, self-sufficient food, water, shelter and energy), and are interested in networking and co-operating with other projects. There is much work to be done but many hands to do it. Perhaps what touched me most of all was the optimism I encountered. In spite of the suffering Haitians have endured, when offered channels to improve their condition, interest and enthusiasm rise to the surface.

Our main focus is currently getting education out about how to prevent and treat cholera, using low tech methods and inexpensive or free resources (like hand washing, compost toilets that kill pathogens, soapnuts and other cleansing plants). We are deeply grateful to all of you who donated and made this journey possible – your donations did save many lives and they continue to do so


You can make a tax-deductible donation in one of two ways: Send a $ check made payable to 'Earth Learning' to Permaculture Haiti Fund, 8201 SW 99 Court, Miami, FL 33173, USA or donate online at: www.permacultureguild.us/category/donate/

Cory Brennan is a permaculture designer who has worked in the fields of social justice and human rights for 20 years in the Los Angeles area. She has taught permaculture and co-organizes a sustainability and resilience project at Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota with the Oglala-Lakota Cultural and Environmental Revitilization Initiative. Her areas of expertise and passion are food forestry, community building and financial permaculture.

Arbor loos are simple: a small concrete slab with a hole is placed over a shallow pit, usually no more than 1m (3ft) deep. Soil and ash is added after each use, transforming the waste into productive compost. When the pit is full, the concrete slab is removed and put over another shallow pit and the old pit is planted with a tree. 

Useful resources

Recycling human waste to improve sanitation and produce food

Build a compost toilet, ladies urinal and solar shower from recyled materials

How to build a rocket stove

Outdoor cooking: how to make a hobo stove

DIY: how to make a backpacking wood gasifier stove

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joemac |
Thu, 03/02/2011 - 18:50
This is really inspiring stuff, although it would be interesting to know how long the permaculturalists were there, and what their long-term impact will be...
John Adams |
Fri, 04/02/2011 - 11:12
<p style="text-align: left;">This article is also available as a sample of the pdf version of PM67. If you go to <a href="http://bit.ly/PM67_download">http://bit.ly/PM67_download</a> and click PM67 Download (sample) it will open a pdf copy of the article with live links to several related websites. Give it a try and take advantage of the extra content.</p>
Theresa Wood |
Sat, 05/02/2011 - 17:04
Thanks - it makes a change to read about positive actions in Haiti that are making a difference to people.
Tony Rinaudo |
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 09:26
just fyi - tree regeneration as opposed to tree planting has save millions of dollars and resulted in very cheap, rapid reforestation in parts of Africa. This video clip might be of interest to you - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9DpptI4QGY
permagirl |
Thu, 21/04/2011 - 16:52
We feel this project was very successful because most of the people who participated continue to be active in Haiti. Rodrigo is still there, building compost toilets for thousands and training many others to do so. Hunter is returning in May to teach a Permaculture Design Course with Larry Santoyo on Gonave Island (which has amazing potential for permaculture), Nicole is still there working for an Aid agency and spreading sustainable design ideas in that sector, and Andrew has stayed active with the Give Love Foundation in Haiti and has returned twice. I am focused on another project (at Pine Ridge Lakota reservation) for this spring and summer, but will follow up with the Minister of the Environment and other projects to continue support. Cory Brennan permacultureguild.us
Cali |
Sun, 02/10/2011 - 12:29
Inspiring projects of how how taking care of nature is the way out: http://sadhanaforest.org/wp/2011/04/welcome-to-sadhana-forest-haitis-new-main-hut/