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In Haiti, Trash on Streets Becomes the Norm

EVERY day women with broad-rimmed straw hats peddle everything from mangos to condensed milk here in the capital city's marketplace. They have always had to contend with the sun. Now it's garbage.

''It's an outrage,'' says Olivier, a woman who has been selling bananas in the same spot for the last decade. With a two-month-old garbage crisis still going on, she shoves her stool into several feet of garbage instead of the sidewalk. ''We live just like the animals that feed off the garbage we're sitting on,'' she says.

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Garbage collection is just one of the many services that suffers under Haiti's economic crisis. But it is more visible than the others and potentially more dangerous. Hundreds of thousands of Haiti's poor live on top of garbage considered a menace to public health.

''Garbage brings with it all sorts of illness,'' says Environmental Minister Yves Andre Wainright. ''It impacts business because the growing mounds block street access. It causes tension because people have to live with the smell and knowledge of disease. It's inhumane.''

''There's a phenomenon developing, where there is so much garbage that people are beginning to accept it as normal,'' says Moise Jean Pierre, an engineer in charge of solid-waste management and pollution control for Port-au-Prince.

Two years ago, the city hired nearly 50 teams of 15 people each to sweep up the debris. After 22 months of work, the sweepers received their first and only paychecks last October.

Haiti has budgeted about $8 million for garbage collection in Port-au-Prince and three surrounding suburbs. But the government has been operating at a deficit ever since President Jean Bertrand Aristide was returned to office by the Americans in October 1994. The new parliament, scheduled to take office Feb. 7, will be operating on the 1995 budget that ended in October. It has yet to approve the 1995-96 budget of $712 million.

For the last 15 years, responsibility for garbage collection has been tossed back and forth between the Ministry of Transportation and city hall. Collection is currently in the hands of the Ministry of Transportation and Public Works. Until March 1995, it contracted out collection to three private companies using temporary financing from the United States Agency for International Development.

Lack of materials, disorganization, and graft left much garbage uncollected. Even when the government came up with five more months of emergency funding, much of the refuse was left unattended. Government funds ran out in December.

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Everyone agrees the only solution is one that will allow garbage pickup to be self-funded. Officials are studying options that include taxes on electricity, telephones, or gasoline.

The Ministry of Environment, which may be forced to close because of budget cuts, is looking into researching possible solutions. Composting could create employment and help regenerate Haiti's badly depleted topsoil. One option already being tested on the Haitian market is charcoal, created from burned garbage. It is as efficient and cost-effective as the wood-burned charcoal currently used for fuel.

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