On earthquake anniversary, Haiti prepares for another potential disaster

Jan. 12 marked the 6th anniversary of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed 220,000 people. In a country that was already beset by a suffering, the earthquake was the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.  Haiti now faces another potential disaster --- or a golden opportunity, depending on your perspective.  The country is believed to have billions of dollars’ worth of gold reserves, which, under the right conditions, could help address Haiti’s crushing poverty and inequality.  However, the recent disaster in Brazil, in which 17 people were killed by a flood of toxic mine waste, reminds us of the severe risks posed by large-scale mining. Whether mining in Haiti ends up causing further disaster like this or enables the country to realize a dream of a golden future of sustainable development will be a defining challenge for the new Haitian government ---- and for U.S. policy towards the country.

Converting mineral resources into shared prosperity is extremely difficult.  Very few countries around the world have done this effectively.  Globally, the presence of mining revenues is associated with higher levels of corruption, given the multiple opportunities for corrupt dealings around mining including the awarding of mining concessions and approval of environmental impact assessments.  Revenues from mining and oil can be easily manipulated by corrupt officials and parked in off-shore accounts far from public scrutiny and oversight. This phenomenon does not bode well for Haiti, which is already one of the most corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International.   And competition for control of mineral resources along Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic could worsen already high tensions between the two countries.  

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A strong legal framework is essential – one that provides for full public disclosure of mining revenues and contracts and protection of human rights and the environment, which are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of mining. Haiti scores low in this area as well. The State Department’s 2015 Fiscal Transparency Report concludes that Haiti has not made significant progress towards meeting minimum requirements for fiscal transparency, including in the management of natural resource revenues. 

In the past two years, the Haitian government drafted a new mining law with the support of the World Bank.  As analyzed in a report published by Oxfam last year, the proposed new law falls short of adequately protecting the rights of affected communities and the environment.    Moreover, there has been no public debate about the content of the law.  The mining law should be redrafted with the participation of civil society and other relevant stakeholders and establish strong protections for the rights of affected communities, including their right to give or withhold their consent to mining operations.  A new law should also be consistent with the Haitian constitution and  establish requirements for the public disclosure of mining contracts, revenue payments, and environmental and social baseline and monitoring data.

International donors, and the U.S. government in particular, have a key role to play in ensuring a favorable outcome from mining in Haiti. Responsible management of the mining sector should be made a priority issue for U.S. policy towards Haiti. The U.S. government should support efforts to revise the mining law with full participation from civil society. It should help strengthen the oversight capacity of all agencies of the Haitian government involved in mining and support the establishment of an independent public interest and accountability committee with civil society participation.  Most importantly, it should support a moratorium on mining in the country until adequate conditions are met to ensure that that the government does have adequate capacity to manage the sector and protect communities and the environment.

Now is the time for robust policy debate and engagement in Haiti about what role – if any – mining should play in the country’s future.  Once mining begins in earnest, it will be too late to go back and try to build government capacity retroactively.  Urgent steps are needed now by the Haitian government and key donors including the World Bank, IMF and U.S. government to ensure that mining does not become yet another disaster affecting Haiti. 

Joseph is Research and Advocacy coordinator for Oxfam Haiti.