Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2010


College dedicates Green to Jean C. Tempel ´65

Visitors enjoy a shady spot in the new Outdoor Classroom on the Jean C. Tempel ´65 Green, dedicated on the Saturday of Commencement Weekend,. Photo by A. Vincent Scarano.

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The Fine Line

The Fine Line
Hans Eysenbach ´09, left, and Mike Seager ´09, center, work to mitigate the environmental impacts of their infrastructure projects, such as rubble removal and construction of homes, schools and roads.

Environmentalists Mike Seager ´09 and Hans Eysenbach ´09 help Haitians balance immediate needs with sustainable solutions

by Benjamin Eagle ´09

When Mike Seager ´09 first traveled to Haiti last October, he came away astonished by the problems that plagued the island nation. And things would soon get so much worse.

Seager works for Sun Mountain International, a socioeconomic development organization that was in Haiti working to mitigate the environmental impacts of infrastructure projects there.

It was no easy task.

“Every environmental problem I studied in college, I saw on the ground in Haiti,” says Seager, who was a certificate student in the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment. “There were children in the streets who had rashes because they bathed in draining canals, and the waste management and deforestation were horrible.”

Then in January, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince, killing 230,000 people and destroying what minimal infrastructure was in place.

Now tent cities sprawl through the nation´s capital, sheltering the more than 1 million Haitians left homeless when their houses collapsed.

“More people are now living in tighter spaces than they were before the earthquake,” Seager says, ?“and with far less access to clean water, food and sanitary services.”

Aid for people — and the environment

After completing an internship on Capitol Hill last summer, Seager found himself on the job hunt. Through Peter Baum ´07 he learned about Sun Mountain International, a Quito, Ecuador-based group that works with other nonprofit organizations throughout the world, providing environmental evaluations and other consultations. In Haiti, the group was hired by CHF International, which, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has built and repaired roads, improved access to clean water, and created a job-training center.

USAID again funded CHF after the earthquake, for relief and recovery efforts, and CHF again hired Sun Mountain to reduce the environmental impacts of their work. Seager returned to the disaster-torn island in February — this time with his classmate Hans Eysenbach ´09, who had just taken a position at Sun Mountain. The trip to Haiti was Eysenbach´s first week on the job.

Eysenbach is also an alumnus of the Goodwin-Niering Center, and his background proved helpful for his first assignment: assessing transitional shelters built for children from an orphanage destroyed in the earthquake. CHF had planned to treat the wooden shelters with the preservative zinc naphthenate, which Eysenbach describes as “not a good thing to be living in close quarters with.” In addition to causing birth defects, he says, the chemical is toxic to aquatic life.

“A lot of what we do (in Haiti) is take into consideration the environmental health factors that may be overlooked in an attempt to get things done quickly,” Eysenbach says. His recommendation that CHF skip the wood treatment saved the organization not only money but time.

But not every situation that Seager and Eysenbach face is so straightforward. In Port-au-Prince, bisecting a major marketplace is a 10-foot drainage canal filled with human waste, standing water and debris. “People either throw their trash directly into the canal or (into) a municipal Dumpster that never gets emptied,” Eysenbach says, “and when it rains, the Dumpster overflow washes right into the canal anyways.”

With no other means of trash disposal at hand, it might seem logical that CHF would just clear the canal. But Eysenbach is wary of taking that route. “If the only trash collection occurs when a nonprofit comes with the funding to clear it out, that reinforces the norm of using the drainage canal (as a Dumpster),” he explains.

In the eye of the storm?

In May, Seager and Eysenbach returned to Haiti to continue their work with CHF International to determine the long-term environmental impacts of their projects. But short-term recovery is of paramount concern. For even as survivors rebuild their lives and their country, another disaster looms on the horizon.

“Floods, disease, hunger and lack of shelter are imminent threats to those living in tent cities,” Seager says. And that vulnerability is compounded as the hurricane season — which forecasters predict could be one of the worst on record — gets underway.

Yet in these shantytowns, where sometimes upwards of 16,000 people are sharing as few as 70 poorly maintained latrines, life does go on. Children fly kites and play soccer in the streets, Seager says, and bars and even movie theaters have popped up in the tent cities — “a testament to the adaptability and resilience of the Haitian people.”

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