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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

An Act of God?
distributed 6/4/04 - ©2004

I don't expect any insurance adjusters to be visiting the communities in Haiti and the Dominican Republic that were recently devastated by floods. But if they did, I'm sure that they would classify the widespread death and destruction as "an act of God."

Heartfelt prayers of concern in many churches around the world may have taken a similar approach, if they described the event as a "natural disaster."

Those characterizations are not fair to either God or to Nature.

Some of what happened had natural causes, but other economic and political factors increased the destruction. The terrible floods must be seen, in part, as a social disaster.

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On May 24, enormous floods swept through an area along the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. At least 2,000 people died, thousands are left homeless, and entire villages have been washed away. Crops and livestock also were devastated.

Two weeks of heavy rain set the stage for disaster. Then, in what can only be described as a deluge, the area received up to five feet of rain in a 36 hour period. Such an astonishing volume of precipitation qualifies for the "act of God" label, and forms the natural basis for what happened. But other factors contributed to the tragic results.

Haiti -- the source of most of the flooding -- is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with a per capita income of about $400. The extreme poverty leads to the fact that Haiti is also the most deforested country in the Americas. And the deforestation is a direct cause of why the floods were so severe.

Lush woodland once covered 90 percent of Haiti. Those forests have disappeared because -- without access to electricity or modern fuels -- thousands of workers and farmers depend for heat, light, and cooking on charcoal made from chopping down trees. Charcoal is also one of the few products with much local market value.

When heavy rains fall on the denuded hillsides, there is no vegetation to slow the downhill rush of the water. Streams turn into torrents. Mudslides add to the destruction.

The Interim Prime Minister of Haiti said of the region, "The forest up through here has been completely destroyed. I say completely, but probably by 80 percent, and the root of the problem is that we have to go and reforest the hill and until we do that, every two, three, four years after some heavy rain the same thing could happen again."

That reforestation is not likely to be successful, though, if continuing poverty forces residents to keep cutting trees for their immediate survival. If forests are to be re-established on the badly eroded mountainsides, the government and international relief workers will need to provide other sources of fuel and income to the local people.

Not only has deforestation made the area prone to flooding, poverty also has placed people directly in the path of those floods. Fraudi Matos, a washing machine repair worker, told the Miami Herald, "The government came by and said we were in the river's path, but we didn't have the money to move or buy any land or build anything, so we stayed."

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The extreme poverty in Haiti has led to human and ecological disasters. In recent years, similar tragedies, with similar causes, have occurred in Nicaragua and Indonesia. Desperate people with few, if any, options take part in actions that lead to the destruction of vibrant habitats, and eventually to their own destruction.

Those of us who live in the affluent world have far more options, and yet we also participate in the destruction. The costs and the effects of what we do, though, tend to fall most heavily on others. The sweatshop labor that provides us with cheap goods keeps other people and nations in poverty. Enormous burdens of international debt keep poor nations under the control of the richest countries, and prevents the sort of comprehensive development and relief that would break the patterns of deforestation.

The eco-justice principle of "sufficiency" points us toward a different approach. Sufficiency rejects the stark poverty that leaves people and communities without viable, sustainable options. It insists that all people must have the basic resources that are necessary for survival. In our limited and unequal world, sufficiency also insists that no one should have too much. Extreme wealth and power is morally unacceptable when many do not have enough to live.

If we see the Caribbean floods as an act of God or as a natural disaster, then we're off the hook. There is nothing that we could do about it.

Recognizing the economic roots of the disaster calls on us to see our own complicity, and to respond with a different sort of relief effort. Appropriate aid goes beyond the necessary food, shelter and medicine for flood survivors. We also need to be sure that people in places like Haiti have life options that allow them to preserve their forests in a sustainable state. The globalized economy needs to provide decent jobs and other resources that make for ecologically and socially healthy communities.

Our affluent lives will be impacted if we make those sorts of changes in our own patterns of consumption and in the shape of economic globalization. As people of faith and compassion, can we do anything else?

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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