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Engineering for a Sustainable Society


Following the early 1800s, after Haiti became an independent republic, the country accumulated billions of dollars in debt owed to France and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF. In order to repay this unjust debt, Haiti had been forced to utilize it's natural resources to produce internationally marketable goods. During this process, the island's rich soil and forest ecosystems were greatly degraded and they continue to suffer. However, the effects of debt go much further than deforestation, and ecosystem health is one of the country's trivial problems. After two centuries of investing energy and recourses into repaying its debt, the country has been left impoverished and underdeveloped. In addition, Haiti's environmental and economic struggles were amplified when the island fell victim to the earthquake of 2010. The effects of this natural disaster were catastrophic, causing thousands to lose their homes and take refuge in relief shelters. The recovery efforts following the earthquake were remarkable; the country received aid through countless volunteer groups, humanitarian organizations, and emergency funds. However, the concerns of unsafe infrastructure and poor sanitation are still very apparent. To this day, virtually all urban areas lack basic services related to food, water, energy and hygiene.

Instead of relaxing during time off from classes, five Engineering for a Sustainable Society (ESS) members spent their spring break in Haiti, implementing sanitation and reforestation projects. These two projects were developed after ESS members embarked on an exploratory trip to Haiti one year ago to explore the landscape and identify potential projects for the club to pursue. The club learned of Haiti's long history of political exploitation, and began to understand the underlying reasons of the country's dire economic condition. The country lacks sanitation infrastructure, emergency facilities, and has experienced severe deforestation. Through in-country collaboration, ESS has identified two partner organizations working to improve conditions in Haiti; SOIL and an Agronomy Institute.

Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) is a non-profit founded in 2006, which provides human waste composting services to families and communities. Throughout the process they employ, many cubic yards of waste are collected per month. This is allowed to compost over the course of several months and when complete, must be sieved to remove the remaining cover material and other unwanted particles. This process has been quite laborious for the workers at their composting sites and requires the use of pitchforks to move the compost onto a screen and push it through by hand. ESS agreed to build a bike-powered compost sifter to improve their efficiency in this process. Over the course of several months, students came together to talk through design alternatives, gather materials, build a prototype in Syracuse, and coordinate logistics between Syracuse and Haiti. Incidentally, Haiti happens to be the only country in the world that you are not allowed to ship a bicycle to.

  • Haiti
  • helping children
  • working on a site
  • a refugee camp
  • a small house
  • a refugee camp
  • a house
  • complicated electric saws
  • seedlings
  • mchine
  • meeting

Ultimately, our materials were gathered in Haiti and at home and our design preparation was completed. Working together with employees of SOIL, we built the compost sifter over the course of two six-hour sessions. This was completed at the SOIL office in Port-au-Prince and then loaded into the back of a pickup truck, driven through the city dump, and to the SOIL composting site. There, we connected the bike to the structure, worked through some issues with keeping the chain running smoothly, and tested it out. The workers at the compost site were eager to ride the bike and try it out. The final product still needs a bit of tweaking to sift out the cover-material that is present in high concentrations in the compost, but other than that, works very well.

Beside partnering with SOIL, ESS members began working with a 1955 ESF graduate, Stan Hovey who spent some of his childhood in Haiti where his father was tasked with promoting reforestation and building an agronomy program. In more recent years, Stan has taken up the reigns on his father's projects and reached out to ESS for help. Over spring break, ESS members not only participated in the building of two tree nurseries, but also worked with Haitian agronomists from 6 different regions of the country to develop record-keeping, map-making, and technical skills.

ESS members also approached a school outside of the city of Petit-Goave to start environmental clubs for budding scientists to promote environmental awareness. The agronomists, when the nursery trees are ready for planting, will approach the students in the environmental club to help plant the trees.

Moving forward with these projects, ESS hopes to improve the technology available to the agronomists for their responsibilities, including helping to provide them with smart phones and computers, which can be used to keep records and keep up communication. We also hope to support them in other projects that they have running simultaneously, including a 'goat program' in which they provide pregnant goats to families or individuals in need. This in turn promotes participation in nursery development, management, and tree disbursement and planting. We also have identified a community, which is looking for access to electricity. The community, Bon-Bon, happens to have a stream running down the mountain nearby. There is possibility for our club to build a micro-hydro system to provide them with electricity year-round.

Please contact Alex Caven with any questions