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Without trees, topsoil washes away in the rain. According to figures published in the Earth Island Journal, Haiti loses 36 million tons of soil to erosion yearly, a loss from which some observers believe the country will never recover. Denuded hillsides make mudslides and flooding potentially deadly problems when hurricanes or tropical storms hit. To add to the misery, Haiti is also the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with a per capita annual income of about $260.
Dwelling on these problems would only lead to inertia, so Demesmin concentrates on building the organization. "Most of the time, I create things and let other people work on it. There are so many things with the Haitian country that could be done, I like to just put the seed in people."
Step number one is Congo Fiesta, a dance party/star-studded musical event/ award ceremony that will raise money to fund the foundation. On a recent night at her apartment, Demesmin is hammering out details with her lieutenants -- Edner Jean, a Haitian immigrant who works for the Miami-Dade schools; Akua Welsh, assistant to Sen. Bob Graham; and by phone, Michael Pendleton, a talent agent in Nashville.
Congo Fiesta, according to the literature, will be a "a power-packed cultural celebration led by a stellar cast of world-class performing artists from Haiti, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States. In celebration, [i]t brings and unifies all people together under one cultural umbrella." The plan, says Pendleton, is to kick off Congo Fiesta in Port-au-Prince, then move to other venues including Guadeloupe, Martinique, Paris, Boston, and Miami.
But as if to prove that nothing is easy when it comes to Haiti, Pendleton has some bad news: The party is going to cost at least $200,000 to put on in Port-au-Prince alone. And corporate backers in Haiti are skittish about putting up money until they have big-name stars on board. But such stars don't sign contracts unless the money is in the bank.
There's a palpable sense of disappointment at the table, as if reality is just setting in. Heretofore Demesmin and her volunteer workers fueled themselves on the humanitarian notion of doing something to help a country that certainly needs it. But even though they may have the best intentions in the world, these things cost money. "It's the back end that looks so wonderful," says Pendleton over the speakerphone. "The front end looks a little shaky."
That "back end" -- the money raised by the event -- could be as much as $1 million from ticket sales and broadcast rights for all the shows, Demesmin says.
A couple days later, when Demesmin realizes the show is too close to the beginning of the school year and most people will be spending what little money they have on school supplies instead of tickets, she changes the plans. Now the Congo Fiesta tour will kick off in Miami in January, then move on to Port-au-Prince.
If it does come off, two groups are guaranteed a cut of the take: Operation Green Leaves and OPEC (a familiar acronym that in this case stands for Oceania Plantation and Environmental Consultants). The former is a Miami-based nonprofit that has already shipped some 500,000 trees to Haiti and runs an environmental resource center on ten acres of land in Arcahaie, Haiti. The latter is a Melrose, Florida-based group that owns the patent for processing seeds of the neem tree. Native to India, the neem is a hardy tree that grows with little care under adverse conditions. Its seeds produce an oil useful as an organic pesticide and also in pharmaceutical applications, while its byproducts can be used as animal feed. A U.S.-based aid program planted some 250,000 of the trees in Haiti 17 years ago, but the seeds are not being used. "It's millions of dollars going to waste," says Dr. Charles Rosenberg, director of OPEC.
At the end of the Duvalier regime, when Jean-Claude left for a life of luxurious exile and eventual bankruptcy in the south of France, Demesmin saw people in Port-au-Prince scrubbing the sidewalks with towels. They wanted a fresh start so badly they were willing to get on their hands and knees and clean the country themselves if that's what it took.
But that was 1986. Since then the country has suffered a series of military-backed presidents, coups, and a U.S. invasion. The economy has continued to slide into chaos and the environmental damage has continued, unabated.
For Demesmin it's difficult to live there and see what's going on. But it's impossible to leave her homeland altogether. Her solution is to do what she can from afar in the hope that she'll set an example for other expatriates who've left to find a better life. That is the way Haiti will start to heal, she says.
"All those hopes, they are not there anymore. Every day is getting more difficult. As long as I am still alive, I will still fight for Haiti. I will fight for the land."