by Angela Malson

Dr. Sasha Kramer is a liberation ecologist working in Haiti to transform what some view as merely waste into a useful component of our natural environmental cycle. As Co- Founder and Executive Director of the Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), Sasha has been a part of the heart and soul of Haiti since 2004, working side by side with the Haitians to assist them in their own sustainable development. She received her Ph.D. in ecology from Stanford University and co-founded SOIL in 2006 along with friend and engineer Sarah Brownell to focus on transforming Haiti’s wastes into valuable resources, protecting fragile soil, and empowering communities. Sasha has worked as an Adjunct Professor of International Studies and a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami, and is an advisor to SOL (Sosyete Oganize pou Lanati), a Haitian non-profit promoting environmental justice and sustainable development.

Her resume, however, is not what is most striking about this amazing woman. Sasha’s story of how she fell in love with the heart of Haiti and her journey to prove that there is no waste in humanity is what is most inspiring. After reading The Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and learning more about how history and global dominance has attempted to squelch the poorest of nations including Haiti, Sasha knew intuitively that the people’s will and heart are too strong to be broken. As Aristide says, “women, children and the poor must be the subjects, not the objects, of history. They must sit at the decision-making tables and fill the halls of power.” Sasha was moved by the words of Aristide and the strength in the people he so highly spoke of, and just “fell in love with the idea of Haiti” and their resilience against all odds. She decided she wanted to focus her work on sustainable development there, so set to visit right away.

Sasha Kramer in one SOIL’s public composting toilets.

She found a group of mostly journalists heading there after the 2004 coup that overthrew Aristide and went with them on a trip to Haiti. Arriving on August 14, 2004, she was able to observe directly the first demonstrations against the coup d’etat that overthrew Aristide and see firsthand the passion of the Haitian people despite the hardship endured. It is said that when Aristide was taken from his country and sent on a plane to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, he said this, “In overthrowing me, they cut down the tree of peace, but it will grow again, because its roots are well planted.” The people always hold the roots of peace, despite the instability of their leadership. 

Sasha spent three and a half weeks in Haiti on her first trip and was “absolutely swept away by the energy of the Haitian people and ended up falling completely in love.” She worked from 2004-2006 engaging in human rights efforts and participating in all different kinds of things on the ground and in the communities, getting to know the people, and creating real bonds. So, when she was ready to start her non-profit she had more than just a team of outsiders coming in to help the Haitians, her team was local and invested in their own right. She says learning from the people there and collectively working on solutions together to be self sustaining was critical to the development of her projects. She also claims she “is still learning from them, even today.”

Sasha Kramer in one SOIL’s public composting toilets.

So, what changes have taken place in Haiti in the past three years since the tragic earthquake in 2010? And, what still needs to change? According to Sasha, “In terms of Port au Prince, it is a completely different city. You still see people living in tents. There were approximately 1.5 million in tents right after the earthquake, there are today over 300,000 still in tents. Haitians would have never considered living in tents before this tragedy.” They are community oriented and proud and conscious of their own security and welfare. There have also been four hurricanes since the earthquake, and every time a storm rolls through the tents are ripped up again, making it very difficult to move past the tragedy. “The challenge is that people have heard so many terrible stories about Haiti and their unwillingness to ‘get it together’ that this has led to fatigue within the international community.” Sasha says. Haiti is often no longer considered an emergency after all of this time, but she adds that it is “every bit of an emergency as it ever was, and oftentimes worse.” On many occasions aid was brought in and things set up in communities to help the people rebuild, yet money would run out and those systems were not kept up, leaving the Haitians back with nothing and starting from square one again.

Sasha Kramer, ecological sanitation expert

Sasha’s work with SOIL has been one of those programs that has been integrated with long-term success in mind. They believe that “the path to sustainability is through transformation, of both disempowered people and discarded materials, turning apathy and pollution into valuable resources.” When Sasha first came to Haiti she saw that the “most pervasive human rights abuse was poverty and lack of access to basic services.” 

Currently only 10% of rural Haitians and less than 25% of those in cities have access to adequate sanitation facilities (the lowest sanitation coverage in the Western Hemisphere). People often dispose of their waste in the ocean, rivers, ravines, plastic bags or abandoned houses. “In the countryside where I lived,” Sasha has said, “there was nowhere to go to the bathroom privately. It showed me how much we take sanitation for granted, and what it means to your health, and your dignity, when it’s denied.”

So, SOIL set out to create a composting toilet that is easy to use and a low-cost alternative to regular sanitation methods. Human waste is essentially collected, composted and recycled for later use in agriculture and reforestation. SOIL’s Ecological Sanitation (EcoSan) toilets have been built in community areas most in need of sanitation services, and currently serves up to 15,000 Haitians. The SOIL Team collects the waste from community toilets and transfers it to a compost pile where it takes 6-9 months for decomposition to take place. The pathogens in human waste usually are killed within the first week, as the compost piles get really hot really fast, upward of 150-170 degrees. When asked if there is any concern when there are medications or toxins in the food that can be excreted into the waste and thus into the compost piles, Sasha points out that the use of pharmaceutical medications is less in Haiti than it is in the U.S. as are the levels of heavy metals in comparison. “So overall,” she says, “less toxins actually make it down the drain. However, more research needs to be done in this area to see how durable the chemicals are in getting through.” All in all, the benefits obviously outweigh the current risks in Haiti, as composting waste is much more desirable than disposing of it in the waterways and in public areas where disease, like cholera spreads fast. In fact, high temperatures are an effective and proven way to kill cholera which has already claimed more than 7500 lives and sickened close to 6% of the population there. Eco San toilets are a very viable way to decrease disease and clean up undesirable disposal of waste. The Household Toilet Project is one of SOIL’s newest programs, born out of years of learning what works best for the communities in Haiti.

SOIL ultimately looks at sanitation as a human rights issue, and many people don’t want to share their toilets or walk out of their homes to do their business. So, while the public toilets still serve a purpose and are needed in certain areas of Haiti, and they are relatively easy to build, they are also incredibly challenging to maintain without paying someone to manage them. And without the funds for continued maintenance, the public toilets have been difficult to keep up. While people at first showed eagerness to participate in helping with the project as volunteers for their own community waste, Sasha shares, “most people living in impoverished circumstances don’t have time to clean up someone else’s shit when they are in basic survival mode for their families.” 

The Household Toilet Project enables individual families to take ownership of their sanitation, and have an Eco San composting toilet that belongs just to them. Hopefully this will also develop into a sustainable business for SOIL over time as they assist in setting the system up for a nominal fee but then releasing the ownership of the toilets to individual families to maintain. SOIL is planning on doing a three month trial of the Household Toilet Project in partnership with Re.Source in Cap Haitian in northern Haiti, an impoverished densely populated city on the edge, to see if it works, and then begin to charge a monthly fee for the sanitation. The hope is to create the system that recycles the waste, and have families and communities begin to support and maintain that system on their own. This business model could be adopted by local entrepreneurs, providing jobs and allowing SOIL to hand over operations to local companies so that the communities themselves are functioning as full circle. 

After almost seven years of work in developing the Eco San composting system, it is exciting for SOIL and for the Haitian communities to finally see the full cycle of waste to resource. Sasha says they generate a lot of compost, and in the last two months alone they sold 1,000 five gallon bags of compost back to the people for use as fertilizer to plant their own food! For SOIL, Sasha explains that it is “really cool to see that end product, that new frontier looking at the output from all the waste.” SOIL gardens have utilized the human waste from Eco San composting toilets to produce cabbage and peppers, and actually received twice the yield in peppers this year grown with the compost!

Sasha Kramer, ecological sanitation expert

Haitian farmers are excited by this because they want to be self-sustaining. Although Haitian soil has poor fertility, erosion problems and lack of fertilizers, the farmers there have always been committed to working with what they have and trying to be self-sustaining. Why would they import the same food they could grow on their own soil if they don’t have to? And, after the 2010 earthquake when GMO giant Monsanto donated over 500 tons of seed to Haitian farmers, thousands protested at the gift of GMO seeds into their country. They know what is good for their soil and their health, and they want to grow their own crops without the toxins, thank you. It is this spirit that Sasha sees in the Haitian people that keeps her dedicated to improving conditions for them. The people there have been forced to live in impoverished circumstances but are so strong and resilient that they rise above the rubble over and over again, knowing that they can sustain themselves, because why couldn’t they, this is their land and they are stewards of their land. 

As a Liberation Ecologist, this idea of resiliency and inspiration is what drives Sasha Kramer. When asked to explain what “Liberation Ecology” is all about, Sasha lights up, this is her passion, and this is at the heart of her work in Haiti. She isn’t only supporting the struggle for justice in Haiti, she is changing the perspective on disadvantaged cultures as more than just a product of globalization. The whole idea behind liberation ecology came from the inspirations she found in Haiti and liberation theology in Latin America. The Haitian people have had a history of injustice to create the impoverished nation we see today. Outsiders will read about Haiti and claim that “the Haitian people just can’t get it together” and that “they don’t care about one another” enough to change their circumstances. Yet, often people don’t question why it is that they are forced to live in these conditions in the first place. Living with them and seeing their resiliency and passion in action, and constantly trying to make their lives better, has given Sasha an appreciation for the Haitian people beyond hearsay. “I am absolutely amazed with all of the suffering here that people can still be kind and warm and love their family, and that lifts historical perspective on its head, doesn’t it?”

Liberation Theology affirms that there is no person that does not have value and worth, that there is no waste in humanity, and that everyone has a role and a purpose. Tie that with the social issues of impoverishment and struggle, and the ecologic and scientific issues of depleted soils and polluted waters, and you can see a whole cycle of how one organism’s waste is food for another. Liberation Ecology like Liberation Theology supports the ideal that there is no such thing as waste. And, when Sasha met the energy and resiliency of the Haitian people she knew that they could transform what others saw as waste into something useful and self-sustaining. One thing you can’t take away from the people even if they are disenfranchised and oppressed is the ability to sustain themselves within their own ecological footprint. You can grow your own food and compost your own waste. It is all a cycle, and there is no waste in humanity or in our environment. So, in this conscious time of change as many shift into this sustainable cycle, Sasha Kramer is showing how it can be done, turning human waste into one of humanity’s valued resources, and proving that even globalization efforts to keep a country impoverished can’t keep the people from rising to sustain themselves.