September 28, 2011

As international attention focused on Haiti after the devastating earthquake in January 2010, SIPA students focused their Capstone workshops on Haiti as well.

One team joined an Earth Institute workshop to study environmental issues, examining the energy and deforestation challenges in the country.

John Burnett (MPA ‘11), who concentrated in Energy and Environment at SIPA, knows Haiti, its people, and its challenges well. He was in Port-au-Prince during the earthquake.

“I think we were able to do something meaningful - building for the future of Haiti,” said Burnett. “One of Haiti’s biggest challenges is environmental, the risk of deforestation.”

After decades of harvesting, less than 3 percent of Haiti’s original forests are intact. The group’s research centered on charcoal production, which generates income for residents, but contributes to the deforestation. The research sought to understand the volumes of wood flowing out of the watersheds, and how Haitians consume charcoal. It will drive eventual recommendations to the United Nations.

“The project was very successful in mapping the various players in the charcoal trade in rural Haiti, and estimating the price paid at each step of the process,” said Burnett. “This was a critical first step… that would help identify where to target interventions to support those whose incomes or livelihoods were supported by the charcoal trade.

For Burnett and others on his team, this project did not end with graduation.

“I recognized this is going to be a multi-year project. I think working on it through SIPA opened my eyes to some aspects. But I’d like to continue with it.”

“I think that’s something that was valuable about being at SIPA and being part of the projects… Not only do you learn the course-based material. I really do think in terms of the way you look and assess issues, and the way you look at the world, both as a combination of SIPA and being in New York, it really made a difference. I can see that in my first month back at work already. I feel incredibly empowered with those skills I gained.”

Several of Burnett’s teammates traveled to Haiti to conduct field research. Among them was Milap Patel, who wrote in detail about their work at the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet.

Burnett is now a lawyer for the Canadian Foreign Affairs and International Trade department, working on international environmental law for the Ocean and Environmental Law Division.

He was in Haiti in 2010 when the earthquake struck, working on another research project with the UN Studies Program Director Elisabeth Lindenmeyer.

“It was obviously a very traumatic and difficult situation,” said Burnett. “We were literally 90 seconds removed from being killed in the UN building, which had collapsed. There were people we had seen two minutes before who didn’t survive.”

“We were lucky that we did have the option to come back, when many people did not. And that leaves you with a feeling of wanting to try to help those who could not leave.”

Michelle Chahine, September 28, 2011