PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Two years ago, the Carrefour Feuilles (pronounced "kar-ah-fur fay") neighborhood was considered too dangerous for U.N. peacekeepers who were not protected by armored vehicles. And even today, a dozen or so Sri Lankan troops garrisoned here nervously stand watch behind heavy fortifications.
But Carrefour Fueilles has turned out to be perfect for an experimental solid waste processing and recycling plant set up by people who live in the neighborhood.
"We helped to create the conditions that made it possible for [U.N. peacekeepers] to come and protect us," said Patrick Massenat, the president of the group that opened the recycling plant in 2007.
The recycling initiative could also be key to ending Haiti's dangerous overreliance on charcoal for energy -- responsible for the loss of 98 percent of the nation's forests. The plant converts waste paper collected from the streets to hockey puck-sized "briquettes" that burn hotter than charcoal and cost half as much. It also employs 385 people, paying each about $4 per day, comparable to pay for government workers.
The United Nations has been helping neighborhood leaders organize and finance the recycling plant and other environmental initiatives in slums that were scenes of heavy gun battles between Brazilian and Jordanian troops and gangs that controlled much of the capital. Such jobs produce fuel for cooking, control flooding from denuded hillsides and grow desperately needed crops.
"Carrefour Feuilles is a poor neighborhood, populated neighborhood, with people in a precarious situation there, and before the project settled, it was known as a very violent neighborhood," said Eliana Nicolini, a Brazilian U.N. aid worker coordinating the recycling project. "So far, it is a small little setup."
What is most notable about these projects is that they do not fall under the jurisdiction of U.N. environmental experts or urban specialists. They are overseen by the community violence reduction arm of the 10,000-strong peacekeeping operation, MINUSTAH. The specialized unit, established in 2006, is most active in Port-au-Prince but has also mobilized efforts to build drainage canals and enhance fishing in rural areas.
Even though troops have largely quelled gang violence, political and social tensions in the poorest neighborhoods persist. But residents say putting people to work on environmental cleanup projects is making life better and having a noticeably calming affect.
MINUSTAH's community violence reduction, or CVR, section is involved in more than 30 projects nationwide and has a budget of $3.4 million. Projects are conceived by the Haitians themselves and launched after being vetted by not only engineers and agronomy experts but also sociologists and psychologists.
The Carrefour Feuilles initiative is arguably unique, holding the potential to transform the national economy and halt Haiti's most serious environmental problem, deforestation (see related story).
Here is how it works: Workers scour the neighborhood each morning to gather trash from bins they have set up and sometimes from households. Trucks haul refuse to a compound where recyclables are separated from the organic waste. Plastic, metal and glass are exported to recyclers in Taiwan, China, Canada and elsewhere, as there is no infrastructure in Haiti to process the materials. About 18 to 20 percent of the remaining refuse is hauled off to landfills.
What the plant is really after is paper and cardboard. After the paper is separated, workers mix it with water and sawdust and mash it into a cellulose pulp. The pulp is packed into PVC molds and compacted with a hydraulic press to squeeze out water, making a briquette that is left to dry in the sun for about a week.
The plant produces 700 to 1,000 briquettes a day this way, a fuel that burns hotter and cleaner than charcoal. And it is doing that with technology that is entirely Haitian and requires no electricity. The only fuel is gasoline for the trucks.
Mayors from all over Haiti have visited the facility, and government officials are eager to establish similar centers all over the country and expand the distribution of waste-paper briquettes.
"It's not yet sold massively on the street, but we know that as time goes by and in the next upcoming weeks, the distribution will go further and it will be more accessible," said Adam Otly, 40, who works at the plant.
Otly and other workers here are confident the briquettes will be a massive hit throughout Haiti.
Two cans of charcoal -- what is required to cook enough food to feed the average-sized family for a day -- costs about 50 gourdes, or a half-day's income. But it would cost 11 gourdes to cook the equivalent amount of food with the center's briquettes.
"If you put 2 liters of water to boil with charcoal, it takes 17 minutes. With the briquette, the same quantity of water will boil in 11 minutes," said Jeanette Sejou, 36, a plant employee who has seven children. "So the savings is not only in our pocket, it's also in time."
The price is subsidized now in an effort to spread the product's popularity, and officials admit they eventually will have to double the price to stay profitable, but that still makes the briquettes less than half the cost of charcoal.
But project developers are moving carefully to promote the briquettes.
On the day the briquettes hit the market, charcoal vendors started to have trouble selling their wares, raising tensions between retailers.
Massenat, whose neighborhood committee opened the recycling plant, believes charcoal vendors will eventually switch to briquettes as they see the new fuel source is in their and their communities' best interest.
"If we're cleaning the streets, we're cleaning their streets. If we're making briquettes by recycling something and protecting the environment, it's good for them," Massenat said. "We're building something for their future and their children's future."
CVR work expands
Meanwhile, the U.N. peacekeepers' community violence reduction section is pushing ahead with other projects.
CVR is trucking young workers from the most violent Port-au-Prince neighborhoods, many of them former gang members, to hillsides to build dry walls that would slow stormwater rushing off the hills and steer it away from vulnerable neighborhoods.
And it is encouraging people to grow food in massive urban gardens, echoing a movement that is popular in U.S. cities.
"Over 4,000 families grow their food in the urban slums," said Jean Metens, a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization officer in Haiti. "It's mind-boggling, because you'd think of the slums as an area of concrete and no life at all, and they actually grow food."
The growing environmental initiatives could hold the key to peacekeeping troops' eventual departure. Nicolini, the aid worker coordinating the recycling project, said the United Nations hopes to be out of the Carrefour Feuilles project by the end of next year.
"We see this, in a sense, as buying time until governance can kick in," said Stephanie Ziebell, a U.S. employee of the CVR section.