One man’s trash

Every year, 900 cars and trucks – many barely running or highly polluting – are shipped from a dock in East Boston to Haiti. Is that the kind of help Haiti needs?

BOSTON BOUNTY The voyage to Haiti is 1,505 nautical miles, lasts about eight days, and burns 32 tons of diesel fuel, according to Captain Roger Pomares of the cargo ship Cala Galdana . BOSTON BOUNTY The voyage to Haiti is 1,505 nautical miles, lasts about eight days, and burns 32 tons of diesel fuel, according to Captain Roger Pomares of the cargo ship Cala Galdana. (Photograph by Josh Campbell)
By Chris Burrell
May 30, 2010

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For almost 20 years, Joseph Renna mopped up rooms and hallways at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Now he works for himself, scouring classified ads and junkyards in search of old trucks and auto parts to buy and ship overseas. Renna, who lives in Manchester, New Hampshire, specializes in trucks that are big and beat-up. Missing door handles, rust, smashed windshields, and vehicles built when Jimmy Carter was president – none of that fazes this janitor turned exporter.

He ships the trucks, tires, engines, and axles back to the country where he was born and raised, Haiti. He’s not alone. Haitian-Americans, who number around 60,000 in Greater Boston, according to US Census figures, ship enough cars and trucks from an East Boston pier to the port of St.-Marc in Haiti to fill a cargo ship every six or seven weeks. Many of the vehicles are packed with clothes, shoes, TVs, mattresses, bicycles – much of it used – as well as canned goods and bags of rice and beans. These goods, like the cars and trucks, are sometimes sent to relatives or friends for their own use, sometimes for them to sell.

The people engaged in this largely unregulated business say they are helping Haiti. Some development experts agree, but others complain that the island has become a dumping ground for goods in terrible shape and for vehicles too old, too unsafe, and too highly polluting to stay legally on American roads.

Even before January’s crippling earthquake left close to 300,000 dead and more than 1 million people homeless, Haiti was the hemisphere’s poorest country. Haitians abroad have long sent remittances, about $1.64 billion in 2009, or 22 percent of the country’s gross domestic product last year, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Development Bank. Now, as plans are being drawn and billions pledged from around the world for a new Haiti that will rise up from the ruins of the natural disaster, the business of packing old vehicles off to Haiti is bound to change.

Renna is banking on the practice accelerating, confident in the simple logic that the cleanup and reconstruction of roads, cities, and houses will spawn even more demand for his commodity. “They need it. They say it will take 10 years to clean up Port-au-Prince,” he says. “It’s why they need trucks.” It’s also possible that the negative environmental impacts of the practice will come under new scrutiny.

On a warm Wednesday afternoon in April, 53-year-old Renna is in a parking lot on the East Boston waterfront. He’s dressed in a light-blue pocket T-shirt, navy pants, and a baseball cap, and he’s pawing around in his toolbox. Then he hot-wires the 1979 flatbed Ford he recently bought – without a key – for $4,000. “This is going to be a new truck,” he says. “I’ll make it new. You see the nose is broken, but it’s a good running truck. That’s why I bought it.”

Inside of a month, that Ford and four others, including a dump truck and tow truck, will land in Haiti, greeted by Renna’s brother, Laurent Renna, who lives there. The plan is to rent or sell the trucks, along with a load of used tires and assorted parts, from a yard the brothers own outside Port-au-Prince.

In a country where 78 percent of the population survives on less than $2 a day and where 60 percent of the people are undernourished, according to data from the World Bank, Joseph Renna argues that his hot-wiring, exhaust-coughing, grease-staining enterprise stimulates the Haitian economy. “I got 10 people working for me,” he says. “That money flows in.”

A mere three blocks long, Marginal Street in east Boston dead-ends at a gatehouse, the entrance to another world. The Boston Harbor Shipyard & Marina, home to boat builders, metal workers, and sailors, is awash with the rumble of diesel engines, the stench of marine paint, and the ring of steel crashing on steel.

Once every six or seven weeks, a raucous scene unfolds here when the ship to Haiti sails in and loads up at rising tide. On a gray 46-degree Friday last fall, the sole woman pacing the asphalt docks is Karen Fuller. With her husband, Bill, they are the mom-and-pop team that owns Allworld Removals. But the 66-year-old woman, in dark-rimmed glasses and a puffy green-and-blue scarf, looks more like a grammar school teacher than a longshoreman.

The United States exported 1.2 million used cars and trucks around the world in 2005, according to figures from Yale University’s Center for Industrial Ecology. Allworld’s slice of the pie adds up to about 2,000 vehicles a year, 900 hauled down the Atlantic from Boston to Haiti and the remainder sent aboard massive ships that depart from Charlestown and Providence to West Africa and the Middle East.

But nothing else they do resembles the scene at the Eastie docks. The main reason is that Haiti is what’s called a free-for-all. While some developing countries limit the age of the used vehicles imported across their borders, according to Andy Parris, an automotive specialist at the US Department of Commerce, Haiti has no such policy. So several Mack dump trucks ready to roll on board are almost 40 years old – and look it, one with its windows smashed, glass shards littering the corroded floor of the cab. Some cars only get in the boat with a shove from a maroon Ford pickup truck. Others need an old-fashioned push by two guys with strong legs. Not all of the vehicles are junkers. There are Toyotas and Nissan SUVs without a scratch, and even a shiny silver Mercedes, but the math is simple. The cheaper the vehicle, the easier it is to swallow the overhead of shipping it.

It costs $4,000 to send a Mack dump truck to Haiti, another thousand or two for the longer trailers and school buses. A one-way ticket for a small pickup truck or a Toyota RAV4 is a little less than $1,400. How many cars are unloaded into Haiti in a given year is anyone’s guess. “We don’t have information about used cars,” says Carole Preval, minister counselor at the Haitian Embassy in Washington, D.C. “It’s not a matter for the government; it’s a private initiative.”

Renal Pierribia, who works for the Fullers and has just spent three days loading the Cala Galdana, will fly to Port-au-Prince, then drive to St.-Marc to supervise the unloading. He goes back and forth to Haiti 10 times a year and sees his work as vital to that country’s survival. He is proud when he recognizes one of their trucks on the road: “You’ll be saying, ‘See? This is the truck. I took that truck to Haiti.’ ”

Pierribia seems a little dreamy on the docks. But his logic is sound, and so is the practice of shipping so many cheap goods, vehicles and all, to Haiti, says Harvard economist Robert Lawrence. “Whatever capacity they had in Haiti to supply their own consumer needs has been devastated,” he says. “All kinds of products are going to be in scarce supply. It’s a way for them to get cheap consumer durables.” Labor is inexpensive in Haiti, he adds, and part of the economy is built on fixing things Americans throw out. “It’s enhancing welfare in both countries,” Lawrence says.

J. Brian Atwood agrees. Atwood ran the US Agency for International Development under President Clinton and is dean of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He says that sending used vehicles to Haiti is especially important now. “They do need vehicles down there to get crops to markets and to train Haitians to do the reconstruction work,” he explains.

But Alix Cantave, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies the Haitian economy, doesn’t hedge: “My fellow diaspora Haitians will kill me for saying this, but I do feel that Haiti is a dumping ground for everything people don’t need here. Half the stuff people are sending down there is trash.” Vehicles that would fail inspections here for poor brakes, no seat belts, or excessive emissions, Cantave argues, endanger public health or pollute the environment there. “If it’s not good for America’s health, it’s not good for anyone’s health,” he says. “To me, there’s a moral imperative, a responsibility on the community sending it. I know that folks are trying to help, not doing it maliciously, but the impact on Haiti is extremely hazardous.”

There are also critical voices inside Haiti. Lionel Pressoir runs a company in Petionville called Destination Haiti, which helps villages create jobs in tourism. One of his clients recently bought a school bus from someone in Boston, and when it arrived, its engine was in such terrible shape that the bus was beyond repair. “You go to Haiti and see the number of cars parked in the street and being torn down for scrap,” says Pressoir. “Businessmen, let’s be honest, are there to make money and are not very clean in making that money. They are taking advantage of certain people.”

In Haiti, cheap secondhand goods imported from aboard are called “pepe” and are mostly sold in street markets. Cantave says the pepe – especially used clothes – long ago drove artisan shoemakers, dressmakers, and tailors out of business.

Ketcia Pierre-Louis heads up the chamber of commerce in a town outside Port-au-Prince called Croix-des-Bouquet. At a conference in March at UMass Boston, Pierre-Louis derided pepe: “Why are we getting this old, raggedy stuff?” She scoffs at the claim that used goods benefit her country. “The diaspora may say they are helping, but there is profit for them. They buy it at very low cost from thrift shops or pick it up in the street and ship it,” she says. “Often [the things] don’t even work, and people have to find a way to get rid of them. They burn plastic, and the air is filthy.”

The solution, argues Pierre-Louis, is for the government to ban pepe. But that seems unlikely. Patrick Delatour, the chairman of President Rene Preval’s Commission for Reconstruction, lectured at MIT in April and said that restoring Haiti’s environment is the key to tourism and economic sustainability. But he said that the government’s – and his own – position was: “As long as people want to send their goods, it is a personal choice, and it doesn’t have anything to do with Haitian policy at this time. When we are confronted by this dilemma of 1.3 million people homeless, I don’t believe this should be a priority.”

Edmond Raphino, a Haitian-American pastor in Somerville who shipped a used Jeep to Haiti last fall for the use of a church missionary, echoes the idea. “Why should a government that can’t feed their own people go tell a guy that has a truck to help feed his family, go tell him to get a catalytic converter?” he asks. (A catalytic converter can reduce the toxicity of emissions, but hangs low on many vehicles and can get hit while driving on poor roads, so it’s common practice in Haiti to remove the part.)

Matthew E. Kahn, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles who has researched the global trade of sending used vehicles from the United States to developing countries, says it’s more nuanced than that. “You and I agree that we’re sending them our dirty cars, but are we sending them cars that are dirtier than the incumbent car already there? If we don’t send them cars, how are they getting around?” he asks. “To get at the environmental-justice issue, that’s the missing link.”

Without hard data on vehicles in Haiti, there’s no way to tell. Plus, while the government says the business is a private affair, their customs officials collect fees on every import. People shipping to Haiti say the system is corrupt, the fees arbitrary, and bribes commonplace. “The government doesn’t really care,” says Pierribia.

As recently as December, Marcus Francois, who owns a tow-truck business in Malden, regularly shipped used cars, trucks, tires, and auto parts to his brother, Leopaul Etienne, who sold the goods at a storefront business in Port-au-Prince. The headache always came at the customs lot. “You buy a car for $500, you put it on the boat for $1,350,” he says. “OK, that’s already like $1,800, and then when you get there, they might ask you $2,000 to get it out, US money, just to get it.” Francois believes demand for these used vehicles will decline because conditions in Haiti have only become more dire: People are too poor to buy anything an entrepreneur might want to ship to sell. “It’s really bad,” he says. “They don’t have money. They want food.”

Chris Burrell lives in East Boston. Send comments to

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