Haiti UN Protest
A demonstrator holds up a sign that reads in Creole "Cholera of U.N. is a crime against humanity" during a protest against the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Port-au-Prince in 2013. Photo: AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery

Four years ago, the first Haitian was infected with cholera, but justice for the families of the deceased and the sickened remains elusive.

The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti — known by its French acronym MINUSTAH — is accused of bringing the disease to Haiti, where the current death toll stands at nearly 9,000. Yet the U.N. has been able to avoid any legal repercussions because of its legal immunity and their effort to eradicate the disease leaves a lot to be desired.

In October 2010, Associated Press journalist Jonathan Katz discovered toxic sludge seeping from the U.N.’s base of Nepalese peacekeepers — as detailed in his book The Big Truck That Went By, a chronicle of the year following the devastating earthquake. When the strain of cholera infecting Haitians was tested, it matched the same strain currently endemic in Nepal. Cholera, it can be concluded, was brought to Haiti by the United Nations’s peacekeeping mission.

In November 2011, the Boston-based Institute for Democracy and Justice in Haiti (IDJH) filed a claim against the U.N. on behalf of 5,000 Haitians; the claim demanded that the U.N. install a national water and sanitation system that would control the epidemic, compensate individual victims of cholera for their losses and issue a public apology from for the organization’s wrongful acts. In response, the U.N. — with support from the United States — claimed immunity and refused to accept responsibility for the outbreak.

On a tour through Haiti in July 2014, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern for the Haitian people, acknowledging that the victims and the families of the deceased were angry and fearful over the cholera outbreak. Ban took a step in the right direction by admitting that the U.N. has a moral obligation to help the people of Haiti, but those are just words.

Read more: UN Secretary-General pledges to help fight cholera epidemic

It’s not unusual for the United Nations to intervene in a country being plagued by a deadly epidemic — even ones the organization isn’t accused of bringing. West Africa is currently suffering a catastrophic Ebola outbreak; more than 4,500 people in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia have died, and the U.N. response is massive. Yet in Haiti, the United Nations can barely raise the funds required to truly make a difference in the fight against cholera.

So, why has the response to Ebola been so rapid when the U.N. won’t even take responsibility for the outbreak, much less commit to any true progress on eradication?

“Because of the difference in the threat to powerful countries,” says Jonathan Katz. “Ebola is still a pretty novel disease. There’s no easy cure, and no one knows what will happen if it spreads.”

“It’s also got the general public in powerful countries terrified and will affect the way they travel and buy things,” Katz adds. “With cholera, on the other hand, the developed world has about two hundred years of experience. They knew it might kill a lot of people in Haiti, but were confident it posed little threat to them.”

The U.N. commitment to fighting Ebola in West Africa is important and honorable. But when will Haitians receive the same treatment? The $2.2 billion dollar plan put forward by the U.N. to eradicate the disease continues to be severely underfunded. The combination of an underfunded eradication project, the lack of political will from powerful countries and the U.N.’s legal immunity has left the cholera victims with waning hope.

Read more: Haiti lawyers ask court to bypass UN immunity in cholera case

Still, the lawyers who filed the first claim have never stopped seeking justice. After much legal back-and-forth and dismissals, the Haitian cholera victims finally saw their day in court. Though the hearing did not provide any dramatic changes and the status quo appears to remain intact, it provided a glimmer of hope in what has at times seemed like a hopeless situation.

Byoearth founder María Rodríguez with some of the company's beneficiaries. Photo: Byoearth

When María Rodríguez first heard about the potential of using worms to eradicate poverty, she knew where her future lay.

“It was love at first heard,” the young Guatemalan woman says. “I was fascinated by the idea that worms eat waste and add so many nutrients through the digestion process. But since they’re on the ground, we don’t see them and we don’t appreciate them.”

In 2007, having just graduated with a business degree from a university in Guatemala City, Rodríguez founded Byoearth, a company that uses vermicomposting to promote health and development in rural and urban Guatemala. Through vermicomposting — using worms to break down degradable food into a nutrient-rich fertilizer — Byoearth has been able to produce and sell high-quality compost and educate rural communities, as well as residents of Central America’s largest garbage dump, about the benefits of worms.

“It’s very important, because with vermicomposting you transform degradable waste that otherwise goes to landfills and produces methane and attracts rodents. People that work in dumps are very affected by the contamination that degradable waste causes when it should be separated and transformed into compost or vermicompost, which is organic fertilizer,” says Rodríguez.

While Byoearth’s core purpose is to convert waste into a natural fertiliser, the company’s social mission focuses on enabling poor families to make a small income by creating and selling their own vermicompost.

“We partnered with a nonprofit and established a program to train women in vermicomposting, with the main objective of improving their livelihoods by first improving the waste management inside their houses. We’re also teaching them how as women living in impoverished areas with almost no education, those two are not excuses not to live under better circumstances. It’s very interesting how they can learn and appreciate that. They get empowered because they know that even in their condition they can be agents of change in their communities and make something good for the environment,” says Rodríguez.

Bringing worms to the people

A self-professed “serial entrepreneur,” the young Rodríguez has garnered international attention for her work with Byoearth. The 26-year-old recently appeared in Forbes magazine in an article about female entrepreneurs and is regularly invited to speak at conferences around the world.

“It’s not common for a girl to be working in a male-dominated agricultural industry in Guatemala, but that’s why it’s interesting,” she says.

“I’m very cautious as to how I do business with the agricultural sector. Maybe the sales in the rural area haven’t grown a lot because I haven’t been able to talk directly to farmers and be respected the same, but I don’t think that as a woman you can’t do business here.”

With a production plant that contains an estimated 90 million Californian Red Worms, Byoearth plans to expand into other countries in Central America over the next year and start exporting worms to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and El Salvador.

worms 4 everyone

Some of Byoearth’s star employees. Photo: Anna-Claire Bevan

Rodríguez describes the worms as ‘pretty’ and ‘delicate’ in stark contrast to how most people view the slimy creatures.

“I think of them as pets and we talk about animal husbandry: the same way you take care of a dog, you take care of the worms, as they’ve been domesticated. These worms won’t survive by themselves — they need you to take care of them, feed them, clean them and give them water. If you see a worm anywhere you’d rescue it and put it on soil because you know the work she’s doing.”

Determined to bring the concept of guerrilla gardening to Guatemala, Byoearth recently launched various products, including Worm Tea and Seed Bombs, aimed at improving the quality of people’s soil. Not to be mistaken for regular tea, Worm Tea is a premium organic fertilizer that can be mixed with water and given to plants as a nutritious drink; while Seed Bombs allow people to grab a capsule consisting of seeds, fertilizer and soil, and grow their own food. Byoearth hopes that the latter will contribute to food security — enabling more people to cultivate crops despite a lack of resources.

While Rodríguez accepts that it may be difficult for some of Guatemala’s farmers to accept an organic fertilizer, she’s confident about the business’ future and is eager to show Central America that a handful of worms can make a difference.