Restoring the Land

Photo of Etienne, an agronomy agent, and cacao plant with ripe pods

A root cause of numerous problems in Haiti is historic and continuing deforestation of the mountainous terrain, which decreases biodiversity, exacerbates drought while paradoxically causing frequent flooding, degrades water quality, and magnifies the impact of natural disasters. Beginning several years ago, Etienne enrolled volunteers to plant and nurture tree starts in a church garden in Les Anglais. Farmers from the surrounding mountainsides then plant them on steep slopes for erosion control.

A more recent program uses cacao production to both grow new forests and provide a significant source of income for thousands of Haitian families. Etienne and his agents, funded by Haiti ap Grandi, have established demonstration plots, led seminars on cacao growing, and helped farmers establish new cacao plantations. In the 5-year period before the cacao plants produce beans, Etienne is helping farmers maintain their income by planting food crops among the young cacao bushes.

Coffee has been a major cash crop in Haiti, but with the arrival of the coffee berry borer beetle in the Caribbean islands and the droughts that have accompanied climate change, that industry is rapidly waning. Cacao plants are better suited to the new weather conditions, and the time is right: the worldwide demand for chocolate is increasing faster than production. Another important benefit of planting cacao is that these plants need the shade of larger trees, so reforestation is a huge side benefit.

For information about the history of Haiti’s deforestation and current status, here are some excerpts from “One of the Most-repeated Facts About Deforestation in Haiti is a Lie”, a 2016 article from Vice News:

“Farmers and charcoal producers were blamed for the deforestation throughout the 20th century. But the destruction of the country’s old-growth forest began far earlier with French colonists who cleared the land for slave plantations and used the wood in the sugar-production process. … When the French lost their prize colony in 1804, they levied an indemnity on the new Haitian government as punishment. To pay this debt, Haitians began exporting mahogany to France; by 1842 they were sending 4 million cubic feet of it overseas every year. “Much of the deforestation of the precious hardwoods occurred in the 19th century when the Haitian government turned over mahogany forests to outside companies,” said Gerald Murray, an anthropologist and professor emeritus at the University of Florida.”

A 2007 satellite study by geologist Peter Wampler showed that Haiti has 30% tree coverage, more than 10 times the commonly-stated number of 2%. (See the above Vice link for more information about Wampler’s report, and for the following quotes.)

“Murray’s radical recommendation (webmaster’s note: in 1979) was that policymakers… provide rural families with both seedlings and harvest rights to the trees they grew. … Over the next two decades, a project funded by USAID and implemented by the Pan American Development Foundation resulted in more than 300,000 Haitian peasant households planting 65 million trees.

Murray continues to visit Haiti each year and was not at all surprised by the results of Peter Wampler’s study, though he said it is unlikely that his project — which planted trees specifically for harvest — is responsible. It’s possible that a third of Haiti had tree cover all along.

It’s more likely that Haiti’s practice of carefully managed woodlots known as rakbwa, in which trees are grown, culled and sold for construction or charcoal, have played a role in sustaining the country’s tree cover. Tarter, the anthropologist in Haiti, told me that rakbwas have been in use for nearly two centuries, and his guess is that Wampler’s finding represents a resurgence of trees. “I suspect that Haiti might have actually been more denuded 30 years ago,” he said. “Trees with deeper taproots are growing up on land that’s been abandoned [as] people are moving out of rural areas into urban areas.” …

Whatever the extent of tree cover, soil erosion, groundwater contamination, and deadly flooding remain significant problems in Haiti. Cultivating treeless, steep mountainsides for agriculture, a common practice, is environmentally damaging and allows topsoil to wash out. Haiti’s tree cover may be around 30 percent, but it is patchy, which affects biodiversity, drought, water quality and the impact of natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew, now estimated to have taken at least a thousand lives. These types of events are only expected to increase with climate change.

‘In terms of ecological theory, a small patch of forest is not equal to a forest,’ explained Starry Sprenkle-Hypolite, an ecologist in Haiti. People are not ignorant of these issues; they just don’t have the resources to fix them, she explained. ‘There is a lot of consciousness of the environment and nature and environmental ethics here; it’s a lack of means that is the problem.'”