Planting the Trees of Life

Tree planting in the Chaine de la Selle mountain range, photo Lynn Johnson (Fondation Seguin)_0.jpg

Tree planting in the Chaine de la Selle mountain range, photo Lynn Johnson (Fondation Seguin)

After centuries of destruction, Haitians try to recover their country’s lost forests

By Jacques Leslie, May 30, 2011
Published on On Earth, Nature & Wildlife Feature Story Summer 2011

Gonaives, the third-largest city in Haiti, lies on a floodplain beside the Caribbean Sea, and looks as if it could slide in. Twice in recent years, part of it has. In September 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne deposited more than a foot of rain on northeastern Haiti, including the degraded mountains that form a horseshoe around the city. Forests are buffers against hurricanes, but the mountains around Gonaïves (pronounced Go-nye-eve) were stripped of their trees and topsoil long ago, and the ground became so hardened and compacted that it no longer absorbed water. Instead, Jeanne’s storm water hurtled downward to Gonaïves, collecting sediment, sewage, and human and animal carcasses as it swallowed the city in depths of up to 10 feet.

That was mere prelude. In one astonishing month four years later, a hurricane and three tropical storms visited Gonaïves. This time water rose as high as 25 feet, inundating two-story houses and forcing residents to live on their roofs for weeks.

The photographer Lynn Johnson and I went to the Jean Paul neighborhood, which was particularly hard-hit by the 2008 storms. It still hasn’t recovered. The first person we talked to there was Walter Prenevil, 42, an unemployed customs agent with a missing front tooth, who emerged from his front gate to check us out. He took us for a stroll through his haunted neighborhood. In this house, he said, pointing to a shell, seven people died. In that one -- he pointed again -- eleven did. The second house was missing half its front gate, and the front door was covered with math equations written in chalk; a schoolchild had used it as a blackboard. Dried mud covered the front room’s floor in curled, gray triangles, and in the hallway it rose to three feet high, like a table someone forgot to move. All but one of the single-story house’s occupants drowned in Hurricane Hanna’s floodwaters. The survivor, the household’s father, escaped to a two-story rooftop next door, and hung on for three more days. Then Hurricane Ike hit, raising the water level to 25 feet, sweeping the man off the roof and into the maelstrom.

The plight of Gonaïves is Haiti’s in intensified form, for deforestation is at the core of the country’s environmental debacle. Deforestation is nothing new in Haiti: you can read the nation’s history by tracing the fate of its trees. Indeed, one of Haiti’s most celebrated novels, Jacques Roumain’s 1944 chef d’oeuvre, Masters of the Dew, depicts a valiant villager appalled by rampant deforestation and resulting drought and starvation.


The Lost Forests of Haiti: Go to the link to this story to see a two-minute, audio slideshow. Very striking and informative.


Christopher Columbus noted in 1492 that Haiti was "covered with tall trees of different kinds which seem to reach the sky." By the late 1600s, Haiti’s French colonial rulers had cleared jungles and savanna lowlands to make room for sugarcane fields; at higher elevations, they replaced trees with coffee plantations. All over Haiti, they cut down hardwoods such as mahogany and transported the timber to Europe in the same ships that brought slaves from Africa to work the fields. But it was Haitians themselves who perpetrated even more destruction: after the bloody revolution that brought independence to the country in 1804, its leaders increased hardwood exports to pay off onerous foreign debts. By the 1940s, all but a few timber stands were gone.

Eighty percent of Haitian terrain is mountainous, and those mountains have lost 98 percent of their original forests. Without tree roots to anchor it, Haiti’s topsoil flows down rivers, moves down mountains in landslides, or blows away as dust at an annual rate of 37 million metric tons -- the equivalent in weight of 112 Empire State Buildings. As the topsoil is carried downstream, it clogs rivers; when it reaches the ocean, it smothers beaches and buries coral reefs. The loss of shade and moisture leaves the land parched, and Haiti’s rivers are going dry -- 28 of the nation’s 30 main watersheds are "completely depleted," according to Arnaud Dupuy, head of the United Nations Development Program’s Haiti environment and energy unit. Water tables have dropped dramatically.

Topsoil loss is permanent, and without it, farmers’ yields have plummeted, consigning them to work plots so degraded that in less poverty-stricken countries they would be left fallow. The decline in crop yields has increased malnutrition and forced an exodus of rural Haitians to the crowded slums of the capital, Port-au-Prince, 100 miles to the south of Gonaïves. The meagerness of Haitian diets has lowered resistance to disease, deepening the cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 5,000 people since it began in October 2010. It’s all part of a vicious circle: deforestation intensifies Haiti’s debilitating political instability; the instability deepens poverty; and poverty leads to more deforestation, as peasants cut trees for small amounts of cash.

Deforestation may even have played a part in triggering the cataclysmic earthquake that killed 300,000 Haitians on January 12, 2010. Four scientists led by University of Miami geophysicist Shimon Wdowinski suggest that over the centuries so much sediment has left the mountains above the tremor’s epicenter -- at an average rate of a quarter-inch of soil per year -- that the reduced pressure on the fault may have freed it to rupture. The earthquake, in turn, has caused further deforestation, by driving 600,000 residents out of Port-au-Prince and back into the depleted mountains and creating a surge in demand for wood sticks and planks to construct shelters for the many displaced Haitians.

Today, tree-felling consists mainly of cutting down unhealthy, immature, or unguarded trees for charcoal and burning ground cover to clear agricultural plots. Under the pressures of overpopulation and extreme poverty, those practices have accelerated in the past couple of decades.

Ninety percent of Haitians use charcoal as their cooking fuel; Port-au-Prince alone uses 80 percent of the country’s production. To feed the demand, the charcoal industry -- if that word can be applied to an enterprise so low-tech and low-paying -- engages at least 200,000 people, one in every 50 Haitians. In the mountains, men cut trees and limbs, sort the sticks into stacks, and cook them in pits to make charcoal; in acts of stunning, unsung athleticism, women march up and down the mountains balancing huge bundles on their heads, bringing the charcoal to city markets. Most of the laborers barely make a subsistence wage. According to the United Nations Development Program, the industry generates $50 million a year. That means that a charcoal worker’s average income is less than a dollar a day.

In Port-au-Prince, we wandered through the narrow passageways of the Marché Salomon, one of the capital’s largest outdoor markets, until we found its Dickensian heart: a charcoal section that looked like a coal mine. The pathways were black, the shops stacked 10 feet high with charcoal bags were black, and black-clothed, black-skinned vendors sat on stools amid piles of charcoal: black on black on black. One of them, Gladys Norvelus, 67, struck me as the Queen of Charcoal, oozing dignity despite her charcoal-blackened hands and clothes and her shack of rusting corrugated tin. It was a bad location, she said, too deep inside the market, yet she’d worked in it for 50 years. She answered our questions without emotion: her husband was blind, she’d lost eight of her thirteen siblings in the earthquake, she’d never heard that charcoal was bad for the environment.

All this might render Timoté Georges’s ambition quixotic, were it not so vital. As the Haiti project coordinator of a U.S.–based nonprofit called Trees for the Future, Georges, a gentle, gangly 30-year-old with a thoughtful mien, intends to set in motion so many community reforestation projects that the whole country eventually will catch on. "Reforestation is a very slow process," he said, in deliberate, precise English that he learned in school. "The problem is huge, and we are not able to solve all of it." He thought for a moment, as if unwilling to sound downbeat, and added, "But if we have enough resources, we can do it." Since late 2008, Trees for the Future has planted 2.5 million trees in Haiti, including 750,000 around Gonaïves. These are modest numbers -- and at least a quarter of the trees will not survive -- but they probably make the small nonprofit the leader in tree-planting among the thousands of nongovernmental organizations now working in Haiti.

Georges’s earnestness is disguised behind an unassuming appearance. On the day I met him, he wore jeans and a black baseball cap that said GROOM above the brim. I joked with him that he was obviously married to his work. Ethan Budiansky, head of international programs for Trees for the Future, calls Georges "definitely one of the best" of the 40 or so staffers who work for the organization in 25 countries around the world. His interest in forests was whetted as a child, when he heard his father, a farmer, blame deforestation for the increasing water scarcity he had to contend with. As a student at Queensland University, a private Christian institution in Port-au-Prince, Georges found that his professors concurred. Later he won a prized scholarship to study at the U.N.–mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica and emerged in 2008 with a master’s degree in natural resources. Then he joined Trees for the Future.

Though Georges began work in Gonaïves only a year ago, soon after the earthquake, he has already established six community-run nurseries. The heart of his operations is the central nursery, where he teaches farmers how to compost soil, turn seedlings into mature trees, harvest limbs without killing whole trees, and replant when trees are cut down.

We reached the central nursery in Georges’s four-wheel-drive truck -- a necessity given Haiti’s many unpaved, rocky, and craterous roads. A kombit, or community work party, was in progress, run by farmers’ wives. They squatted in a circle surrounding a mound of composting soil, which they were packing into black plastic bags together with seedlings -- they were propagating Gonaïves’s future trees. Trees for the Future provides the seeds and bags; the farm families provide the labor. As they worked, the women sang, making up lyrics as they went along; one song celebrated their joining together to create the nursery. Other women cooked a communal lunch of rice and vegetables and laid out heaping plates for the entire group.

That afternoon, Georges spoke to about 60 children gathered at the nursery after school, introducing them to the importance of trees. Many children brought small used plastic water bags, which they filled with composting soil and seedlings. Georges said this was an experiment: if the used bags worked as well as the purchased black ones, he could save money while helping to rid the city of plastic refuse. The plan might not work, he cautioned, as the roots might need all the space the larger bags provide. The species were selected for their hardiness, and their extensive root systems are part of what makes them hardy.

The guiding assumption, based on hard-won lessons from hundreds of failed projects over the last half-century in Haiti, is that reforestation works only if farmers attain a better standard of living from the trees and thus feel a personal stake in protecting them. Trees for the Future chooses the communities it helps according to the degree of enthusiasm they show for a project; then local farmers run the nurseries. Here in the Gonaïves flatlands, farmers plant trees to form "living fences" around their fields and augment their income by selling tree limbs and, perhaps eventually, fruit from them.

This emphasis on individual farmers arose partly out of the work of University of Florida anthropologist Gerald Murray, who designed one of the few successful, long-running tree-planting programs in Haiti’s history. Murray deduced that the only way to get farmers involved in tree-planting was to give them ownership of the trees. A communal approach wouldn’t work; after all, according to a Haitian proverb, "a horse owned by everyone is a dead horse."

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Agroforestry Outreach Project, which Murray planned and initially led, ran from 1981 to 2000. Its intention was not just ecological but also microeconomic: it taught farmers how to use trees planted on plot boundaries and marginal land as sustainable cash crops to supplement their meager incomes. According to Murray, the project reached an astounding 300,000 peasant households -- more than a third of Haiti’s rural population in that era.

The only drawback of the program was that it didn’t restore watersheds, a task so daunting and monumental that most NGOs won’t consider taking it on. One exception is the Fondation Seguin, which was started in 2004 by 16 members of the largely foreign-educated, French-speaking Haitian elite in Port-au-Prince. We drove up into the Chaîne de la Selle mountain range on an unpaved highway of rocks to reach the organization’s base camp at a 6,000-foot elevation near the village of Seguin, 30 miles south of the capital. The roads are so bad that the all-terrain vehicles the organization relies on must be replaced every three years. High in the mountains, we had to remind ourselves we were in Haiti. For one thing, we were cold most of the time, a rarity in this tropical country, and for another, the Fondation Seguin’s tiny lodge is surrounded by tall, luxuriant, non-native eucalyptus and gravilea trees.

The organization’s mission, carried out on a budget of $10,000 a month, is to protect La Visite National Park, which the headquarters abut. La Visite, one of only three national parks in the country, crowns Haiti’s biggest watershed, the Galet Sec, which provides water for three million or four million people, including some in Port-au-Prince. Until four years ago, the Rivière Blanche, which descends from the park to Haiti’s southern coast, flowed continuously; now it’s dry for three months of the year.

The park encompasses a forest of Hispaniolan pines, which aren’t used for charcoal. Instead, the organization must contend with another of the consequences of Haiti’s poverty. Two days before our visit, somebody set the park on fire. The arsonist almost certainly was a farmer who intended to clear ground cover for a small vegetable plot; he would use the ash as fertilizer until the plot ceased to be productive after two or three years. At least 2,000 farmers live illegally inside the park, and farmer-ignited fires are common. Alas, this one burned out of control and blackened nearly one-tenth of the park’s 5,000 acres -- probably the biggest conflagration in its 27-year history. When we arrived, the ground was still smoldering; each step set off a small cloud of white smoke. Few mature pine trees were killed, but the fire destroyed the saplings that would have constituted the forest’s next generation.

It’s hard to blame the farmer, whose survival depends on the few dollars he’ll make from a crop in a matter of months; to think five or ten years out, long enough to grow a mature tree, is beyond his economic capacity. Still, Haiti’s future depends on stopping the watershed’s destruction, by either relocating the farmers or persuading them that reforestation is beneficial to them. Among the many ideas the Fondation Seguin is testing is paying them more money to protect the forest than they would make farming it. In one recent experiment, it paid farmers $50 a year; about 70 percent of them stuck to the agreement.

In the end, restoring watersheds will require a massive public works project that only governments or perhaps major NGOs can take on. Reforestation is not currently in vogue with the larger NGOs, which want the kind of immediate, visible success stories that come from combating disease or building infrastructure. But the efforts of groups like Trees for the Future and the Fondation Seguin suggest that it is still possible to imagine the outline of a solution, in which an ample fraction of the more than $10 billion pledged by foreign donors for earthquake relief is devoted to reforestation programs administered by international agencies and NGOs, one to a watershed. Such programs would not just plant trees but would also install check dams, gully plugs, and alternating rows of bench terraces and vegetation to impede landslides, slow floodwaters, and prevent erosion. They would teach tree-growing to farmers and ecology to schoolchildren. And they would reduce demand for charcoal by subsidizing the cost of propane stoves, as is done in the neighboring Dominican Republic, where reforestation has been successful.

I asked Winthrop Attie, 56, the philosophically minded cofounder of the Fondation Seguin, who presides over the lodge, whether he still had hope for the watershed. "Not much," he said. "But the love of the earth keeps us fighting. We are the stewards of this little piece of the planet. If we set an example, maybe others will follow." In Haiti, that’s considered optimism.