National Geographic News
Charcoal workers cut down trees in 2005.

Charcoal workers cut down trees in Haiti.

Photograph by Shaul Schwarz, Getty Images

By William Wheeler in Haiti

for National Geographic News

Published January 13, 2011

This story is part of a National Geographic News series on global water issues.

From the passenger seat of a truck rumbling along a rough and dusty road in rural Haiti, Drew Kutschenreuter points out trees planted to feed the country’s charcoal habit, patches of millet, and irrigation canals cut along the sides of rolling brown hills.

An agronomist from Wisconsin, Kutschenreuter has been working in Haiti for more than two decades, most recently on soil conservation and hillside terracing projects run by the International Organization for Migration. Kutschenreuter’s goals: to create jobs and reverse the country’s downward spiral into ecological degradation and extreme poverty—problems exacerbated by last year’s earthquake and the island’s history of hurricane damage.

(Related: “Haiti Earthquake Anniversary: Pictures Show Slow Recovery.”)

With only a fraction of its forest cover remaining, Haiti has become increasingly vulnerable to flash floods and mudslides. Without underground tree roots, only a quarter of the water that should permeates the soil. Storms often damage what water systems do exist, crippling access to clean drinking water supplies. The United Nations (UN) estimates some 36 million tons of rich topsoil are carried away each year by wind and rain, much ending up in rivers and lakes that become lifeless mudscapes during the rainy season. With the loss of soil fertility, crop yields drop, and farmers have increasingly turned to cutting trees for firewood and charcoal as a source of revenue.

With the recent outbreak of cholera in camps crowded with earthquake victims, and in mountainous rural areas where people take their drinking water from the river or underground wells, there may be an added stress on forest resources. According to Wesler Lambert of Partners in Health, when citizens are asked to boil water as a protection measure against cholera or other water-borne diseases, they use charcoal, leading to more deforestation and therefore more flooding.

(Read more in William Wheeler’s blog post: “Haiti’s Cycle of Calamity.”)

Rebuilding Hillsides, Futures

Kutschenreuter works in an area of northern Haiti called Gonaîves, which did not see earthquake devastation, overseeing planting and hillside terracing projects to slow down the flow of water and protect topsoil. While the project area is only a small patch of Haiti, it offers a glimpse of how an environmentally rehabilitated landscape could look.

Mending Haiti’s environment is the ambitious end game of a new program called the Haiti Regeneration Initiative, spearheaded by Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP). The effort started in 2008 with the ecological restoration of one of the country’s several dozen watersheds. Now, having secured $8 million in funding, the project’s leaders are expanding its scope along Haiti’s southern coast, and will couple environmental restoration with development efforts, such as building infrastructure for drinking water and sanitation, and efforts to improve the livelihoods of local Haitians.

Until now, much of the work has been focused on planning: using soil quality surveys, and satellite data that accounts for topography and water patterns, to create a map that determines which hillsides can support which crops. They’ve also installed an automated rain gauge, which communicates wind speed and precipitation data in real-time via satellite back to New York, and could be developed into a flood risk early warning system.

The program builds on practices the UN has developed in African villages. "Haiti's are among the lowest crop yields in the world,” said Marc Levy, a Columbia University professor and Earth Institute program director. “By using fertilizer feeds and best management practices, they could double or triple their yields very quickly.” Fruit-bearing trees like banana and mango could be planted along hillsides, and walls built to shore them up against erosion. By focusing on more efficient use of “good” land, like plateaus, farmers might be able abandon some of the steeper grades altogether. Reforestation programs could provide alternative jobs to cutting trees for firewood and charcoal production.

But the idea that choosing not to farm a particular slope because of its value for flood protection and water quality—an individual sacrifice for a collective benefit—challenges the coping strategies that poor farmers have relied on for centuries, said Levy. He argues that it will take a significant change, like the one the Haiti Regeneration Initiative promotes, to reverse the country’s ecological decline.

Many scientists and policymakers have long recognized the consequences of charcoal dependency. A better strategy for Haitian farmers, according to a 2008 economist's report commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, would be to plant high-value mango trees for export. A tree-cutting tax could be established to subsidize alternative jobs for charcoal producers—as tree-planters and park rangers. But poor farmers, who have been largely cut out of export profits, traditionally choose subsistence farming. Changing the incentives would require strong government leadership—and a lack of such leadership was an obstacle to the larger reconstruction effort even before elections in late November were marred by fraud and touched off unrest, according to analysts.

Without a strong government committed to addressing these problems in Haiti, environmental rehabilitation programs have had, at best, mixed results. Common failures among such projects, which have received a total of $391 million since 1990, according to the Haiti Regeneration Initiative, include a lack of coordination among international aid organizations and government ministries, a failure to provide alternative jobs and secure local participation, and a history of "short-term interventions applied to long-term issues."

Kutschenreuter’s project in Gonaîves was the first to incorporate advice from the UN Environmental Programme in its approach, according to UNEP’s Antonio Perera.

A major tenet of the Haiti Regeneration Initiative is the importance of cooperation between NGOs, the government, and the residents in project areas. Much of the work in the next year will build on partnerships with a committee of local leaders, according to Earth Institute’s Alex Fischer.

“We’re seeing the initial stages of a coalition of groups that together have the potential to reach a significant proportion of the population and have very strong relationships with all the major players,” Fischer said. “If we keep following this track, there’s definitely reason to be hopeful.”

William Wheeler’s ongoing reporting in Haiti is supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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