In Haiti, Reforestation Is Key to Recovery In Rural Lands
Nation's conservation movement makes small steps of progress amid challenges
A 30-acre swath of old-growth trees, cloistered in the middle of one of the city's biggest slums, has become a symbol of Haiti's budding conservation movement and its seemingly overwhelming challenges.Skip to next paragraph
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Amid the forest are the ruins of a historic estate and luxury resort first built in the early 19th century. Once an opulent paradise for the very wealthy, it is now a gathering place for residents of the nearby slums.
For 50 years, Habitacion LeClerc has been the residence of the renowned Haitian dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham. She is determined to make its botanical garden and surrounding forest another of her legacies. But the property has recently caught the attention of commercial developers keen on rebuilding the resort into a lucrative hotel, says Cameron Brohman, a Canadian anthropologist who is working to preserve the enclave as Haiti's first botanical garden.
That would be harmful, not only for the forest, but for nearby residents who rely on an artesian spring underneath it for water, he says. It's a scenario that has been repeated all too often in Haiti, where forests cover only about 3 percent of the land, compared with 80 percent when Columbus visited here in the late 15th century.
''If the forest is cut down, that spring will go back down, will descend into the earth,'' says Mr. Brohman. ''Haiti has a water problem because it has a deforestation problem. So, an ecological disaster begins with the cutting of trees, especially in a country like this, which is mountainous. Cut the trees, the topsoil washes away. This has disastrous economic effects.''
The effects of deforestation here, especially on agriculture, have been severe. Nevertheless, while President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's latest reforestation initiatives have been slowed by economic concerns, fuel shortages, and political infighting, Haiti's growing conservation movement makes small steps of progress.
It has been a slow process. One reason, the president says, is that environmental protection and agricultural development are inseparable in Haiti.
''If we don't develop our agriculture, how can we protect our ecology?'' President Aristide said during a recent interview at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince. ''Because otherwise, people will not be motivated to plant trees. And we have to plant trees.... Nobody, if that person has good sense, can be against this move.''
Fuel shortages caused by the international trade embargo against the military regime that ousted Aristide in 1991 intensified an already vigorous Haitian tradition of cutting down trees for charcoal. For many Haitians, especially those in rural areas without electricity, charcoal has been the cooking fuel of choice for decades.
''During the embargo we saw trees with fruits being cut down, because the farmers did not have a market or the means to transport their product to a local market,'' says mango exporter Jean Buteau. As unpicked fruit rotted in the branches, fruit trees became attractive as fuel trees.
To stop the cutting, Mr. Buteau got permission under the embargo's humanitarian provisions to keep exporting mangoes, and he helped set up a transport network to pick up fruit from farmers, often in remote areas.
But as the embargo wore on, Buteau was forced to close down his processing plant, which is located near the Port-au-Prince airport, and he had to turn away fruit growers.
''They came to the plant and they asked, 'What is going to happen to the fruit?' It was very difficult to tell them we just cannot take it,'' he says.
The links between farming and trees are the basis for the biggest reforestation project in Haiti, led by the US Agency for International Development, CARE, and the Pan American Development Foundation.