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After the earthquake: Haiti's deforestation needs attention

As Haiti is rebuilt after the earthquake, attention should be paid to its environmental problems, especially deforestation.

By Moises Velasquez-Manoff / January 20, 2010

A woman carries a load of firewood in Seguin, Haiti, among a beautiful but nearly treeless landscape that is supposed to be a protected forest. Haitians use the trees as fuel either by burning them dorectly or turning them into charcoal.

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Ever since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti a week ago — the most powerful to strike in 200 years — stories of the extraordinary damage and suffering wrought by the disaster have dominated airwaves and front pages around the country. The coverage and the outpouring of aid that followed have, for the time being, focused international attention on the country's poverty and vulnerability to disasters just like this, hopefully to lasting effect.

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But somewhat overshadowed in all this activity is one of Haiti's longer term, but nonetheless serious, problems.

The island nation suffers from one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. This is troubling for a number of reasons. The loss of nearly all its trees promises to amplify how dramatically earthquakes, hurricanes, and other periodic natural occurrences impact Haitians, to say nothing of deforestation's impoverishing legacy of erosion and climate change on local scale (less moisture). Without trees holding the soil in place, a heavy rain — let alone a hurricane or an earthquake — can easily cause mudslides on the island's steep slopes.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island in the CaribbeanHispaniola. Both countries are at the same latitude and, generally speaking, the same climatic conditions prevail.

But one country, the Dominican Republic, has lush forests. The other, Haiti, is almost completely brown and bare. The stark difference is visible from high above — one side green and full of foliage, the other bare.

Here's a photo from NASA and another from a National Geographic story in the 1980s.

Fewer than 100,000 acres of forest remain in Haiti, a country that was three-quarters tree-covered when European explorers first arrived 500 years ago. The nation, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, has lost perhaps 98 percent of its tree cover, one of the worst cases of deforestation in the world.

By most accounts, cooking fires are the major culprit behind the nation's loss of trees. Haitians use trees as fuel either by burning the wood directly, or by first turning it into charcoal in ovens. Seventy-one percent of all fuel consumed in Haiti is wood or charcoal, according to the US Agency for International Development.

Every year, the country's 9 million (and growing) inhabitants burn a quantity of wood and charcoal equal to 30 million trees, according to this essay. That's 20 million more trees than Haiti grows yearly.

The Dominican Republic largely put a halt to this practice by banning it outright, and then by subsidizing propane fuel as a substitute. According to Greenwire, however, an illegal charcoal trade is thriving along the border of the two countries. Charcoal cartels have cut down trees on the Dominican side for sale on the Haitian side. (In December, three people were killed on the Dominican side in a charcoal trade-related dispute.)

The loss of trees and their roots has led to widespread erosion. Some 36 million tons of valuable topsoil is swept away yearly, according to the United Nations. Some ends up in waterways. Silt influx has raised the level of Lac Azuei, for example, by a number of feet, reports Greenwire:

Rapid erosion caused by deforestation is spilling large quantities of silt into Lac Azuei, raising lake levels and flooding the road connecting Port-au-Prince to Malpasse. The original road already lies 2 feet below the water line, but the government has been piling sand on top of it to keep the critical passage open. The lake is rising still.

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