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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.

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National Geographic reports that the extensive deforestation will likely exacerbate the negative impacts of the recent earthquake. When the ground moves and there's nothing holding the loose earth in place, landslides become a greater threat.

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Indeed, in 2004, when a storm hit Hispaniola, the death toll was relatively low in the Dominican Republic. But in flood- and mudslide-prone Haiti, more 3,000 people died.

This Associated Press article chronicles another effect of deforestation: less moisture for growing crops. Said one farmer, “Dew allows us to grow cabbage, potatoes and beans but we can’t grow anything else anymore.”

In 2003, The Los Angeles Times faulted unregulated construction and irrigation practices for the country's erosion problem. The story also points out that 70 percent of Haitians are unemployed. For them, the charcoal trade, however environmentally damaging, is the only way to make a living.

Here's a first-person account of environmental changes in one lifetime:

I was born and grew up in a small village in southern Haiti. I thought I was living in a paradise when I was young. Although there were no angels flying around, I could see many different types of birds, within just a one-minute walk from my house I could see three flowing rivers, the mountains were green and the people had enough food to eat.

Years later, the author returns to his village. He writes:

When I visited my village in 1980 (the last time), it was all brown. No vegetation. Most of the trees I used to see as a boy had been cut down. The birds had left the village. No place to build their nests or for them to rest. No rainfall. The rivers were almost all dried out. My neighbors had moved to other areas. Some had gone to Port-au-Prince for a better life; many people I knew (young and old) had died. My village is like a desert and I believe this same dynamic has occurred in many other places in Haiti.

So what to do? A recent article suggests a few approaches. One possibility: a jatropha tree that can be converted into biofuels (no more importing diesel for electricity generation) and fuel for cooking. Another possibility, making briquettes from recycled paper for use as fuel.

But there are obviously more systemic problems. Poverty coupled with population growth are two factors driving Haiti's deforestation. If Haitians had fuel besides wood or charcoal to cook with, they'd probably use it. (This approach worked in the Dominican Republic.) If they had employment opportunities other than the charcoal trade, which supplies a meager income at best, they'd probably jump on it.

As The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof writes, there are legitimate concerns over aid dependency in Haiti, not to mention what he calls the country's "lousy" leadership and governance. But, because of its location — close to the US — Haiti should invite investment, he says. We need to "set broken bones" and "dig people out of rubble" right now, he declares, but development of the nation's infrastructure and economy is the real solution for the long term.

Editor's note: For stories, blogs, and updates on Haiti after the earthquake, go to the Monitor's Haiti topic page.

The Monitor's Environment section has a new URL. And there's also a new URL for our Bright Green blog. We hope you'll bookmark these and visit often.

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