Bringing back the forests to Haiti. Nation steps up effort to reverse man-made ecological disaster

Daniel Moise tilted his straw hat onto the back of his head and surveyed the ravaged hillside across the valley from his home. ``My land won't get like that,'' he promised, pointing out the rockslides scarring the barren slope. ``Now my father-in-law has given me this plot here, I'm going to plant 150 trees. In rows, so they hold the soil.''

In his own small way, and with the enthusiasm of a convert, Mr. Moise is tackling one of the gravest problems facing this poverty-wracked island nation: deforestation.

When Christopher Columbus first landed here in 1492, he reported that the island he christened Hispaniola was almost completely covered in forest. Today, experts estimate, no more than 3 percent of Haiti's territory has trees.

Range after range of mountains, once verdant with crops, now bake a dull, infertile ochre in the harsh sunlight. Wet season rains have simply washed away the earth, and the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers with it.

The result: a people suffering the most abject poverty in the Western Hemisphere, some scratching together as little as $50 a year.

Deforestation, says Arlin Hunsberger, an American who runs a tree planting project here ``is basically and totally an economic problem.'' Haiti's tree crisis, he adds, was born of poverty, and worsens that poverty.

Mr. Hunsberger dates the crisis to the 1940s, when farmers cleared more and more land for crops, and burned the trees they had chopped down into charcoal to sell in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

As they cleared the land, the soil washed away, rendering it unusable. Unable to raise enough food, peasant farmers turned increasingly to tree felling and charcoal burning as a way of raising money to buy the food they needed.

``It's a vicious cycle, a downward spiral with no way out,'' explains Rick Scott, who heads a forestation program in Haiti for CARE, an international relief and development agency. ``If they don't cut down trees, they have nothing.''

Widespread efforts to break this cycle began in the mid-1970s, after torrential rains highlighted the problem by washing three feet of mud into the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Arguments about the ecological value of trees in preserving the environment, however, carried little weight with the peasant farmers on whom any major reforestation scheme would rest.

It was a United States anthropologist, Gerald Murray, who provided much of the early impetus for tree planting, encouraging the host of private development agencies already working in Haiti to get involved in tree planting, and providing them with a persuasive rationale.

Boiled down to its essentials, it seems obvious enough in retrospect, Mr. Scott says.

``Who gives a hoot that trees help the ecological balance? But if you can convince people it's in their economic interest to plant trees, they will,'' says Scott.

Since peasant farmers were cutting trees down for money, reforesters sought to persuade them to grow trees for money instead, offering them fast growing, hardy species such as eucalyptus and silk oak.

A well-meaning - but ignored - law that prohibited tree felling was abolished, and farmers were encouraged to look at trees as a crop that could be harvested in a few years and sold for planking and posts, or to make charcoal.

``The point is not to stop people cutting down trees,'' argues Wally Turnbull, a Baptist missionary born and raised in Haiti who now grows half-a-million tree seedlings a year in his nursery. ``The point is to stop them cutting down trees without replanting.''

Nurseries like Mr. Turnbull's have sprung up all over the island in recent years, giving away seedlings to anyone who will plant and care for them.

These small enterprises have been spurred on in large part by the US Agency for International Development, whose funds have helped plant more than 30 million trees during the past five years.

Moreover, farmers who planted trees as a cash crop have found that the ecological value of those trees is also of financial interest.

Franchile Achile has surrounded his family's home with a small tree plantation that he plans to harvest bit by bit in a few years and sell for planks.

But the trees he has planted around his fields are making him money even as they grow. Mr. Achile has watched his crops of beets, carrots, cabbages, and corn improve enough over the past few years that he can now afford to build himself a new house.

``If you have trees, they suck water down for more rain,'' he explains. Things grow better in the shade, and when the leaves fall they make the soil better. The more trees I have, the more food I grow.''

In these hills above Port-au-Prince, where Hunsberger's Projet Pwebwa - Creole for Project Tree - is active, that message seems to be well understood.

``Around here,'' says Turnbull, ``we've passed the bottom of the curve. People are planting more trees than they are cutting down. But that's not true nationally.''

Even though ``it seems that everywhere you go in Haiti there's a pastor or a small agency producing trees,'' says Scott, demand for seedlings still outstrips supply. Of the young trees planted, only about half survive their first year's battle against the elements and Haiti's ubiquitous goats.

Though the destruction of the countryside has been a human and economic disaster, all is not lost.

``Trees are, after all, renewable,'' Turnbull notes. ``The longer you go, the less topsoil remains, and the harder it gets, but it is possible'' to plant anew.

Achile needs no convincing. His experience, he says, has taught him that ``trees are a fortune for the earth.''

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