A Tree Grows in Haiti

By Interl, Jeneen; I | Newsweek, July 26, 2010 | Go to article overview

A Tree Grows in Haiti


Interl, Jeneen, I, Newsweek


Byline: Jeneen Interlandi

Six months after a devastating earthquake, the nation is still struggling to regain its footing. Why the best recovery efforts may hinge on something green.

Surrounded as it is by an amphitheater of treeless mountains, the city of Gonaives has long been defenseless against the onslaught of hurricanes that pound Haiti every summer. Unencumbered by trunks or roots or shrubs, the water sloshes freely downward, gathering into apocalyptic mudslides that destroy homes, crops, and livelihoods. In 2004 a single storm claimed 2,000 lives from this one city.

Like the rest of Haiti, Gonaives is bracing for another punishing hurricane season, even as earthquake-recovery efforts falter and the city struggles to absorb thousands of refugees from Port-au-Prince, 100 miles to the south. Amid a host of competing priorities, the seemingly least urgent task may prove to be the most significant: planting as many trees as possible. "Almost all of the country's problems--natural disasters, food shortages, poverty--can be traced back to rampant deforestation," says Ethan Budiansky, the Caribbean-programs officer at Trees for the Future, a nonprofit group that is planting thousands of trees in the mountains around Gonaives. "So if we want to fix the country, we have to start there." While there are no panaceas in Haiti, successful reforestation might come close. By absorbing water and holding soil in place, trees can minimize the impact of natural disasters and repair nutrient-poor agricultural lands. An aggressive reforestation campaign would also bring much-needed jobs to the region and, if done correctly, could solve the energy conundrum that led Haitians to cull their forests in the first place. "Planting trees is not just some quaint side project," says U.N. Development Group chair Helen Clark. "It's the key to rebuilding the country."

That's saying a lot. Six months after the earthquake, collapsed buildings still addle the landscape; millions of Haitians continue to live in makeshift tent cities. And with February elections still waiting to be held, the country's government has all but dissolved. Meanwhile, torrential rains have begun to lash Haiti daily. According to forecasts by Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society, the country faces a 55 percent chance of above-average rainfall this season, and a slightly higher-than-average chance of being hit by a tropical storm. And thanks to the January earthquake that disturbed massive amounts of rock and soil, landslides are almost certain to be worse.

Haitian deforestation has many culprits--from French colonizers' coffee and sugar plantations to the swaggering timber industry of the 19th and 20th centuries--but most experts agree that the biggest modern contributors are the food and fuel needs of Haitians themselves. As population grew--from 3 million in 1940 to 9 million in 2000--rural Haitians were forced to clear ever-larger swaths of mountainside for subsistence crops. The trees themselves doubled as a source of fuel and cash for families who not only used the wood to cook with but also sold it as charcoal in energy-starved Port-au-Prince. (Charcoal is made by burning wood and other carbon-rich substances in an oxygen-proof furnace.) In time, the charcoal trade grew to account for 20 percent of the rural economy and 80 percent of the country's energy supply. Before long, 98 percent of the country's forests had been chopped down, and Haitians were burning 30 million trees' worth of charcoal annually. Soil eroded, crop yields shrank, and floods became more severe. …

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