To restore Haiti, reforest its denuded hills

Columbus found Haiti a place of lush plants. Exploitation destroyed that, and the population. Now, there's a chance to help the people and the environment by putting Haitians to work restoring the natural heritage.
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After the earthquake: surgeons operate at Gheskio Field Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Columbus found Haiti a place of lush plants. Exploitation destroyed that, and the population. Now, there's a chance to help the people and the environment by putting Haitians to work restoring the natural heritage.

The world has mounted a determined effort to relieve the immense human suffering in Haiti. It is a remarkable outpouring of compassion that includes grassroots efforts to solicit donations on handheld devices, giant military transport planes loaded with food and water, and the quiet heroism of thousands of non-governmental relief workers, and it now seems well on its way toward meeting the immediate needs. As that monumental task is accomplished, and the attention of the world'ꀙs media shifts elsewhere, the challenge of creating a decent future for the people of Haiti will likely remain, because normal life in Haiti was unacceptably perilous even before the earthquake.

If there is to be any real hope for Haiti, a long-term and multi-faceted recovery effort must be mounted on a scale the world has rarely achieved. Fortunately, former President Clinton and many others are already looking ahead to that task, drawing up plans to rebuild the nation's homes, government buildings, ports, and roads. A group of us in Seattle and beyond, many from Federal Way-based World Vision, have suggested that the plan for rebuilding Haiti should also include a major campaign to put Haitians to work restoring the "natural capital" of their country — the once-verdant forests and clean rivers that were destroyed long ago, but ought to be restored as a birthright for future generations and a cornerstone of the nation'ꀙs future prosperity.

Long before the Jan. 12 earthquake leveled Haiti's capital, the devastation of its natural resources could be seen from outer space. Call up satellite images of Haiti on the internet and you will be shocked at the stark contrast between the barren hills of Haiti and the green mountainsides just across the border in the Dominican Republic. That deforestation is both a cruel legacy of Haiti's colonial past and a major factor in the poverty of her people today. It is a legacy that must be reversed to improve the future prospects of this fragile nation.

Modern Haiti's barren mountains could not be more different than the landscape first seen by European explorers. Writing in his diary on Dec. 13, 1492, Christopher Columbus described his first view of Haiti with these words:

"All the trees were green and full of fruit and the plants tall and covered with flowers. The roads were broad and good. The climate was like April in Castile; the nightingale and other birds sang as they do in Spain during the month, and it was the most pleasant place in the world."

The idyllic landscape Columbus describes did not fare well in the centuries that followed, nor did its stewards, a half-million Arawak natives whose ancestors had lived on the island for nearly 5,000 years. As Jared Diamond records this history in his book Collapse, the Spanish quickly enslaved the Arawaks and forced them to mine for gold, and then to clear the land for sugar plantations. Within three decades of Columbus's voyage, disease, maltreatment and outright massacres had all but eliminated the native population. As a result, the Spanish began importing slaves from Africa to keep their mines and plantations in operation.

Spain's attention eventually shifted to its more lucrative colonies in the Americas, leaving the French to fill the vacuum left in the western part of Hispaniola. The French accelerated the slave trade and cleared ever larger swaths of forest for plantations, shipping the timber off to France in the hulls of the same ships that had brought the slaves from Africa.

These practices were, to say it mildly, profoundly unsustainable, both for those enslaved and for the environment. In 1850, the Haitian slaves overthrew their masters, but by the time the Haitian people had freed themselves from colonial rule, much of their "natural capital" had been destroyed. What little remained of the nation's forests then has largely been lost since — cut down by the poor, who make up the overwhelming majority of the nation's populace, and who are almost entirely dependent on charcoal as a source of fuel for heating and cooking.

Today only 1% of Haiti's forests remain (compared to 28% of the Dominican Republic's forests). In Diamond's words: "The consequences of all that deforestation include loss of timber and other forest building materials, soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, sediment loads in the rivers, loss of watershed protection and hence of potential hydroelectric power, and decreased rainfall.

These deficits in natural capital are reflected in the stark realities of Haiti's persistent economic deprivation: It is not only the poorest nation outside Africa (where many nations suffer from the same environmental deficits), it is a nation of subsistence farmers with ever more depleted soil; a country of 10 million people who must often choose between unsafe drinking water or water bottled by corporations and sold at prices they cannot afford. It is a nation built of cinder blocks because it no longer had any timber.

If there is anything fortuitous for the Haitian people in the timing of the earthquake, it may be that it comes at the time when people are beginning to understand that the natural capital of any nation has value to all of humankind. It is conceivable that this new understanding could be converted into a form of aid for Haiti that would not only help the nation get on its feet, but have lasting value for all humankind — the restoration of Haiti'ꀙs forests.

Indeed, several forces are converging that could make this vision a reality:

  • The nations of the world seem prepared to pledge hundreds of millions of dollars for relief and recovery in Haiti.
  • There is a recognition that the concept of "recovery" cannot have meaning in Haiti unless the millions of Haitians without resources or technical skills can find meaningful work. The need to rebuild the physical infrastructure of the nation will create work for those with sophisticated construction skills, but many Haitians do not possess such skills, and will be without the money to support themselves and their families unless the means can be found to employ them to aid the nation's recovery with skills they can quickly acquire.
  • A comprehensive plan to restore Haiti's forests and waterways could employ tens of thousands of unemployed individuals in a modern Haitian version of Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, quickly putting money directly into the hands of local workers for their work in replenishing forest resources that will help to ensure the durability of the nation's recovery over time.
  • An initiative to restore Haiti's forests could serve as a model for reconciling the interests of the developed, developing, and undeveloped worlds so that they can act as one to confront the universal threat posed by climate change. For however deep their differences may be, it is hard to imagine that the world's nations could not find common ground in the opportunity to help Haiti's populace restore its forests, while sequestering carbon and slowing climate change in the bargain.
  • Another critical benefit of reforestation in Haiti is that it will improve resilience to future weather events. Reforestation combined with agro-forestry (trees on smallholder farms) is critical to restoring watersheds, which will also enhance agriculture production. Therefore, a reforestation initiative could serve as both a strategy that helps Haiti adapt to problems created by global warming and as a strategy to mitigate those problems by reducing greenhouse gases.
  • Here is a rough outline of how such an initiative might get underway:

    1. At modest expense, a philanthropic sponsor (or sponsors) could convene a two-day meeting of key players to create a schematic plan which addresses both short-term employment through a Civilian Conservation Corps (referred to by some as a "Forest Corps for Haiti"), and the long- term restoration of Haiti's natural resources.
    2. The schematic plan would identify appropriate roles for local organizations, government agencies, NGOs and the international community, with special attention to building the capacity within Haiti's civil society to take responsibility for all aspects of the initiative over time.
    3. The plan would identify working groups of individuals with expertise in all of the areas needed to implement the initiative. The working groups would flesh out the schematic plan, spelling out how Haitians will be recruited, trained and employed to accomplish immediate, mid-range and long-term restoration goals based upon the best available science.
    4. To implement the plan, a Haitian Reforestation Trust Fund would be established, managed by an international organization selected for its transparency, effectiveness, and ability to act quickly and decisively.
    5. A key part of the initiative will be the measurement of the value of the reforestation measures in terms of mitigating the factors that lead to climate change.
    6. The trust fund would pool the voluntarily contributions from foundations, individual donors, and UN member nations. It would be used to achieve the complementary goals of employing Haitians and creating forest resources to replenish the natural capital of the nation and reduce climate change.
    7. A key part of the initiative will be the measurement of the value of the reforestation measures in terms of mitigating the factors that lead to climate change. As the global environmental benefits of Haiti's reforestation are documented, the trust would be replenished through the carbon markets, so that a mechanism can be developed to pay Haitian communities for the ongoing stewardship of the forests.
    8. Future allocations from the trust to communities would be based upon the actual performance of the forests in achieving environmental goals, creating incentives for the populace to maintain the quality of the forests.
    9. In addition to paying the costs to plan, implement, and monitor the reforestation (using unemployed Haitians as the primary labor force), the trust should pay for alternative energy technologies — such as solar, wind, renewable biomass (e.g., dried grass briquettes), clean burning and more efficient cooking stoves and solar cookers — as alternatives to cutting the forests for fuel.
    10. Land tenure is a critical concern and must be addressed if reforestation is to succeed. One strategy is for government to grant long-term leases for land improvements such as tree planting and sustainable farming. Other solutions must be explored as an integral part of the forest recovery plan.
    11. The Haitian population must be engaged at every stage of the initiative so they understand the value of the forest recovery plan and will be willing to act as its stewards in the future. They should have a voice in decisions about what type of forest protections are imposed in a given area, with the understanding that the revenues from the trust are predicated on the health of the forests and the people'ꀙs performance in protecting it.

    The outline above is just a rough sketch of how the reforestation of Haiti might be organized. We hope these thoughts are useful as a starting point for ensuring that the near-term and long-term benefits of restoring Haiti'ꀙs natural capital are considered in creating the vision of a better, more just and sustainable future.


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