Saturday, June 27, 2009

Haiti and the environment

The first thing that anyone learns about Haiti and the environment is that Haiti is the most deforested country in the world, having shifted from 60% forest cover to less than 2% forest cover.  And the immediate image in one's mind is that of desert.

Well, that's not exactly true.  At least not in a lot of the country.  Here are a few of my Haiti picutres:                                                                                                                                              Zabriko - Copy Farmers plowing land by hand in Zabriko, Haiti (Susan L Smith)

This is a remote mountain area called Zabriko or Z'briko in Creole.  The name is roughly derived from the French words meaning  place of the apricots (i.e. oranges).  Its name on the map is " Apricot."  You will read alot in the next few months about Zabriko because that's the location of the first new water, sanitation, and hygiene education project of Haiti's indigenous farmer collective organization, the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP).  I've worked with several groups here in the States to raise money for that project -- and its first phase is scheduled to be completed before Christmas.  It will capture and pipe a pure spring down to community taps at two schools in the center of the Zabriko area.  Those taps will provide clean drinking water for roughly 2,000 people -- at a cost under $ 13,000.  More on that later....

The part of Haiti I saw was between the capital of Port au Prince, pronounced "Praprin, " and the eastern interior of the Central Plateau.  Most of the Central Plateau is separated from the capital by two sizable mountain ranges with the Artibonite Valley in between.  That is the valley that was changed forever by construction of the Peligre dam and Peligre Lake some 35 or 40 years ago.                                                                       
Haiti 340 Early summer in the Artibonite Valley, Haiti (Susan L Smith)

At least at this time of year, the beginning of the rainy season, most of the territory I saw is green.  The land is mostly covered with crops of various types such as maize, pastures for many goats and a few cattle, hedgerows of "rackets," a particularly nasty type of cactus used to prevent livestock from wandering, and occasional fruit trees (bananas, coconut, and mango) as well as fuelwood trees.

However, as the picture below attests, there are certainly areas closer to the capital that have been totally denuded.  And, in much of the country, the deforestation combined with primitive farming techniques has led to a dramatic loss of top soil, damaging crop productivity, seriously impairing water quality in both streams and the ocean, and leading to devastating floods and mudslides.  So, although the pictures are prettier than I expected, the environmental catastrophe caused by massive deforestation is no less.
Haiti 360
View coming into the coastal plain adjoining Port au Prince (Susan L Smith)

Over the last 40 years, about 60 million trees were planted in Haiti.  Many were planted as part of international aid projects by the Pan American Development Foundation and other non-govermental organizations (NGOs), designed to produce fruit or fuelwood.  However, I am not aware of any serious, large-scale attempt to reforest Haiti with indigenous trees to produce sustainable forests or, as my friend the agronmist Mark Hare would say, to let God reforest Haiti.  Land is scarce in Haiti.  With a population approaching 8 million in an area the size of Maryland that is largely dependent on subsistence farming, using land for sustainable forests may be a difficult proposition.  But it can be sold with a well-designed effort that incorporated selectively harvested hardwoods (available within a generation to pay for annual school tuition, medical expenses, or retirement), immediately productive fruit trees for domestic consumption and export revenue, and some limited conservation reserves, all financed by carbon offset payments that can be used to improve agricultural practices, provide irrigation, and increase crop productivity.  I am currently exploring that possibility with Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the founder of MPP, who received the 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize for MPP's reforestation efforts, and MPP.  I'll keep you posted. 

And to repeat what I said at Chico, I encourage all of my colleagues to advocate on behalf of carbon neutrality at their universities and law schools by 2012-2015, even though neutrality for a decade or two will require real carbon offsets.  Those offsets must be acquired by real, verifiable, and sustained reforestation or afforestation in order to be meaningful.  We at the universities who understand the dimensions of the global warming crisis must lead our governments  and show that carbon neutrality is not just necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change; it is achievable in the not very distant future.

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