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Haiti: The Slippery Slope of Ecosystem Degradation

Alice Kenny

Climate talks in Cancun this month highlighted the importance of maintaining healthy forests to protect the planet’s most vulnerable people from the consequences of future climate change.  Haitians have been glimpsing that future all year after a lack of healthy forests left them vulnerable to other disasters.  Here’s a look at the take-home lessons from Haiti’s year of environmental ruin.

Climate talks in Cancun this month highlighted the importance of maintaining healthy forests to protect the planet’s most vulnerable people from the consequences of future climate change.  Haitians have been glimpsing that future all year after a lack of healthy forests left them vulnerable to other disasters.  Here’s a look at the take-home lessons from Haiti’s year of environmental ruin.

15 December 2010 | In this moonscape called Haiti, there is no place to hide.  Hurricane rains followed fast on the heals of the deadly January earthquake, pounding denuded forests and dirt-baked terrain, triggering mudslides, cutting through gullies, destroying anemic vegetation and washing deadly strains of cholera and sewage into rivers where people wash and drink. This once lush Caribbean island nation has been virtually cut clean of its former tree cover by an impoverished people desperate for fuel.  Ninety-eight percent of the trees that used to sponge up flood waters, provide refuge for forest animals and buffer mudslides have been cut down.  Saplings planted by an endless litany of well-intentioned charitable organizations are sawed down before they can grow by Haitians needing wood to burn. 

Haiti offers a heartbreaking illustration of the devastating consequences of narrowly valuing forests for only the commodities they provide, food and fuel, while ignoring the wealth of environmental services and protection forests offer. Now as markets for ecosystem services – carbon, wetlands, and biodiversity – expand their reach, investors are exploring their potential to rescue a tree-starved Haiti.

But hurdles run high as corruption and poverty contribute to a spiral of despair.
Haitians, hungry and cold, are direct in their assessment. Forget about trees’ long-term potential, they tell aide workers. To eat tonight we need to burn wood today.

Even the Birds Have Fled

Millions of trees, enough to reforest this island nation, have been planted over recent decades by international agencies and local charitable organizations, aide groups agree. At most, 10-percent of them remain, says Skoll Award winner Michael Jenkins, founding president of Forest Trends and publisher of Ecosystem Marketplace.

Jenkins first went to Haiti in 1983 as a Peace Corps volunteer where he worked with the USDA agro forestry program.  He returned most recently last June to brainstorm about the possibilities of creating a climate fund that would bring in private-sector investments to serve multiple goals such as protecting mangroves, planting trees and improving agricultural practices.

Had the trees Jenkins and so many others helped plant been allowed to thrive they could have helped rehabilitate this wasteland, he says.  Look, for example, at the Dominican Republic that shares the island Hispaniola with Haiti. While the same storms and hurricanes target both nations, the Dominican Republic, with 60-percent of its forest cover remaining, still offers fertile farmland.

Tree roots grip nutrient-rich topsoil, holding it in place during heavy rains and prevent mudslides and flooding, said Ethan Budiansky, who oversees the nonprofit Trees for the Future’s tree planting endeavor in Haiti. 

“There is a global focus on planting trees to reduce carbon in the atmosphere but there is so much more to trees that that,” Budiansky says.  “They play a significant role in the health of the environment and, therefore, the health of the people.”

Trees roots trap pollutants before they flow into waterways.  They recycle moisture back into the atmosphere. And they provide refuge for a host of life, from birds to honey bees. 

But in Haiti, even the birds have fled; without trees to nest in pigeons are among the few that remain.  Subsistence farmers that, according to government data, make up nearly 75-percent of the population watch helplessly as terraced land they tilled on this mountainous terrain washes away.  Nearly 15,000 acres of Haiti’s topsoil washes away each year, Budiansky said, five times the size of the principality of Monaco.  Farmers whose earnings average less than two dollars a day are often left with little more than dust and rocks to till. 

“Desertification,” a new word that basically means turning lush land into desert, has taken hold of much of Haiti’s interior, said Norman Christensen, the founding dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Studies at Duke University and a frequent volunteer in Haiti.  Trees that used to recycle moisture and replenish the atmosphere are no longer there to promote gentle rains that nourish vegetation.  This leaves dry, dusty land at the mercy of hurricanes whose intensity and frequency has increased, scientists say, due to climate change.  

While the word, desertification, is fairly new, the phenomenon is not.  It is basically what happened in the United States in the 1930s when over farming turned the Great Plains into the Dust Bowl.

In response, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sparked the first large-scale environmental movement to save this land.

“The nation that destroys its soil,” he said, “destroys itself.”

Changing the Odds

Fighting hurricanes and storms without forest cover is like wearing boxer shorts while fighting an armor-clad knight.  There is no contest. 

To change these odds, nonprofit organizations such as Trees for the Future teamed up with local groups to find solutions that serve Haitians immediate and long-term needs. They are planting trees such as the fast-growing leucaena that, similar to many shrubs, grow even bigger after getting pruned back for firewood and other uses.  And they are nourishing what Budiansky dubs a “miracle tree,” the moringa, whose leaves hold massive amounts of Vitamin C, calcium and protein, can be cooked like spinach and can be harvested six months after the trees are planted.

But tree planting, good will and charitable intentions have not been enough to save Haiti.  Somehow, economic incentives must be found. 

Forest Cover and Business Aurvival

Many businesses in Haiti already have clear incentives pushing them to find ways to promote forest cover.  Digicel, for example, the leading mobile phone operator in Haiti, experiences first hand how Haiti’s lack of forest cover hurts its bottom line.  Roads to their cell towers wash away every year; they must be repaired for business to proceed.  Digicel responded by sponsoring its own foundation that promotes tree cover and provides educational and social services to the Haitian people.  Similarly, hydroelectric companies are investing in forest cover in the highlands to promote clean water in the lowlands. 

Teaming up With Ecosystem Markets

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed 220,000 people in January and left more than 1.5 million Haitians homeless focused worldwide attention on Haiti.  Mercifully, hurricane season that just ended turned out to be less severe than forecast, according to U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance statistics. 

Some view this as an opportunity to harness charitable goals and business incentives into a single package that, when combined with ecosystem market inducements, could make headway in resolving Haiti’s massive needs.

“Almost everything has been focused on the very direct issue of earthquake relief,” said Christensen.  “But if Haiti is ever going to become sustainable on its own it’s going to happen because we had some success in reforesting that landscape.” 

Funds from carbon market investors could be used to support the use by Haitians of kiln and cook stoves that emit less carbon into the air, suggested Jenkins.  Businesses could invest in forests upstream to protect their downstream investments.  Developers might be persuaded to protect endangered biodiversity.  Nongovernmental organizations could provide oversight to avoid local corruption.

Ecosystem markets, however, would be limited by the absence of a functional economy in Haiti, says Christensen.  Environmental, social and political risks pose additional challenges to environmental markets, adds Budiansky, whose Trees for the Future organization supports carbon and other environmental markets elsewhere. 

“When you’re planting trees in the carbon market, you’re guaranteeing to investors that those trees will remain in the ground for 10-to-20 years,” Budiansky said.  “We cannot make that guarantee.”

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