Haiti’s tree cover may be around 30 percent, but it is patchy, which affects biodiversity, drought, water quality and the impact of natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew, now estimated to have taken at least a thousand lives. At least one development organization is changing its approach based on the new forest-cover data and a greater understanding of local management practices. J/P Haitian Relief Organization, founded by the actor Sean Penn, is currently raising $300 million in partnership with the Haitian and French governments to enhance Haiti’s climate resiliency. The project, called “Haiti Takes Root,” has launched a study with the World Bank to better understand charcoal production and consumption. “Because it’s illegal and informal and misunderstood, charcoal has been the bogeyman,” said Chris Ward, the project’s executive director. “But it’s the biggest agricultural value chain in the country. We might be able to use that as a driver of reforestation, not deforestation.”
Coppicing a tree produces multiple stems growing out of the main trunk — suitable for firewood, fencing, tool handles, and many more woodland crafts. A properly coppiced woodland, harvested in rotational sections called coups, has trees and understory in every stage and is a highly effective method to grow a fast supply of naturally renewing timber. By working on a rotation we are assured of a crop somewhere in the woodland every year.
Pollarding (from the word “poll,” which originally meant “top of head”) has been used since the Middle Ages — in fact, there are still stands of continuously pollarded trees that date to that time.
One of the most repeated facts about Haiti is a lie, by Maura R. O'Connor, VICE News, Oct 13, 2016 -- When the geologist Peter Wampler first went to Haiti, in 2007, he didn’t expect to see many trees. He had heard that the country had as little as 2 percent tree cover, a problem that exacerbated drought, flooding and erosion. As a specialist in groundwater issues, Wampler knew that deforestation also contributed to poor water quality; trees help to lock in rich topsoil and act as a purifying filter, especially important in a country where about half of rural people do not have access to clean drinking water.
Haiti is frequently cited by the media, foreign governments and NGOs as one of the worst cases of deforestation in the world. Journalists describe the Caribbean nation’s landscape as “a moonscape,” “ravaged,” “naked,” “stripped” and “a man-made ecological disaster.” Deforestation has been relentlessly linked to Haiti’s entrenched poverty and political instability. David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, once cited Haiti’s lack of trees as proof of a “complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences.” More recently, a Weather Channel meteorologist reporting on the advance of Hurricane Matthew made the absurd claim that Haiti’s deforestation was partly due to children eating the trees.
Haiti’s reputation as a deforested wasteland is based on myth more than fact — an example of how conservation and environmental agendas, often assumed to be rooted in science, can become entangled with narratives about race and culture that the powerful tell about the third world.
Over the next five years, as Wampler crisscrossed the country for his research, he began to undergo a cognitive dissonance. “I heard that 2 percent number quoted everywhere,” he said. “All the news outlets had this narrative that it’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and has 2 percent forest cover. But I’d been to these mountainous areas and seen forest cover that was more than 2 percent. I could see it with my own eyes.”
He began searching for the original source of the forest-cover statistic. To his surprise, he couldn’t find one. The few citations he discovered in scientific studies couldn’t be substantiated. Some scientific and development literature used a 4 percent estimate that came from the Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations agency. That number also struck him as too low.
Wampler, a professor at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University, uses geographic information systems and satellite imagery frequently in his work, and he decided to employ them to satisfy his curiosity about the trees in Haiti. He enlisted several students and began gathering high-resolution imagery of the island from LandSat, the database operated by the United States Geological Survey. Stitching together images from 2010 and 2011, he formed a mosaic that covered the entire country. He combined the images in three wavelengths to highlight vegetation and then trained a computer to spot trees in the images. To check the accuracy, he manually compared the computer’s automated analysis to random samples chosen from Google Earth.
When the results came back, his first thought was that he had to do the whole process again. “Let’s check this 10 times to make sure it’s right,” he told his colleagues. According to their analysis, Haiti’s forest cover was more than 32 percent.
Wampler wondered whether they had set a sufficient minimum area for tree cover. So they used the FAO’s definition of a “forest,” which includes trees higher than 5 meters (about 16 feet) covering at least half a hectare. He ran the analysis again. The computer estimated Haiti’s forest coverage at nearly 30 percent, a number similar to the coverage in the United States, France, and Germany, and far higher than in Ireland and England.
Paul Robbins, a political ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, called the environmental movement’s blaming of the poor for deforestation an “obsession” that is both “ironic” and “empirically questionable.” In West Africa, for example, the idea that local communities have caused deforestation is orthodoxy among development and environmental policymakers, but analysis of historical data and first-person accounts rarely support it.
Wampler had debunked the myth of how many trees were in Haiti, but his findings, published in the International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation in 2014, didn’t gain much traction among environmentalists or development agencies. The World Bank, USAID, Oxfam America and multiple United Nations agencies still cite a stat of 1 to 4 percent for forest cover in Haiti.
For centuries, outsiders predicted the failure of the world’s first country founded by rebel slaves, and for decades outsiders have forecast an environmental collapse rooted in the cultural failures of those slaves’ descendants. Wampler’s study hinted at a different, more interesting story, one of a resource-challenged people who created a unique relationship with their trees through adaptation and management.
Many narratives about Haiti, according to anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse, are uninformed and ahistorical. Even after the catastrophic earthquake in 2010, which brought yet another influx of foreigners to document Haiti’s tragedies, the media’s representations — of an overpopulated country of irrational, progress-resistant and ignorant people — could be traced back to those popular in the 19th century, after Haiti’s slaves launched a rebellion and won their independence from France. Rather than applaud this landmark in the history of human freedom, governments around the world viewed the successful slave insurrection with horror. This was 60 years before the United States’ Civil War, and the Republic of Haiti challenged the international system of colonization and slavery. The country’s history since is a series of foreign nations imposing crippling debt, invading, occupying and intervening, with often dire consequences for Haiti’s people.
The notion that Haiti’s trees, or lack of trees, was itself a significant problem dates to the aftermath of World War II, when American development agencies arrived on the island looking for projects. Haiti had hardly any old-growth forests, and the culprit, they believed, was overpopulation: Nearly 4 million Haitians, crammed into a tiny portion of the island, had exceeded the environment’s capacity to support them. Desperate for agricultural land and charcoal, Haitians shortsightedly cut down whatever trees they could find, setting into motion a cycle of erosion, diminishing food production, poverty and hunger.
By the late 1970s, USAID was warning of an environmental apocalypse by the turn of the century if the rate of tree cutting by Haiti’s rural poor persisted. Development agencies had launched projects focused on planting new trees and protecting forests from Haitian farmers and charcoal producers, but they had little to show for it.
These early reports of deforestation were based on low-resolution satellite and aerial images and flawed surveys that were likely biased by lack of easy access to rural parts of the country, anthropologist Andrew Tarter, an expert on the history of Haiti’s economic and spiritual relationship to trees, told me from his home in Port-au-Prince. Researchers “rented cars, so they went to places they could get to in a car,” he said. “Well, those are the same places where [wood and charcoal] trucks can get to and [they] were highly denuded.”
Farmers and charcoal producers were blamed for the deforestation throughout the 20th century. But the destruction of the country’s old-growth forest began far earlier with French colonists who cleared the land for slave plantations and used the wood in the sugar-production process. After colonialism, forest laws in many parts of the world as well as the emerging environmental movement borrowed the legal and ideological template of colonialism, explained Robbins, the University of Wisconsin-Madison ecologist, and criminalized poor people’s use of trees.
But evidence that poverty causes deforestation is pretty scarce. “Deforestation and poverty correlate at the regional and national level,” Robbins explained in an email, “but of course, correlation is not causation! Poor places experience forest-cover loss because they are exploited by wealthy places.”
When the French lost their prize colony in 1804, they levied an indemnity on the new Haitian government as punishment. To pay this debt, Haitians began exporting mahogany to France; by 1842 they were sending 4 million cubic feet of it overseas every year. “Much of the deforestation of the precious hardwoods occurred in the 19th century when the Haitian government turned over mahogany forests to outside companies,” said Gerald Murray, an anthropologist and professor emeritus at the University of Florida. “Then it was the outside world — USAID, the World Bank, the United Nations — that later decided deforestation was a problem in Haiti.”
Murray’s radical recommendation was that policymakers abandon “the podium and the pulpit” of ecology and saving nature and provide rural families with both seedlings and harvest rights to the trees they grew. He predicted that under those conditions, Haitians would fill the landscape with trees. Over the next two decades, a project funded by USAID and implemented by the Pan American Development Foundation resulted in more than 300,000 Haitian peasant households planting 65 million trees.
Murray continues to visit Haiti each year and was not at all surprised by the results of Peter Wampler’s study, though he said it is unlikely that his project — which planted trees specifically for harvest — is responsible. It’s possible that a third of Haiti had tree cover all along.
It’s more likely that Haiti’s practice of carefully managed woodlots known as rakbwa, in which trees are grown, culled and sold for construction or charcoal, have played a role in sustaining the country’s tree cover. Tarter, the anthropologist in Haiti, told me that rakbwas have been in use for nearly two centuries, and his guess is that Wampler’s finding represents a resurgence of trees. “I suspect that Haiti might have actually been more denuded 30 years ago,” he said. “Trees with deeper taproots are growing up on land that’s been abandoned [as] people are moving out of rural areas into urban areas.”
Urbanization usually creates a greater demand for charcoal, because people in cities don’t have easy access to firewood. So it’s possible that over the last 40 years, Haitians not only avoided the environmental apocalypse predicted for them but also expanded their country’s tree cover, even as the population has grown to 10 million people, more of whom live in cities.
Wampler is designing another study to compare present tree-cover levels with archival satellite images from the 1970s to determine whether his earlier results represent a decrease or increase in trees in the last four decades.
Whatever the extent of tree cover, soil erosion, groundwater contamination, and deadly flooding remain significant problems in Haiti. Cultivating treeless, steep mountainsides for agriculture, a common practice, is environmentally damaging and allows topsoil to wash out. Haiti’s tree cover may be around 30 percent, but it is patchy, which affects biodiversity, drought, water quality and the impact of natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew, now estimated to have taken at least a thousand lives.
At least one development organization is changing its approach based on the new forest-cover data and a greater understanding of local management practices. J/P Haitian Relief Organization, founded by the actor Sean Penn, is currently raising $300 million in partnership with the Haitian and French governments to enhance Haiti’s climate resiliency. The project, called “Haiti Takes Root,” has launched a study with the World Bank to better understand charcoal production and consumption. “Because it’s illegal and informal and misunderstood, charcoal has been the bogeyman,” said Chris Ward, the project’s executive director. “But it’s the biggest agricultural value chain in the country. We might be able to use that as a driver of reforestation, not deforestation.”
Reforestation may prove simpler than correcting the decades of environmental doomsaying that has contributed to Haiti’s status as the world’s favorite disaster story. But statistics tell much more than a story of wretchedness in Haiti; they also reveal ingenuity.
Members of Moise's collective harvest cassia and acacia trees while leaving the roots(See above: "pollarding is done 8-10 feet high to prevent browsing animals from eating the fresh shoots; typically, coppicing was done to manage woodlands and pollarding was done in a pasture system") to regrow in rows intercropped with beans and yams. That helps hold topsoil that can be washed down steep slopes when only erosive food crops such as corn are grown.
(=Haitian: "benzoliv, moringa"), thanks to its deep roots, this tree - which has its origins in Asia - draws upon water 60m below ground. Its cultivation thus offers the double advantage of limiting irrigation while creating a natural barrier against erosion. The canopy of the leaves protects the soil and even restores it through nitrogen fixing, which essentially revives soil that has become arid and lacking in nutrients. Encouraged by the results, and with the help of partners such as Ashoka Venture, Ms Toumi set up cooperatives that bring together increasing numbers of women to cultivate this virtuous plant on their own land. Her social enterprise offers seedlings, technical advice and help with market opportunities at the time of harvest, such as the transformation of moringa(Haiti: moringa, benzoliv)" leaves into powder, mainly for the European market. Rich in vitamins and minerals, this powder is turned into a dietary supplement in the form of honey or tea(or blender drinks, smoothies)."
Clearing slopes for crops and letting grazing animals eat saplings are the primary factors behind recent deforestation, said John Dale Zach Lea, an agricultural economist working with Catholic Relief Services.
But while there is no shortage of stripped hillsides, researchers(--Peter Wampler, 2007) analyzing satellite and aerial images in recent years have debunked that grim statistic and now say forests still cover about a third of the mountainous country.
The longstanding assertion that charcoal production is responsible for Haiti's denuded forests and must be eliminated to spur reforestation is misguided, according to a recent World Bank report.
"Much evidence exists that the charcoal trade in Haiti occurred after much of the deforestation of original forests and that charcoal practices are currently meeting urban energy needs," the report says.
“In just six years we have gone from thirty Americans to 160 Haitians” working for a better Haiti, said our founder and Chairman, Sean Penn.
On January 7th Hollywood came together to support J/P HRO's Haiti Rising Gala at Montage Beverly Hills. The night raised millions of dollars to help us tackle root problems like extreme poverty, unplanned urbanization and massive deforestation that directly lead to the extreme vulnerability of Haitian communities---vulnerability that was, once again, painfully displayed during Hurricane Matthew.
Haiti Rising welcomed Hollywood and it’s A-list moguls and stars to shine a light on our work and raise much needed funds.
On June 10, 2017, CitiBank Haiti partnered with J/P Haitian Relief Organization, Haitian Red Cross and American Red Cross to plant 3,000 trees in Canaan under the banner of the Haiti Takes Root Initiative, a unique public-private collaboration that promotes sustainable reforestation around the country.
The trees, including Moringa – often called the miracle tree for its many uses – and lime, were planted in public green spaces that have been identified by the community