By Dan Langfitt & Ruth Portnoff
Nowhere is the connection between environmental degradation and chronic poverty more clear than in Haiti: centuries of exploitation and political and economic instability transformed the sixteenth-century's "Pearl of the Antilles" into the crumpled landscape of barren mountainsides where families struggle to eke out a living today. Just as overwhelming deforestation led to the soil deterioration that keeps so many Haitians in extreme poverty, impoverished Haitians often have no choice but to cut down trees for wood to cook their food, fueling a cycle of poverty and environmental degradation that is very difficult to break.
Reforestation belongs in any integrated development approach for Haiti. Simply repopulating forests that once existed (or survive only as remnants) would be an enormous boon to Haiti's primarily agricultural economy, restoring soil, increasing water infiltration, and reducing the damage of heavy rains to crop fields. The problem is developing a reforestation approach that can work in Haiti's particular socioeconomic situation. Even a balanced reforestation effort that plans a diversity of native tree species coupled with proper erosion control and watershed management techniques risks failure when desperate locals pasture theirgoats on fields of tree seedlings or cut down young trees for charcoal. Moreover, reforestation can be controversial: if planting trees on potential farmland in a country that suffers such acute malnutrition gives policy-makers qualms, it certainly proves a difficult case to make to the starving people themselves. For all of these reasons, HTRIP has chosen to embrace agroforestry, a land use system that mixes trees with crops for increased productivity and biodiversity.
Specifically, trees have extensive root systems that protect crops from Haiti's tempestuous rainy season. As a mountain farmer's tree plot matures, it becomes unable to sustain certain kinds of crops (like corn and millet), but HTRIP hopes to introduce higher-value shade crops (like yams and even coffee) as this happens. Meanwhile, fast-growing trees can be harvested for timber products that can dramatically increase family income (a single tree may be worth more than US $125, no small figure for a household living on $1/day). If farmers understand that trees are valuable from the beginning (routine pruning can yield substantial cooking fuel starting in the third year), they will keep the trees and "reforestation" will be successfulthanks to the benefits the farmer derives from practicing agroforestry. In HTRIPs model, agroforestry and reforestation are complementary goals.
Since HTRIP has only been working in the mountains of the Artibonite Valley since 2006(currently with forty-two communities and over two thousand farmers, each of whom boasts a tree plot of fifty to one hundred trees), the parcels planted with its program are not yet mature. When they are, HTRIP will be there to see that the trees are harvested and replanted sustainably, and then help market the timber products these parcels yield to ensure that the farmer gets the greatest possible value for his or her lumber.
We have found that some of the most enthusiastic community members working with HTRIP are often the youngest--these boys understand that the economic benefits this mahogany tree will eventually bring will have an impact on their generation.
Development organizations have planted hundreds of millions of trees in Haiti during the past fifty years, and yet over all tree cover still continues to decline (from about 10% in 1960 to less than 1% today). So far, reforestation efforts in Haiti have not overcome the obstacles that the country's society, environment, and history present. HTRIP approaches these challenges by using an agroforestry model designed to reduce poverty and malnutrition, and educate both literate and non-reading Haitians about the economic and environmental value of planting and protecting their trees.* The fact that they can help reforest Haiti in the process is the icing on the cake!
*P.S. HTRIP is unites agricultural education with literacy training--hitting two birds with one stone, so to speak.