(December 26, 2004) International groups spent millions of dollars to plant trees in Haiti but failed to slow the deforestation that leads to floods like the one that killed 3,000 people in Gonaives, writes Susannah A. Nesmith in the Miami Herald.
CAMP PERRIN , Haiti – Sean Finnigan travels the rutted mountain roads above this town, proudly pointing out ”his” mango trees.
Finnigan is passionate about the mangoes he has persuaded area peasants to grow on their tiny plots. The trees are like his children. He loves them for the simple reason that they are alive.
In a country where maybe 50 million trees are felled every year, mostly to make charcoal, Finnigan’s trees stand as small miracles in a landscape of catastrophe.
International organizations have poured millions of dollars into Haiti to try to slow the country’s devastating deforestation, and they have little to show for it. Twenty years after reforestation efforts began in earnest, the mountains are barer, the trees scarcer. And the country’s soil is still slowly sliding into the sea.
”We, all the aid organizations together, have planted about three million trees a year,” said Jean André Victor, president of the Haitian Environment Foundation, noting that he was referring to seedlings that actually grew into trees. Experts estimate that only 30 percent of seedlings do.
”But 50 million trees are cut down every year,” Victor added. “That’s why the forests have disappeared.”
The consequences of that were all too clear in Gonaives in September, when Tropical Storm Jeanne sent walls of mud and water raging through the city of 300,000 people. About 3,000 died as homes, livestock and businesses were washed away.
The reasons behind the failure of so many reforestation projects seem as numerous as Haiti’s bald and barren hillsides.
Projects have been stymied by Haiti’s crippling poverty, widespread corruption and recurrent periods of instability. Foreign development organizations brought their own problems to the table — short-term goals that changed with the political winds in Washington or at the United Nations in New York and ill-conceived projects that tried to impose reforestation on wary peasants.
Then there is the perennial lure of charcoal, Haiti’s primary fuel for home cooking and running bakeries and dry cleaners. Its smoke hangs in a heavy haze over cities like Port-au-Prince, and all over the countryside soot-bathed peasants can be seen making it.
It’s why the peasants cut the trees, and no fuel is cheaper.
A RARE SUCCESS
All of that is why Finnigan, a native of London who has lived in Camp Perrin since the 1970s, loves his trees so much. Experts point to his 19-year effort to plant trees around Camp Perrin as one of the few reforestation successes in Haiti.
Finnigan’s group, the Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment, began in 1985 with a simple strategy — to turn native mango trees into moneymakers by grafting them with the Madame Francique strain, prized by U.S. importers.
”Back in those days, a lot of reforestation projects were with forestry trees,” Finnigan said. “But farmers want something that makes money.”
He secured $6.8 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development and other organizations over the years and even branched out into grafted avocados and oranges and fast-growing bamboo — anything that would be more valuable to the peasants than the charcoal they can make when they cut down a tree.
Finnigan estimates that the trees that his group helped plant earn $6.6 million every year, with much of that going to the hundreds of thousands of peasants who own them.
”If you can take an entire area and have them producing high-revenue crops in five years, they’ll never look back,” he said during a recent interview in his headquarters in this town 100 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince.
Mango grower Wilyo Pierre agrees. ”The people around this area, they don’t cut [mango] trees anymore,” Pierre said. “Since people here found out about grafting, they see it’s better than charcoal.”
The problem is not that the peasants don’t want trees.
”We really need trees up here,” said Jean-Robert Laurent-Pierre, 48, father of 11 and a peasant leader in the town of Robin in the mountains above Port-au-Prince. “The deforestation is taking the soil with it, and the dry season is longer up here now.”
The barren mountains where he lives stand at the top of the watershed that ultimately empties into the capital. Floods in Port-au-Prince start in places like Robin.
”When I was little, there were a lot of trees like apples and peaches,” Laurent-Pierre said. “People cut them and never replanted them. The land has gotten so much worse. We used to produce a lot in the past. There used to be flat parts of the land. Now it’s all ravine.”
But he admits that when his family has needed money, he has cut down trees for charcoal. ”We know it’s bad, but we have to live,” he said.
Finnigan’s organization isn’t the only group that turned to fruit trees to make money for the peasants. Experts now say that’s the only viable option, because it’s too late to try to replace native pine and mahogany forests.
‘You can’t say, `OK, we’re going to put the forest back,’ ” said Mike Bannister, a forestry professor at the University of Florida, who worked in Haiti for years. “What are you going to do with all those people who live where the forest was?”
THE CORE PROBLEM
Bannister and Gerry Murray, a University of Florida anthropologist, worked on a project that gave peasants fast-growing trees that could be harvested for their wood and would grow back.
But even that project couldn’t solve the larger problem of deforestation, largely because the Haitian government did not do enough to protect the existing watersheds. ”The problem is there’s no government in Haiti,” Murray said. “They can’t even collect the garbage.”
Murray blamed much of the problem on corruption. “The only thing that the Haitian government has been hellbent on doing is getting as much money as it can in Swiss bank accounts.”
And then there is the basic failing of the foreign aid organizations — almost always short-term efforts, at least when measured against the life of a tree.
Such projects ”usually succeed during the life of the project because people are being paid to plant trees or carry out anti-erosion measures,” said Paul Paryski, a retired U.N. environmental expert, who spent nearly 20 years in Haiti. “As soon as the money stops coming in on a project, the people abandon it and start cutting trees again.”
The Rev. Wilner Donecia, the parish priest in the town of Gros Morne in the mountains above Gonaives, remembers one foreign aid group that paid peasants to plant trees and install erosion control walls on their own plots.
”If you pay [the peasant] to fix his own land, he’s going to destroy everything once you leave so you’ll come back again and pay him again,” he said.
In the end, the project did more harm than good, Donecia said, as other peasants denuded their land, hoping for pay to undo the damage.
Today, the hopes of reforestation programs are nearly spent.
The U.S. Agency for International Development is no longer financing reforestation in Haiti. The projects ended in 2001, after tainted elections led to an international aid embargo against the government of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
And the $1.3 billion aid plan cobbled together by foreign donors after Aristide was ousted last February allots only $8 million for environmental programs — none of it for reforestation. The World Bank also is not financing any reforestation.
All that is left are the small projects like Finnigan’s, which has planted or grafted about 830,000 trees in two decades. And he has had to cut back from 150 employees to 50 because he can’t get financing.
And even though Finnigan’s program is regularly praised as effective, catastrophe still threatens his headquarters area.
A local irrigation system built by French colonists in 1759 and restored in the 1950s by the Haitian government is on the verge of collapse. The Ravine du Sud river that feeds the system is choked with boulders and silt washed down from bald mountains where peasants have yet to plant mangoes.
Last year, the boulders and silt choked off the natural flow of the river and diverted it through Camp Perrin. After several days, Finnigan and other farmers used heavy equipment to unblock the river.
One of the mountains above the river is a national park, where there is not supposed to be logging or farming. But about 2,000 families are farming there.
”They’re destroying the watershed for 600,000 people,” Finnigan said. “It’s suicidal.”
A fix is planned for the irrigation system, but it is only temporary, and Finnigan expects that within five or six years, the whole system will be choked beyond repair. That would leave his mangoes without water and bankrupt the local economy.
”It’s like we’re building a sand castle and the tide is coming in,” he said.
Susannah A. Nesmith, Miami Herald, December 26, 2004.