What Haiti Really Needs Now: More Trees

A woman makes her way home with water from a fresh mountain spring overlooking Carrefour, Haiti. Peter Pereira / 4SEE-Redux

Surrounded as it is by an amphitheater of treeless mountains, the city of Gonaïves has long been defenseless against the onslaught of hurricanes that pound Haiti every summer. Unencumbered by trunks or roots or shrubs, the water sloshes freely downward, gathering into apocalyptic mudslides that destroy homes, crops, and livelihoods. In 2004 a single storm claimed 2,000 lives from this one city.

Like the rest of Haiti, Gonaïves is bracing for another punishing hurricane season, even as earthquake-recovery efforts falter and the city struggles to absorb thousands of refugees from Port-au-Prince, 100 miles to the south. Amid a host of competing priorities, the seemingly least urgent task may prove to be the most significant: planting as many trees as possible. "Almost all of the country's problems—natural disasters, food shortages, poverty—can be traced back to rampant deforestation," says Ethan Budiansky, the Caribbean-programs officer at Trees for the Future, a nonprofit group that is planting thousands of trees in the mountains around Gonaïves. "So if we want to fix the country, we have to start there." While there are no panaceas in Haiti, successful reforestation might come close. By absorbing water and holding soil in place, trees can minimize the impact of natural disasters and repair nutrient-poor agricultural lands. An aggressive reforestation campaign would also bring much-needed jobs to the region and, if done correctly, could solve the energy conundrum that led Haitians to cull their forests in the first place. "Planting trees is not just some quaint side project," says U.N. Development Group chair Helen Clark. "It's the key to rebuilding the country."

Click to view a graphic on the Haitian recovery

Haitian deforestation has many culprits—from French colonizers' coffee and sugar plantations to the swaggering timber industry of the 19th and 20th centuries—but most experts agree that the biggest modern contributors are the food and fuel needs of Haitians themselves. As population grew—from 3 million in 1940 to 9 million in 2000—rural Haitians were forced to clear ever-larger swaths of mountainside for subsistence crops. The trees themselves doubled as a source of fuel and cash for families who not only used the wood to cook with but also sold it as charcoal in energy-starved Port-au-Prince. (Charcoal is made by burning wood and other carbon-rich substances in an oxygen-proof furnace.) In time, the charcoal trade grew to account for 20 percent of the rural economy and 80 percent of the country's energy supply. Before long, 98 percent of the country's forests had been chopped down, and Haitians were burning 30 million trees' worth of charcoal annually. Soil eroded, crop yields shrank, and floods became more severe. Eventually, everyone who could abandoned the countryside for the capital city.

That's saying a lot. Six months after the earthquake, collapsed buildings still addle the landscape; millions of Haitians continue to live in makeshift tent cities. And with February elections still waiting to be held, the country's government has all but dissolved. Meanwhile, torrential rains have begun to lash Haiti daily. According to forecasts by Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society, the country faces a 55 percent chance of above-average rainfall this season, and a slightly higher-than-average chance of being hit by a tropical storm. And thanks to the January earthquake that disturbed massive amounts of rock and soil, landslides are almost certain to be worse.

Photos: Port-au-Prince in the aftermath of the Haitian quake. Charles Ommanney / Getty Images for Newsweek

And as Port-au-Prince grew populous, economic development took a decidedly urban bent. Haitian entrepreneurs invested millions of dollars in hotels and restaurants, and the international community focused on promoting tourism and attracting manufacturers from the U.S. and Brazil. In 2009 former president Bill Clinton, the U.S. special envoy to Haiti, secured Haitian-based textile companies duty-free access to U.S. markets, and persuaded Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines to invest $55 million in an expansion project on Haiti's northern coast. Those efforts brought some welcome attention and investment dollars to the beleaguered country, but did little for the 6.5 million rural Haitians who earn their living off the land. And as the agricultural sector continued to wither, farmers turned increasingly to the charcoal markets.

In 2008 the economic toll of such environmental degradation became apparent. That year's hurricane season—the worst to hit Haiti in decades—cost the country tens of millions of dollars in export crops and infrastructure. And the economic consequences of deforestation stretch well beyond those losses. Without trees to protect the soil, rains have washed it down into rivers and streams at a rate of 36 million tons per year. Sediment buildup has polluted drinking water and choked the life out of once bountiful fisheries. And without soil to absorb the rain, water tables have dwindled precipitously, adding a string of droughts to the country's woes.

These days, "decentralization"—refocusing economic-development efforts from dense urban centers like Port-au-Prince to rural outposts like the mountains around Gonaïves—has become a buzzword among relief workers and legislators. They say that if the recent rash of natural disasters has taught them anything, it's that in Haiti there can be no economic growth without environmental restoration. "The land is so degraded that just one storm or quake can undo a decade's worth of progress," says Budiansky. "And with people pouring into the countryside now, it's only going to get worse." Since the earthquake, more than 600,000 Haitians have fled Port-au-Prince searching for food, shelter, and work among their rural kin. With no other recourse, they will soon be forced to convert the remaining 330 square miles of forests into subsistence farms and charcoal for sale.

Budiansky and his colleagues say that a good agroforestry plan—planting the right trees in the right places and teaching Haitians to harvest them properly—can reverse this cycle of destruction. The trained workforce needed to manage these new, sustainable forests would mean thousands of new living-wage jobs, most of them in the countryside. Growing more fruit trees will also provide a steady source of income: Whole Foods has started selling Haitian mangoes in its stores. If harvested sustainably, fast-growing species that can be planted at a high density will generate enough charcoal to meet the energy demands of rural populations. For cities like Port-au-Prince, experts are looking to the jatropha tree, which has been hailed as a promising biofuel and could one day spawn an energy economy that doesn't destroy the forests. Other trees, like the moringa, have leaves that are tasty, packed with protein, and hardy enough to flourish even on the barren mountains of Gonaïves. "They call it the miracle tree," says Budiansky. Haiti could use a few miracles to take root.