Haiti's Deforestation Problem is the Solution

Conor O'Higgins
Monday, 7th September 2015

Conor O'Higgins explores how reforesting projects in Haiti enables people to make money through charcoal making.

Any permaculturist knows the slogan, 'the problem is the solution'. Over the past few days, I have seen that applied in an incredibly dramatic way.

First, the problem: Haiti suffers from deforestation worse than perhaps any country in the world, and this deforestation is driven by charcoal-cutting. Two hundred years ago, the natural landscape was naturally biodiverse rainforest, now much is desert, and there is drought and dust in most regions. A bag of charcoal fetches 600 goud (about $12 USD) in the market, so when people are desperate for money (as people here surely are), cutting down a tree starts to look pretty good.

I hang out with a lot of foreign environmentalists and development workers, and it's common to hear them lament the use of charcoal by Haitians. Nearly all food in the country is cooked on charcoal, and people spend as much as 20% of their household budget on charcoal for cooking. But to a Haitian peasant, charcoal has two overwhelming economic advantages: it never spoils, and there is always a market for it. This, say the environmentalists, is the problem.

I had heard about a community in the Central Department of Haiti that has successfully reforested an entire valley, and was very curious to see it. I arrived in this community, called Valere, after cycling 45km from Mirebalais. (Why this impractical form of transport? See here.) and was greeted by Exalem Louis and Feneck Majistrat, two members of OJPV (a French acronym meaning 'Organization of Progressive Youth of Valere'). Exalem is the younger and more excitable of the two; when I phoned him to arrange my visit, I could already hear infectious enthusiasm in his voice. Feneck is an older and more considered person, with a thoughtful, intelligent air that makes you listen to what he has to say.

A little history of the deforestation problem, as told to me by Feneck: he remembers the old days, up until the 1980s, when every peasant has at least three or four creole pigs. These pigs were locally adapted, foraged their own food, ate grass and weeds and never got sick. They were used for everything, but especially their fat. “The pigs sent children to school”, Feneck says. To a Haitian peasant, pig fat had two economic advantages like charcoal, it never spoils, and there is always a market for it. (Can you think of a commodity in modern Haiti like that?) Much food in this country is deep-fried, nowadays in imported partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, but back then in pig fat.

This all changed in the early 1980s, when agents of Jean-Claude Duvalier's government, sponsored by USAID, came in and killed all the creole pigs.

Exalem is keen to interject at this point in the story: “You've got to understand the reality: people who have pig fat don't buy foreign oil.” He is convinced the creole pig was exterminated to stimulate the sale of imported cooking oil. (There is no doubt Haitians now buy a lot of foreign vegetable oil.) I find it horrible to think of an effective solution for self-reliance being violently attacked for the sake of foreign profits. The official story is that the pigs were killed to prevent the spread of swine flu.

Their source of income gone, the peasants of Valere were desperate, and turned to cutting down trees to make charcoal. Before that, Feneck tells me, the valley was filled with mango, kachiman and many other trees. Soil depletion resulted, and even corn and millet became hard to grow.

In 1986, Feneck went to a training course run by the Mennonite Community Center in Cristianville in the Southern Department of Haiti. The people of Christianville had planted trees, creating a sustainable supply of charcoal to meet the demand. Feneck brought this method back to Valere, planted trees, and ran trainings. His even voice gets a rare surge of enthusiasm when he says, “People started to understand!”

I ask if the Mennonites provided any financial support and both Exalem and Feneck are emphatic: no, they provide training documents, but all the modest expenses for running the nursery and training are met by the members of OJPV.

OJPV started by planting Leucaena leucocephala, a fairly ubiquitous tree in this country. It grows fast, fixes nitrogen, and makes good charcoal. The problem was that goats found it a little bit too tasty, and didn't let many reach maturity. OJPV's efforts are now switching to Senna siamea, which goats will eat, but only if they're really hungry. A four-year-old Senna siamea tree will make two sacks of charcoal. That is worth $24. To put that number in context: 72% of Haitians earn less than $2 a day.

Exalem claims that a field that would yield 3,000 goud ($60 USD) of corn, will get a yield of 50,000 goud ($1,000 USD) of charcoal the first year, and more in subsequent years when the trees are more mature. This is a life-changing income for a family.

Environmentalists bemoan the fact that trees are black gold to a Haitian peasant. In Valere, they have used this problem as the solution. People need more money. Haiti needs more trees. Trees make money. Plant trees.

This whole process is carbon-neutral, or better. The carbon in the charcoal was absorbed from the air when the trees grew, and is just being released back after a few years. The organic matter added to the soil and other greenery that grows amidst the trees probably make the whole operation a carbon sink.

As well as planting for future charcoal, another key technique that OJPV have brought to Valere is coppicing. The charcoal-cutters in the community have learned to cut their trees in such a way that they will grow back. This has a hidden advantage of regenerating soil; trees like to keep a certain ratio between their above-ground and below-ground growth, so if you cut them, they drop their roots, which decay and add organic material to the soil. If they have nitrogen-fixing nodules (which the trees OJPV use do), the nitrogen goes into the soil too.

Coppice.jpg

Feneck and Exalem stand in front of a senna siamea tree that has been coppiced and regrown multiple times.

I ask if there is drought. I ask this question everywhere I go in Haiti, and nearly always get a positive reply, but not here. The pumps and springs are flowing as normal. I don't want to infer too much from this one correlation, but it is plausible that this is due to this area being more thickly forested than most parts of Haiti.

Besides the significant cash income from charcoal, everyone eats their fill of breadfruit, avocadoes, guava, oranges, limes, moringa, papaya, kachiman (the local name for Annona squamosa), chadèk (the local name for Citris grandis), seriz (Malpighia emarginata) kenèp (Melicoccus bijugatus) and avocadoes. I asked Exalem if any of these fruits are sold – he said no, they're for eating, except for limes, which make good money.

There is also a wood-fired bakery, a workshop that makes wooden furniture, and a compost operation which gathers up organic waste from the community for use in the nursery.

Exalem-at-Nursery.jpg

Exalem stands at the tree nursery being built by OJPV members. This nursery will produce over 100,000 trees this year.

For breakfast, we went Exalem's neighbour's house, and someone climbed a tree and threw breadfruit down to us. Exalem said to me, “Here, every family is one family. I can take fruit from this tree, and they can take fruit from my trees. No one will be upset about that.”

OJPV planted 47,000 trees last year, and will plant 50,000 this year. Each resident of the community (about 150 people) will receive 70 trees for free, and can buy more cheaply (200 goud, or about $4 USD, for 100 trees). They expect to sell 75,000 trees from their nursery this year.

This solution implemented by Haitian peasants, for Haitian peasants, is the exact opposite to the foreign aid solutions, that oppose charcoal and try to entice people to switch to alternative cooking fuels. Not coincidentally, it is also more successful. To support community-led environmental development projects like this, click here.

Further resources

Reforesting Haiti for food & resilience

Watch: Planting trees in India

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