Reforesting Haiti For Food & Resilience

Conor O'Higgins
Tuesday, 18th August 2015

Over the years, Haiti has lost its diverse rainforests through timber exports but now communities are coming together to replant trees, providing food, income and resilience against environmental destruction.

Haiti is a complex and unique country. The only country ever founded by a slave revolt, the first country where slavery was illegal, once the most productive agricultural center in the world, now the poorest country outside Africa, once a rainforest, now nearly a desert.

In my time here, I have become convinced that the most important feature of Haitian culture is communal action. Haitian Creole is rich with expressions like 'men anpil, chay pa lou' ('with many hands, the load is not heavy'), 'pote kole' ('carrying together'), 'tèt ansanm' ('heads together', the most common phrase for 'collaboration'), and 'konbit' (the closest English equivalent is 'barn-raising', an event where a community comes together to work on a shared project).

Nearly every neighbourhood I discover in Haiti seems to have an informal grassroots development organization. Unlike foreign NGOs, who come in with little knowledge of people's needs, and no accountability to the people they're serving, these are Haitian people helping themselves. If an NGO worker's project fails, he gets paid anyway, and goes home at the end of his contract, leaving broken pumps or half-built houses or whatever behind. A community organization does not have that luxury. And so these grassroots organizations can be the driving force for the development of the country. They have the motivation, they have the local knowledge, and they are ready to learn about technical solutions like permaculture.

In my time in Haiti, I have tried to offer a helping hand to these community groups. They work in all areas – education, sanitation, and livelihood, as well as environmentalism and food security. In the capital, Port-au-Prince, they have taken an interest in urban gardening, and have started some fine urban gardens. The biggest urban garden (that I know of, at least), is run by an organization called Sakala. They have hundreds of moringa trees, and hundreds of annual vegetables in old tyres as containers. They are planning an interesting project to put trailers on bicycles to collect organic waste from their neighbourhood, cleaning up the streets, and making compost to sell as well as for their own garden.

Ravagep is a similar group that has taught children courses in gardening, makes compost, and runs special events to raise awareness of environmental issues. Ravagep has a very respectable urban garden too, and sells its vegetables to fund health projects.

One of Haiti's biggest problems is deforestation. Like my native country, Ireland, it has lost more than 90% of its original forests. And, again like Ireland, this was started by colonial powers. When Haiti won its independence from France, it paid reparations to the colonists for the loss of their colony. Much of this was paid in the form of timber. Now, much of the country is bleak, barren hills, with a little scrubby growth covering depleted acidic soils. As a result of deforestation, drought has set in too, and the farmers will now tell you that rainy season is shorter than it used to be.

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I snapped this photo from the plane when I was flying in to Haiti. This used to be a rainforest.

Reforestation is possible. Haiti was once covered in thick forests, and produced vast quantities of coffee, sugar, cacao, and fruit. In a few places, communities have successfully reversed the tide of environmental destruction. Community groups, both urban and rural, are fighting back against deforestation. Besides the urban groups like Sakala and Ravagep, I will be visiting some of the Haitian communities who have shown the most impressive results in reforesting their areas, and finding out how they did it. I am curious to check out Valere, where an entire valley has been reforested by educating people about the economic value of trees.

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Seedbombs ready to be distributed around Haiti by me and my bike

The most impressive – and depressing – fact about community development groups is that they work with incredibly limited resources. Seventy two per cent of Haitians live on less than $2 a day, and they scrape together whatever tiny amount can be spared to fund their grassroots development projects. The tsunami of aid that followed the earthquake of 2010 went mostly to foreign top-down development (NGOs building pumps, wells, houses or whatever), not to homegrown bottom-up development. It is common for community groups to operate for years with no outside resources. This made me turn to crowdfunding as a solution.

To publicize and raise funds the work Haitian communities are doing to rebuild their ecosystems, I decided it would be a good idea to take a bicycle, make thousands of seedbombs, and cycle around Haiti for five weeks, scattering the seedbombs and talking to people about reforestation. Not the most down-to-earth strategy, perhaps, but sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary to grab attention. I want to get attention for these grassroots organizations who are humbly, diligently working away at making their country a better place.

The tree-planting I'm doing on the bike trip is largely symbolic; the real point is to raise awareness of the problem and its solutions. However, I've done my best to pick seeds that will grow well and improve the landscape. So I'm planting hundreds of moringa trees. Having worked with moringa for a while, I'm surprised to say that it lives up to the hype. They grow anywhere hot with no problems, and give highly nutritious food. Micronutrient deficiencies are a big problem here in Haiti, and a spoonful of moringa leaf powder a day can really turn that around.

Leucana leucocephala seems to have never been given a decent English name, so I'll use the Haitian word madlèn. Madlèn is a fast-growing, high-energy, nitrogen-fixing tree. It does not bear food, but is the sort of hardy support species needed to repair a damaged landscape.

Ceiba pentandra, called 'kapok' in English and 'mapou' in Haitian Creole, is among the biggest trees in the world, growing to 70m, with a complex branching structure. As a climax species in mature rainforests all over the Caribbean and Latin America, mapou houses countless birds, insects, spiders and other species. Haiti also has some great fruit trees, including acerola cherry, hundreds of varieties of mango, and mammea americana (which I'm eating right now as I write this – it's so tasty), but their seeds are too big for making seedbombs.

To support Conor's project visit gofundme.com/treemobile

To follow Conor on his trip visit his blog: treemobile.wordpress.com or Twitter: twitter.com/bikeandseeds

Further resources

Amazing moringa: medicinal, edible and easy to grow

Cloning the world's oldest trees to reforest the planet

Watch: Planting trees in India

Around the World in 80 Plants for just £14.96 from our Green Shopping site

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