Yesterday was International Forest Day, the second most popular tree based holiday, behind Arbor Day. In the United States, forests and their benefits are largely taken for granted, but in Haiti deforestation is a national problem. Not too long ago, the American heartland looked more like scenes from the Mad Max film series. The Dust Bowl in the 1930s was a result of drought and a lack of vegetation to prevent wind erosion. Reforestation, revegetation and better water management reversed the effects of the dust bowl in the United States. However, Haiti has not been successful in curbing environmental degradation. International Forest Day is especially pertinent to Haiti. Haiti is down to about 2% tree cover and is one of the most extreme cases in the world, considering that it once had over 60% tree cover. The lack of forests and tree cover negatively affects the Haitian people in many ways, some not so obvious. Deforestation can lead to land degradation, watershed problems and increased vulnerability to climate change.
Deforestation causes land degradation and soil erosion. More than 60% of Haiti’s people rely on agriculture to support themselves, and therefore soil and land are very important. Trees retain water and topsoil, leading to higher agricultural yields. Without trees, landslides become more common, especially in the mountainous regions. Many of the deadly landslides following the 2010 earthquake are attributed to deforestation. Farmers who are desperate for income turn to the charcoal trade to provide for their families, leading to more deforestation. Charcoal comes from trees that are cut down and essentially baked. Charcoal production is up nearly 10% since the beginning of the current drought in Haiti, leading to increased soil degradation and in turn reducing agricultural productivity. Charcoal and firewood account for 60% of Haiti’s domestic energy consumption. It is shocking to see the sacks of charcoal that line city streets. Reforestation cannot be successful until trees are valued for their long term benefits rather than for short term income.
March 22nd is World Water Day, and due to climate change water management is becoming increasingly more important worldwide. Water management in the United States is far from perfect, as can be seen with the recent water crisis in Flint, or one of the worst droughts in California’s history. The water and sanitation situation in Haiti is among the most dire in the Western hemisphere. According to the WHO/UNICEF 2012 Joint Monitoring Program report on Haiti, 85% of urban residents and 51% of rural residents have access to potable water services. Access to an adequate sanitation facility is extremely low in both urban (24%) and rural (10%) areas of the country. Women are affected by deforestation and lack of water disproportionately as they are almost always responsible for gathering water and also comprise more that half of the nation’s farmers. Trees can play a major role in addressing several of Haiti’s water-related problems. Reforestation can increase water retention and quality. Haiti is prone to extreme storms and trees can reduce the damage of excessive rainfall by slowing down the water runoff. Slowing water runoff ensures that groundwater supplies are continually replenished. Tree roots remove nutrients that are harmful to water ecology and quality. Water quality is also a major issue in Haiti, where more than half of deaths every year are caused by a lack of access to clean water, and water-borne diseases such as typhoid, cholera and chronic diarrhea that claim far too many lives.
In the United States, we should be grateful for our access to forests and water, but at the same time reflect on ways to improve conditions in Haiti. The deforestation and water problems in Haiti are multi-faceted and difficult to address. But there is one solution that can address some of the forest and water problems – green manure cover trees. These cover trees perform multiple functions including soil rejuvenation, land stabilization, weed suppression. Trees can be used for human food like legumes or livestock feed like wheat and rye. They also provide a natural mulch and compost effect. Haitian farmers could see increases in yields almost immediately. Their benefits far outweigh the one-time income of cutting down the trees for charcoal. Green manure cover trees are utilized in Haiti but a scaling up is necessary to help remedy existing environmental degradation.
The Haiti Advocacy Working Group is seeking ways to influence US policy to better focus on the environmental issues in Haiti. There are many viable solutions to address Haiti’s environmental issues; allocating the correct amount of time and attention is essential for a successful rejuvenation.
Luke Keding is a climate change intern for the Church World Service.