F&ES Conference Calls for
Renewal of Haiti’s Landscape
By Marc Wortman
In an impoverished land like Haiti, people view trees as a cheap source of cooking fuel and building materials. Trees also cover farming land or block other commerce. As a result, over the past 60 or so years Haitians have consumed virtually every tree in the countryside, leaving a fast-eroding rock garden that can’t produce enough food for its own people. Sparked by urgent calls to rebuild the country following January’s earthquake, a group of leaders in the effort to restore Haiti’s blighted rural landscape came together at F&ES for two days in May to explore ways to delink the cycle of poverty from environmental degradation.
James Lyons '79
Until the middle of last century, lush forests covered much of Haiti’s rural landscape. With the forests now gone from all but about 3 percent of the mountainous countryside, tree crops like mangos and cacao have also virtually disappeared. With little to hold back the water, more frequent and more intense tropical storms in recent years have made natural disasters endemic within the watersheds where most farming occurs, notably floods which have killed thousands of people and wiped out harvests, most recently in 2004 and 2008. To sustain a malnourished population, aid programs often supplement Haiti’s food supplies, sometimes undercutting efforts to encourage sustainable farming practices. Extended droughts have added pressure on farmers to plant food crops on every available bit of arable land to feed one of the West’s most densely populated countries. The earthquake on January 12 that sent thousands of people fleeing out of the devastated capital city of Port-au-Prince into rural areas further sapped already scarce food supplies. The earthquake’s horrifying destruction may have convinced world leaders, though, that concerted action was finally needed to tackle Haiti’s many thorny rural environmental problems contributing to the nation’s deep poverty. About 100 agroforestry and environmental experts, United States and Haitian government officials and aid organization leaders convened at Kroon Hall in May to explore ways to turn the real rubble left by the quake into the figurative soil needed to grow trees in Haiti once again.
“Deforestation is at the core of the issues driving poverty in Haiti,” says F&ES lecturer and research scholar James Lyons ’79, during a break in the meeting’s sessions. “The restoration of the Haitian economy has to start with the restoration of the Haitian environment.” Former U.S. president Bill Clinton now serves as the United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti. He agrees with Lyons, who was his Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment and head of the U.S. Forest Service. Even before the earthquake hit, Clinton asked him to formulate a strategy for sustainable restoration of Haiti’s rural environment. But, says Lyons, restoring the forests “is not a simple problem.” The misery accompanying the earthquake merely made coming up with solutions “that much more urgent,” he says.
Lyons turned for help to his Clinton administration colleague and friend John Lewis. Lewis, who received a doctorate in anthropology from Yale in 1979, spent four years as a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) rural development officer in Haiti and later served, under President Clinton, as director of its Office of Agriculture and Food Security. Now he is a managing director at Terra Global Capital, an environmental strategy advisory and investment firm. He has advised the William J. Clinton Foundation on using global carbon reduction strategies as a means of supporting anti-poverty and sustainable reforestation efforts in the developing world.
F&ES already had ties to the post-earthquake relief effort. Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Raymond Alcide Joseph, had come to campus in the month after the earthquake to meet with F&ES faculty and students and others at Yale to discuss ways of helping Haiti recover. Learning about the Clinton Foundation’s interest in pushing forward environmental restoration efforts, Dean Peter Crane urged Lewis and Lyons to follow up the ambassador’s visit by convening a meeting at Yale. When Joanas Gue, Haiti’s Minister of Agriculture, heard about the planned meeting, according to Lewis, he “jumped” at the opportunity to participate. With the support of the Clinton Foundation and World Vision International, the U.S. State Department’s lead nongovernmental organization (NGO) for Haiti, Lyons and Lewis quickly organized the meeting of Haitian and American environmental and rural economics experts.
The immediate goal for the Yale conference was to draft a strategic blueprint for a meeting between the Haitian Inter-Ministerial Committee for Land Use Planning and President Clinton that was held in July in Port-au-Prince. That document was aimed at getting all the many NGO and government aid agencies, private companies and the Haitian and U.S. governments, which rarely cooperate and sometimes act at odds, moving in the same direction. Speaking in French after the first morning’s Kroon Hall sessions, Gue lauded what he calls “Yale’s very fine initiative. This is an opportunity for strategic collaboration among all the actors. We need to define approaches that move all of us in the same direction.”
Mike McGahuey, a natural resources management advisor at USAID, attended both meetings, and he said, “The Yale meeting provided the foundation for a watershed-based program. It also helped reformers within the Haitian ministry gain strength.”
A series of speakers laid out the problems plaguing the Haitian countryside and explored long-term solutions in the works, as well as next steps for sustainable environmental restoration. According to Jean-Marie Robert Chery, a counselor at the Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Rural Development (MARNDR), the best-planned previous strategies have faced the daunting challenge on the ground in Haiti of gaining support from the thousands of often isolated small-plot farmers dotting the watersheds. The farmers and villagers lack what he terms “natural solidarity,” without kinship, farmer’s cooperatives or governmental structures representing their interests. He asks, “How do you intervene in the absence of local solidarity?”
Jean Serge Antoine
According to Chery, any attempt to convert farmland to trees for production of potentially profitable and environmentally more-sustainable agroforestry crops also needs to convince wary farmers that aid organizations and government officials would not abandon the effort before it took root. The various programs that speakers proposed would also need to provide farmers with enough income and food to survive while waiting for newly planted trees to mature and begin generating perennial income.
Jean Serge Antoine, deputy director of forest and land management at MARNDR, explains, “Farmers presently need everything—water, credit, border trees.” He notes that most programs take into account only the downstream point of view, where the destruction and human catastrophes from flooding have been most apparent. He warns that any restoration program would need upland farmers to participate and “take ownership” of programs from the start. “If you overlook the needs of the farmers,” he says, “it is worse than not trying. You will extend the cycle of poverty.” He calls for programs that change cropping and agricultural production systems, but “any changes must be gradual to get farmer buy-in. To lift pressure on natural resources, you need to generate revenue-increasing opportunities.”
Several academic experts and a number of representatives from international aid organizations described their existing efforts, including demonstration projects to plant border trees for plots that could also provide sustainable crops such as shade coffee, avocadoes and cocoa, as well as biomass for fuel. Lewis and others spoke about ways of using carbon offset credits from planting trees as a means of funding the long-term changeover needed in land use. Several private for-profit and nonprofit companies sent representatives to the May meeting, among them Timberland, the shoe and apparel maker; Mars, the candy manufacturer; and the Paradigm Project, developer of fuel-efficient, low-carbon cooking stoves.
Considering the many promising ideas and willingness to back change in Haiti, Lewis says, “We have a pretty good idea of what kind of land use changes have to happen so that trees that take many years to grow don’t have to compete with cultivation of small plots by farmers. But getting from here to there in this informally governed country will take a focused effort coming out of meetings like this. It can be done.”