A New Story for Haiti’s Future

Written by Plant With Purpose on April 6, 2011 in General

By Dahlia Guajardo- Grant Writing Intern

Our physical environment may seem to play a passive role in the theater of human society, a mere set of props and scene decor for the real drama of politicians, business executives, and pop culture icons. However, though some would liken the environment to a stage, it is more of an actor than one might imagine. Society’s use of natural resources can completely change the environment, and once altered, the environment can change the course of human history.

In addition to being an actor, the environment is a good storyteller as well. It illustrates where we’ve been and where we‘re going. In Haiti 98% of the land has been deforested and thousands of acres of topsoil are lost each year. Haiti’s story is not the first of its kind.

In Africa’s northern and central Sahara Desert, anthropologists discovered that this inhospitable desert had not always been so inhospitable. Rock paintings dating to around 3500 BC show cattle and sheep grazing in what had at one point been lush savannah grasslands. Excavations confirm the existence of a pastoral society that once moved their herds across what is now a barren wasteland. 

How did camels and distant oasis come to replace vast grasslands and foraging herds? Anthropologists suggest that Africa’s ancient Saharan pastoralists are one of several societies throughout history that eliminated their ability to sustain themselves by exhausting the natural resources upon which they depended. By overgrazing their herds, they used up the plant life upon which their livestock and society subsisted. Without vegetation to soak up and encourage rainfall, the land dried out and shifted to its present desert climate. While this is one picture that anthropologists sketch of a possible past, Haiti provides a similar picture of a potentially unsettling future.

Haiti is exhausting its forest cover, a natural resource upon which the country depends for food production. Without trees, there is nothing to keep topsoil from washing away, and without topsoil, it’s hard to grow food. This has serious repercussions for a country in which two-thirds of the population relies upon subsistence agriculture for their meal ticket. So, if trees are so important for Haitians, where did they go and why are they still being cut down? The answer can be summed up in a few commodities: sugar, furniture, and charcoal.

The French colonizers who came to Haiti in the early 1700’s put their slaves to work clearing land in order to grow sugar cane which then required more wood to fuel sugar mills. The colonial economy also thrived on shipping lumber to Europe for making furniture and dyes. Tens of thousands of acres of forest were lost in the sugar industry and wood exports, laying a foundation for the severe environmental degradation that Haiti faces today.

In the present, Haitians use trees as fuel and as a way to generate extra income when times are tough. The BBC article A Green Balm for Haiti’s Strife noted that 71% of Haiti’s fuel consumption comes from charcoal and wood. The forest is like a savings account for rural farmers. A natural disaster or an unfruitful crop season can be supplemented by cutting down trees and burning the wood to sell as charcoal.            

With the loss in forest cover and topsoil, the land is less fertile and rural farmers are unable to grow enough food to feed their families. The average family eats less than two meals a day. As a result, Haitians cut down increasing numbers of trees to sell as charcoal, exacerbating the problem in a destructive cycle of environmental degradation and poverty.

Plant With Purpose is laying a new foundation for Haiti’s future by empowering rural Haitians to restore productivity to their land. In 2010 alone Plant With Purpose and the Haitian people worked to reforest the land by planting 500,000 trees. Plant With Purpose is investing in Haiti’s land by teaching sustainable agricultural techniques, constructing soil erosion barriers, and providing loans and business training for the creation of micro enterprise. By starting with land, a pivotal factor in the course of human development, Plant With Purpose is telling a new story about opportunity and prosperity in Haiti. Join Plant With Purpose today and help write a new future for the Haitian people!

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