Haiti’s environmental troubles

Former president Bill Clinton has been beating the drum of alternative cooking fuel for Haiti since he became U.N. special envoy to the nation in 2009. With what he calls his “one cent solution,” Clinton has sought to replace charcoal with round cooking briquettes made of recycled paper that create ten to twenty times more jobs than charcoal production and are 80 percent cheaper for consumers. The shift to this alternative fuel begins to address the single most significant source of deforestation in Haiti: chopping down trees for charcoal and other fuel. Today 99 percent of the country’s surface is deforested. And that fact must not be forgotten in the push to rebuild Haiti.

But years of experience, countless projects and millions of dollars have demonstrated that trees alone are not enough. Improved land management and soil conservation must be pursued before reforestation can occur. Haitian farmers have little incentive to plant trees. Even when trees are given to them for free, farmers are reluctant to dedicate a portion of their meager parcels of land to plant them. What’s more, if given a choice, farmers prefer fruit trees than those for fuel, poles or high-value construction wood.

Those types of trees are normally found in government-owned lands that the government cannot properly manage or protect. According to Michael Benge, a now retired agroforestry expert with the U.S. Agency for International Development who began working in Haiti in the early 1980s, trees will continue to be cut down faster than they can be grown in Haiti until the tenure of such land becomes the responsibility of nearby communities.

Benge proposes the use of performance-bond leases and subleases for communities and individuals through which poor peasants are given a stake in their land’s environmental restoration. In order to maintain their long-term leases, communities have to properly care for the land, cutting trees only if a new seedling is planted as a replacement, for instance. But Benge’s key message goes beyond trees. His experience in Haiti has taught him that “trees alone do not control erosion.” When ecological devastation is great and the land is essentially barren, trees can’t do much good. Benge, like many other experts around the world, is a proponent of vetiver, a deep-rooting, non-invasive grass that keeps nutrients in the soil and prevents runoff. When grown in hedgerows, it helps trees and food crops planted nearby increase in growth and yield by up to 50 percent.  A study by scientists from Texas A&M, found that vetiver hedgerows planted on hillside farms substantially reduced erosion during Hurricane Mitch in Honduras.

The pursuit of any of these ideas will require government action and coordination. For now, however, it is safe to predict that a lot of time may pass before the Haitian government, whose infrastructure was largely destroyed by the January 12 earthquake, will seriously consider and encourage any of them. Fortunately, the briquette innovation did not disappear in the rubble. The plant that produced the briquettes that Clinton has made famous is one of the few structures standing in the Carrefour-Feuilles neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, where it is located. The project’s 385 workers, 207 of them women, all survived, and its two buildings and machinery were not damaged. Aside from some difficulty in obtaining fuel for their trucks, the plant is back in operation and helping clean up and recover recyclable materials from the rubble, according to Ambassador Gilberto Moura, director of the Department of Regional Mechanisms at the Brazilian Ministry of External Relations. The project is the result of south-south investment from an India, Brazil and South Africa Trust Fund.

As part of the relief effort, the World Food Programme is buying briquettes to distribute with food kits to facilitate cooking in makeshift camps.  The United Nations Development Program, a partner in the project, also said it is currently acquiring more equipment and hiring more people in order to help the plant increase production from 1,000 briquettes to at least 10,000 per day. Haiti’s past is littered with good intentions that have quietly failed or not reached sufficient scale to make a significant difference. The fact that production of Clinton’s briquettes is growing in the midst of so much devastation is good news for the victims of the earthquake, but also for the country’s sustainable future.

The report appeared at http://www.poder360.com/article_detail.php?id_article=3586

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