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Posted February 16, 2008
                                            

Haiti's Absolute Scarcity of Agricultural Land, Its Multiplying Effect, After Efforts to Halt Deforestation Falter

                            
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Deforested mountains are seen near Jacmel, in southern Haiti, Monday, Jan. 28, 2008. Nearly all of the 30 million trees planted in the 1980's with a US$22.8 million project by the U.S. Agency for International Development, have been cut down to make charcoal for cooking. Without trees to anchor the soil, erosion has reduced Haiti's scarce agricultural land, making the island more vulnerable to devastating floods each hurricane season.(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
                   

By JONATHAN M. KATZ

GRAND COLLINE, Haiti: Far from the spreading slums of the Haitian capital, past barren dirt mountains and hillsides stripped to a chalky white core, two woodcutters bring down a towering oak tree in one of the few forested valleys left in the Caribbean country. Fanel Cantave, 36, says he has little choice but to make his living in a way that is causing environmental disaster in Haiti. And these days, he and his 15-year-old son, Phillipe, must travel ever farther from their village to find trees to cut.

"There is no other way to get money," the father said, pushing his saw through splintering wood that will earn him as much as US$12.50 (‚8.50), depending on how many planks it produces.

Such raw economics explain the disappearance of Haiti's forests. U.N. experts say just 2 to 4 percent of forest cover remains in Haiti. And despite millions invested in reforestation, such efforts have mostly failed because of economic pressures and political turmoil.

For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development embarked on an ambitious $22.8 million project in the 1980s to plant some 30 million trees that could provide income for peasants. But the project focused on trees that can be made into charcoal for cooking, and nearly all were eventually cut down.

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A shack sits on the hillside of a deforested mountain area near Jacmel, in southern Haiti, Monday, Jan. 28, 2008. Nearly all of the 30 million trees planted in the 1980's with a US$22.8 million project by the U.S. Agency for International Development, have been cut down to make charcoal for cooking. Without trees to anchor the soil, erosion has reduced Haiti's scarce agricultural land, making the island more vulnerable to devastating floods each hurricane season.(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Environmental Minister Jean-Marie Claude Germain said reforestation projects and efforts to preserve trees in three protected zones were set back by the violent rebellion that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and prompted the U.N. to send in thousands of peacekeepers to restore order.

"Even though there were agricultural laws, the laws were not respected," Germain said. "We are trying to create order now."

Stability returned with the 2006 election of President Rene Preval and U.N. military action against Port-au-Prince's powerful gangs. But in a nation where 80 percent of the 8.7 million people live on less than US$2 (‚1.35) a day, trees mean income for those lucky enough to have access to them.

Some groups say they've found success on a limited scale by planting fruit trees and protecting hardwoods through micro-loans and agricultural assistance. Floresta USA, based in San Diego, California, has been working in Haiti for the last decade and is now planting about 33,000 fruit and hardwood trees a year. The Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment, based in southern Haiti, has produced more than a million fruit trees since it began work in 1985.

Compared to the USAID's failed plan, smaller programs have had more luck by focusing on fruit trees, which farmers are more likely to preserve to sell the fruit. And smaller organizations are able to work with individual farmers and tailor planting to the needs of specific areas.

"People aren't excited about, 'Hey let's go plant trees.' They're excited about, 'How can I feed my family? How can I make ends meet?'" said Scott Sabin, executive director of Floresta.

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Vendors sell vegetable charcoal at La Saline market in Port-au-Prince, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008. Nearly all of the 30 million trees planted in the 1980's with a US$22.8 million project by the U.S. Agency for International Development, have been cut down to make charcoal for cooking. Without trees to anchor the soil, erosion has reduced Haiti's scarce agricultural land, making the island more vulnerable to devastating floods each hurricane season.(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

But many who are dedicated to restoring Haiti's forests have grown pessimistic. Despite small successes, prospects are grim for implementing such programs on a grand scale.

"Everything has been studied and all the solutions are already known," said Mousson Finnigan, the head of the Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment. "But when it comes to implementation, it becomes a place where everybody's fighting for the money. They're not fighting for results."

Christopher Columbus found dense tropical forests in 1492 when he arrived on the island colonizers named Hispaniola, now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

But the trees began falling quickly, first as the Spanish and French cleared forests for plantations and later as hardwoods were logged for U.S. and European markets. Peasants then burned and cut down what was left in desperate search of farmland.

While the Dominican Republic still has some of the most impressive forests in the Caribbean, parts of Haiti now resemble a moonscape of denuded mountains billowing dust. Hillsides are blasted away to make bricks for the capital of Port-au-Prince.

Without trees to anchor the soil, erosion has reduced Haiti's scarce agricultural land, making the island more vulnerable to devastating floods each hurricane season. More than 100 Haitians died in last year's floods, including dozens killed when a river jumped its banks during a gentle but steady rain unrelated to any tropical system.

And in 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne killed some 3,000 people in the coastal city of Gonaives alone. And yet the trees keep falling. Orange fires can still be seen in the hills above the capital as farmers clear land at night. At the La Saline market, charcoal vendors arrive each day with mountains of bags, their faces coated with black dust.  

"In Haiti we destroy instead of produce," acknowledges LeClaire Bocage, 38, who sells 50-kilogram (110-pound) sacks for US$6.25 (‚4.25). "They're going to tell the poor to stop cutting down trees. But what will we do to make a living?"

It may be too late to restore Haiti's lost forests, said John Horton, an environmental specialist who has overseen Haiti projects for the Washington-based Inter-American Development Bank. He suggested planting crops that can stabilize the soil and be sold or used for bio-fuels. Others promote raising money through carbon credits from overseas firms emitting greenhouse gases elsewhere.

"They need cash crops, they need food, they need energy immediately," Horton said.

___ Associated Press researcher Barbara Sambriski contributed to this story.

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