Aerial photo taken from above the border
Deforestation refers to the total logging and/or burning of forest space -whether this destruction is due to cattle ranching, plantation agriculture or real estate development. It is also the permanent conversion of forest cover to non-forest purposes. There is a big difference between deforestation and forest degradation. While forest degradation may change the ecology of certain forest aspects, it does not, however, destroy all forest cover, which is what deforestation does. So deforestation is much more serious than forest degradation.
Historical aspect of the Haitian deforestation
The majority of us Haitians are descendants of slaves brought from Africa in the 1600s by French colonizers, who then destroyed tens of thousands of acres of forest for the purpose of cultivating the sugar cane that placed Haiti in the lead of the world’s sugar producers. Hence, more forests were destroyed to fuel the sugar mills and be shipped to Europe to make furniture of mahogany and dyes or colorant from campeachy.
After the revolt of the slaves that culminated in the defeat of the Napoleon Army and gave birth to the nation of Haiti, the world’s first Black republic in 1804, great plantations were partitioned among the slaves. Under the inheritance law that governed the then French society, land is distributed among a man’s heirs. A demographic explosion of the Haitian society was going to compromise the applicability of that inheritance law. “One of the fastest growing populations in the world — Haitian women average five births each — has reduced the average holding to little more than a half acre. That is not enough to support a family of seven even in a good rainy season” (Braken, 2004).
The economics of deforestation in Haiti
Because the land could no longer satisfy the farmers’ daily obligations, they found themselves under intense economic pressures for income -simply to take care of their family. So unbearable such a reality has become for them, they had to chop trees to make and sell charcoal.
In a report filed in September 23, 2004 by Amy Braken of the Associated Press, who quoted Mr. Victor, an agronomist, the deforestation in Haiti has moved from bad to worse. According to that same report, from 1950 to 2004, the 25 percent of Haiti’s 10,700 square miles that was covered with forest has reduced to only 1.4 percent.
According to David Adams, a former USAID director in Haiti, over the past 20 years, the U.S. Agency for International Development has planted 60 million trees in Haiti, but the poor chop down 10 million to 20 million trees each year.
The rapid destruction of forest cover has serious economic, ecological and ethical consequences on the lives of the Haitian people. Millions of people in Haiti as well as other poor countries around the globe face permanent poverty as a result of the deforestation reality. In a case study titled Deforestation in Haiti, such a devastating reality got Kristen Picariello to say, “If one were to fly over the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the border appears like it was drawn by an ‘acetylene torch’ owing to massive deforestation in Haiti.”
We cannot address the deforestation reality in Haiti without placing under the microscope the most recent tragedy of hurricane Janne. Dan Bjarnason, in an article entitled Deforestation in Haiti published in the CBC News Online of October 01, 2004, stated that Janne had a big toll on Haiti because the country’s natural defenses were extinct. He went further to say that Janne was yet to become “a full-blown hurricane when it hit Haiti. At that point, it was only a tropical storm. Still its impact was enormous.”
Comparing Haiti to its next door neighbor, the Dominican Republic, one can see a heartbreaking reality. The Dominican Republic is lush, green, and fertile. On the same island, neighboring Haiti is mostly mountainous and virtually denuded of trees. That’s the troubling difference that exists between the ecological profile of the two countries sharing the same island.
Haiti’s forests then were destroyed to fuel colonial sugar mills; now its people, impoverished by a thread of gangster governments, are left with no other alternative but to destroy what is left of their trees just to survive.
“There are simply no jobs in Haiti, and for many people, cutting down and selling trees is a form of income, which they would otherwise not have,” says Daniel Erikson of Inter-American Dialogue. “Then the other side of it is 70 to 80 percent of the Haitian people have no access to modern electricity, so they need wood-based charcoal to cook, to provide fuel for heat, for light.”
One does not need a Ph.D in environmental economics to understand the reason why tropical storms are a calamity in Haiti. Ken MacDonald of the University of Toronto did a tremendous job at explaining the situation in very basic terms. He said that when there are no trees to break and absorb the fall of raindrops in a storm, they (those raindrops) crushed into the ground like bullets. Because the soil is not strong enough to sustain and absorb the water, not having any place to escape to, it accumulates over land in a very short period of time -a situation that gets even worse because of the slope that covers most of Haiti.
The politics behind the issue
After the floods of May of 2004 that killed hundreds of people and left thousands without a home, interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said, “The root of the problem is that we have to go and reforest the hills and until we do that, every two, three, four years after some heavy rain, the same thing could happen again.” That is very true, but what did he do to solve the problem? Absolutely nothing!!! The problem with our politicians is that they are good talkers, not so good actors. What he said in 2004, we knew it then and still do today. He said we have to go on and reforest the hills, how is it going to get done? As the person in charge of the country then, that’s what he should have been talking about, not telling us something we already know.
It is not that we don’t have environmental laws to remedy to that chaotic reality of deforestation that the country is living at this present moment. According to that same gentleman Erickson quoted earlier, “Haiti actually has some environmental laws that are quite reasonable and quite good, but there’s absolutely no enforcement, and in most of the country, you have no functioning state whatsoever.”
Projecting toward the future
The future looks very gloomy for us in our battle against deforestation. It has been forecast that as the population mushrooms or swells in the next 20 years, twice as many people will be going after the fewer trees we have left. And Jean-Andre Victor, one of Haiti’s top ecologists, predicted that if nothing is done to take care of the deforestation problem, the situation will continue to deteriorate and other catastrophes are foreseeable. So inaction on the part of the government is not warranted; it is not going to efface the problem. If nothing gets done with a sense of urgency, the situation will get worse and more people’s lives will be exposed to greater and unthinkable natural calamities.
We need a comprehensive reforestation strategy which will take into consideration our geographical location, the people’s socioeconomic reality, the available and alternative sources of energy, the psycho-sociological aspect of the issue and all that. So this is a very complex issue whose scope must not be underestimated.
A comprehensive reforestation strategy will not come to light by spontaneous generation. We do need good and proactive leadership which only active and responsible politics can foster. That’s why it is imperative that we stop falling for political talkers. It is time to put in office political actors with a clear understanding of the people’s problems and a clear vision for the future to lead the country.
Any development plan for Haiti must incorporate the country’s ecological health. There can never be social and economic developments if this issue of deforestation is not properly addressed. This issue is so crucial that it is a make or break issue for any prospective development plan for Haiti. So, yes, deforestation is Haiti’s number one serial killer.
Source: Copyright 2004, Associated Press
Date: September 23, 2004
Byline: AMY BRACKEN, Associated Press Writer
Deforestation in Haiti
CBC News Online | October 1, 2004
Reporter: Dan Bjarnason