Haitian farmers destroy environment to survive


PALMISTE-A-VIN, Haiti -- The air on the way to this place 25 miles south of Port-au-Prince is thick with the white smoke billowing from several slow-burning fires by the side of the road, where farmers desperate to make a few dollars are making charcoal.

In their desperation, they are killing off the hope reforestation projects had brought to an already devastated land before the political turmoil that followed the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Some estimates put the remaining forested terrain of Haiti at less than 1 percent of the country.

Here and across Haiti, the promise of reforestation projects and modern agricultural techniques fades further as the economy collapses. With no other way to make money, farmers are chopping down their last trees.

Some, their trees gone and their topsoil mostly washed off their sloping fields, simply pack up and leave. In the past two months, 400 farmers have abandoned their land here, leaving barren hillsides to find a way to survive in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Foreign aid agencies that were helping save what good land remains in Haiti have shifted their attention to feeding the starving. Farmers and aid workers -- those who have not been evacuated for their own safety -- watch in frustration as the battles in the political front undo years of work to turn around Haiti's environmental destruction.

"Pa gen chef," farmer Maxo Pierre said in Creole. There is no leader. No one is in charge. "Everyone is cutting trees. It is a national problem. If we had a stable, honest state that put the country first, we would not be in this mess."

The extent of the damage done to Haiti's environment because of the disruption and overexploitation in the 25 months since the army overthrew President Aristide is difficult to measure. What is clear is that borderline catastrophic conditions have gone downhill, fast.

Analysts who follow everything from tree-planting projects to Haiti's $50-million-a-year charcoal industry offer a grim view.

Roughly one third of Haiti is uninhabitable -- desert, or bald mountains long since abandoned.

Charcoal is big business

Desperate peasants supply so much charcoal that Haiti actually exports charcoal to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

"It has become a big business. You can even order on the phone and have home delivery," said Bobby Chauvet, spokesman for a Haitian environmental group called the Friends of Nature Federation.

Before the army ousted Father Aristide in 1991, the Pan American Development Foundation helped farmers plant 7 million trees per year. The project was stopped for a year following the coup, then was renewed with less money and with the capacity to provide farmers only thousands, rather than millions, of saplings.

Estimates differ on how much forested terrain remains in Haiti. Some say less than 1 percent of the country. Others say that, thanks to densely shaded coffee plantations, about 9 percent of Haiti is covered with trees and brush.

But coffee farmers and industry experts say that more and more coffee plots are being cleared because of low world prices, low yields due to unchecked plant disease and the need for more food in the countryside.

Coffee plantations account for half the wooded land in the country.

"I personally have seen farmers tearing out beautiful coffee plantations, harvesting what wood they could salvage. There were charcoal bags all around," said Arlin Hunsberger, director of the Pan American Development Foundation in Haiti.

"Every scheme in the world used for reforestation no longer works here," said Doug Greene, head of the Catholic Relief Services office in Haiti. "People are still interested in protecting, or saving the environment, but there is no incentive."

Environmental refugees

The exodus of environmental refugees from Palmiste-a-Vin began about the time sand mines in the area closed in October. Some 200 men lost jobs digging and loading trucks when the trucks stopped coming for lack of diesel, blocked by a worldwide fuel embargo aimed at helping exiled Father Aristide return to power.

Other trucks that used to carry produce to big-city markets also stopped running, forcing farmers to dump their goods for lower prices in local markets.

"Life has become very difficult," said Ferdilien Laguerre, another Palmiste-a-Vin farmer. "Every problem seems to fall on our heads."

Mr. Laguerre said that peasants sacrifice their trees limb by limb once their fields no longer yield enough to feed their families. If the cash they get for the wood of one limb disappears, they cut another. Only as a last resort will someone chop down a whole tree, he said.

With Father Aristide still in exile in Washington and no end in sight to the power struggles that have divided the whole nation, there appears to be little hope for the men of Palmiste-a-Vin and other towns like it.

"People have been fighting for power, and totally ignoring the main problems of the country," said Mr. Chauvet. "People are forced to destroy the environment to survive."

But while some unemployed rural workers head for the relative greenery of the Dominican Republic, the majority take a more familiar route to the capital.

Tens of thousands have reportedly arrived in Port-au-Prince since October.

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