The earthquake in Haiti has brought renewed attention to its most serious environmental, and perhaps economic, problem: the lack of trees. By the end of the 20th century, 98% of the trees in the country had been cut down, mostly to produce charcoal for cookstoves. This accelerated desertification, droughts and erosion, making it harder to grow food on the land. Joseph Treaster highlights a new Columbia University and UNEP plan that involves replanting trees, providing fertilizer to increase crop yield, and “persuading Haitians to rely less heavily on wood and charcoal for cooking fires”. These ideas are hardly new. In fact, foreigners have been interested in reforesting Haiti since the 1940s, and have found little success. Poor Haitians resented being forced by outsiders and their government to spend efforts growing unwanted trees on land they might not own and being penalized when they didn’t properly comply.
Without planning to, I found the most instructive information on this history from a Kumarian title, Reasons for Hope. In it, the authors describe a successful 1980s agroforestry project through USAID called AOP that worked precisely because it focused on generating income for Haitians rather than forcing them to submit to foreigners “ecological sermonizing”. Also, local farmers were to take responsibility for small plots of trees rather than attempt to reforest large tracts of land that they didn’t own. Even though it achieved a lot, the project fell apart in the 90s largely due to loss of funding.