Save Haiti, Plant Trees

Deforestation + Hurricane Season = Devastation. It's time for Haiti's government to get green.

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Every hurricane season, Haitians at home and abroad gird themselves for the inevitable loss of life that comes with the torrential rains and winds. But this season has been especially hard, as one storm after another has battered the island, leaving death and destruction in their wake.

Tropical Storm Fay struck in mid-August. Hurricane Gustav touched down less than two weeks later. Tropical Storm Hanna pummeled the island for four days last week only to be followed by Hurricane Ike on Sunday. Some 600 people were killed and at least a million injured, left without shelter or forced to flee flooded cities and towns. The winds and waves knocked down their flimsy houses and washed them away like stacks of papier-mâché.

For those of us with loved ones in Haiti, and for those of us who simply love Haiti, watching the weather wreak havoc on the lives of an already poor and weary population has been acutely frustrating because we know that at least some of those lives could have been spared if Haiti only had more trees—a whole lot more trees.

Without the trees, heavy rains run down the country's mountain terrain unfettered by roots that would absorb some of that water, slowing the deluge and preventing deadly mud slides and floods. Without the trees, erosion robs the soil of nutrients needed to sustain agriculture; farming suffers, hunger increases, and people continue to die.

For decades, international and domestic ecologists, environmentalists and disaster relief organizations have been sounding warning bells about the massive deforestation in Haiti, and have called for better environmental planning. They were ignored by one ineffective government after another. Reforestation efforts by international organizations, such as Projè Pyebwa, or Project Tree, initiated by the United States Agency for International Development in the 1980s were routinely undermined. Under the program, poor Haitians were hired to plant more than 25 million trees but seven trees were cut for each new tree planted.

The trees were used as firewood or charcoal for cooking and the practice continues today. Now less than 2 percent of the country has plant cover. (In neighboring Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, there was significantly less storm damage and loss of life over the past few weeks. That's because the DR has 30 percent plant coverage and forests that are protected by its military.)

A host of factors have compounded the problem in Haiti. Political instability and violence led to decreased tourism and suspended foreign aid, which in turn increased poverty. As the cost of natural gas and kerosene grew, the demand for less-costly charcoal grew along with it, making it impossible to implement a workable national reforestation plan. All of this combined to make for the tragic, ecological perfect storm playing out in Haiti today.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Gonaïves, Haiti's fourth largest city and home to some 200,000 people, which suffered the brunt of the storms. It was submerged under 10 feet of water in some places and unreachable by land until early this week. For the past week, aid organizations worked frantically to reach survivors by helicopters and boats.

One had a sense that the city was dying, and this was all the more heartbreaking given its proud history. It was in Gonaïves where student protests against a 30-year dictatorship began and sparked nationwide demonstrations that led to the 1986 ouster of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. It was also in Gonaives where the slave rebellions that forced out French colonialists and led to Haiti's independence in 1804 were first launched.

I have a soft spot for this corner of Haiti because my father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all born there. Last week, my cousin Carole's two-room house disappeared in the storms; Thankfully, she and her husband made it to higher ground.