Haiti’s Deforestation Explained

deforested mountains, Haiti

Hispanolia (the island shared by present Haiti and the Dominican Republic) was once full of splendid rain forests and fertile plains. Native Caribbeans inhabited the island for centuries before Columbus arrived in 1492.

The Spanish, and soon after, the French, saw a land of opportunity. Spain and France divided Hispaniola in 1697 where the western 1/3 of the island became Haiti, ruled by the French and the other side ruled by Spain – present day Dominican Republic (the French lost the war, got the challenging side of the island as a token — mostly mountains).

Because the native population was  killed off through warfare, slave labor, and European disease, people were kidnapped by the hundreds of thousands from Africa and shipped to the island for slave labor.

Why is Haiti so Deforested?

Bob Corbett – a fantastic Haitian historian – has suggested a complex set of circumstances for Haiti’s deforestation:

Colonization

In the 1750s, Haiti was the richest colony in the world and provided as much as 50% of the GNP of France. The French imported sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, indigo and other exotic products. In France they were refined, packaged and sold all over Europe. Incredible fortunes were made from this tiny colony and at the expense of the land. Vast swaths of rain forest were decimated for tobacco, cotton & sugar cane fields

International Boycott of the new Republic

France invested A LOT of money in their jewel colony. After slaves rose up and freed themselves in 1804, France was humiliated and retaliated by petitioning other European nations and the U.S. to boycott the new country.

If France couldn’t have the goods, nobody would.

It wasn’t hard to get cooperation; the U.S. and many European nations still had slaves. The idea that anyone would trade with a country of former slaves and now the world’s first black republic would send the wrong message to their own enslaved population.

The result? An international boycott of Haiti’s goods and commerce plunged the Haitian economy into chaos. 150 million francs [estimated at $21 billion today] would allow Haiti to export its goods.

How’d they pay? They paid, in part, with their trees. Forests full of glorious mahogany and other beautiful species were leveled and shipped to Europe to pay the ransom. This debt plagued Haiti for over 80 years and was finally paid off in 1922. In the meantime, Haiti paid the debt many times over in interest. It is difficult to measure the harm this caused, but by conservative measures, it was significant to their economy AND environment.

Global Forest Watch maps Haiti’s Forests

Other Factors-Haiti’s Deforestation

Fuel. Haiti has limited fuel options. As much as 70% of their annual energy comes from wood-based fuels. Not only is this devastating to an already deforested nation, it creates horrendous air quality (now add in all that burning plastic/garbage). Global forest watch estimates that as many as 40 million trees are cut down annually. Much of this is converted to charcoal for cooking- where massive piles are wood are slowly burned to bits of charcoal.

The need to earn a living. People are hungry. They have little available work. Wood is in constant demand as charcoal and they will argue they have no alternative.  Making a living off of charcoal is possible.

Ignorance. Because of lack of education, Haitian wood cutters do not fully understand the implications of decimating forests. Uneducated peasants have little sense of history. In their generation, Haiti has always looked deforested. When faced with hunger and massive unemployment, the argument makes no sense.

Lack of motivation. There is little motivation for wood cutters to replant trees because they do not own the land. They cut here or there as sharecroppers or renters, then move on to other lands. The land owners are often city people or more wealthy village folks, and they do not keep a close watch on their lands (plus, they just don’t care). Were they to replant, it is likely that the neighbors’ animals would eat seedlings since there is little forage left.

reforest haiti coffee before after
The field on the right shows the impact replanting fields w/ coffee (and their shade tree canopy of bananas) has on Haiti’s bare landscape (field on the left was untouched by Singing Rooster)

Reforestation is Vital for Haiti’s Future

  • Trees are essential in reducing or preventing flash flooding; a single tree can intercept 1000 gallons of water annually when fully grown. Plus, trees slow water runoff & provide seepage to underground water-holding aquifers.
  • Tall and short trees protect crops (and humans) from damaging effects of wind and sun.
  • They prevent erosion and restore nutrients to the soil.
  • They clean the air and the soil by intercepting particles, reducing heat, absorbing pollutants.
  • Trees provide beauty and majesty to barren landscapes.

Haiti has a long road to environmental recovery, and there are many groups in Haiti who are working to restore the land.  We’re doing our part at Singing Rooster where coffee trees are playing a significant role.

Much of Haiti’s forested lands are coffee related

Farmers want jobs, not handouts
Coffee provides income while protecting the forests.

Why? They won’t cut them down because they’re income-providing. PLUS, coffee trees are water intensive & therefore thrive in the shade of taller trees (i.e., they won’t cut down trees protecting coffee plants).

Now add in this: coffee has an IDEAL root structure for holding delicate mountain soil in place (taps roots yes, but horizontal roots stretch for METERS).

Coffee beans are the added bonus.

You can Help Reforest Haiti

Haiti’s environmental problems were created, in part, by others. It’s our shared responsibility to help make things right. Drink coffee and tell others about the importance of #haitiancoffee. Then Donate a few bucks to our reforesting Haiti program. Your impact is bigger than you think:

$5 for 10 seedlings = 20 years of productive, income-generating plants

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