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Haiti Regeneration Initiative Team Resumes Research

Post-earthquake, the project team for the Haiti Regeneration Initiative (HRI) resumes fieldwork in the Haitian countryside. Program coordinator Alex Fischer is interviewed.

You are one of a group of researchers from the Earth Institute that have returned to Haiti after the Jan 12 earthquake to re-start work on the Haiti Regeneration Initiative(HRI), a project that aims to restore the ecological degradation of Haiti.  Have you able to pick up where you left off?

Map of Haiti with the project area outlined in red, in the southwest peninsula of Haiti.
The HRI project is located in the southwestern part of Haiti, outside the area directly impacted by the earthquake.

The earthquake caused significant disruptions in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas—this shifted pressure onto other areas. Our work has been situated in the southwest (the Port-á-Piment Watershed), which was not directly affected by the earthquake.

The main impact on our area was the significant change in population. This has shifted pressures on local family incomes and food supplies, and raised questions about the duration of their stay.

We’re seeing a kind of reverse migration. Where previously people would migrate from rural to urban areas, now large numbers of people are returning to the countryside—specifically to our site. The rural communes in the south saw as much as a doubling of the total population after the earthquake: the commune of Port-a-Piment was reported to have a population change from 17,207 to 28,045 persons {Government of Haiti, 2010}.

Population density map of Haiti
Map of population density in the Port-a-Piment Watershed. CIESIN-The Earth Institute.

So there’s a quick jump in population. Major urban areas like Les Cayes on the other hand only saw an increase of an estimated 10,000 people in a total population of more than100,000.  This shows that rural areas have increased pressure in both numbers and proportional change of their populations.  A significant number of unemployed family members have returned, increasing pressures on the local economy and food system. But for our research now, the question is how long these IDPs [international displaced persons] will remain in the rural areas, and what potential is there for these communities to be better integrated into farming systems? For example, will there be increased pressure on charcoal production? Fishing and charcoal production are an income safety net—people turn to these when other forms of income generation fail.

There was also a disruption in the supply chain—a lot of the imported goods, food subsidies, tools and basic commodities would normally be distributed through Port-au-Prince markets—so yes, an undetermined disruption.

What is slightly different with our project now is we have to take into account that the dynamic of rural to urban migration has reversed. With a massive reconstruction and new sources of funding coming in, strategic planning at a national scale requires that we fully integrate our watershed work within broader reconstruction planning.

What is unique about the HRI, compared to other projects in Haiti?

One of the strengths of the HRI is the way it does not to replicate other projects but instead creates a broader vision that seeks synergies between existing efforts and bridges rural development with ecosystem restoration. Issues of poverty, ecosystem degradation, vulnerability to natural hazards, education and health should be addressed simultaneously. Unless you do that, it takes only one disaster or shock to the fragile system to undermine all of the progress. We hope that by stabilizing the ecosystem at the same time as we are working on a variety of development projects, the resiliency of such projects will be increased, providing safeguards against new external shocks.

Another key to our project is the focus on data collection and providing a strong scientific data basis that can be used by other decision-makers and planners within Haiti. The data can serve as a foundation for longer term planning and development, and remain transparent and available. We think this will also encourage strong community participation.

How does the HRI envision involving the local Haitian community in the project?

Our projects were never intended to be led solely by us. They have been designed to pull together all stakeholders—national government offices, NGOs, local groups– who are directly impacted and already carrying out good work.

Part of our education toolkits with our local Haitians colleagues involves using 3-D topographical models, paper maps, and spatial training. Incorporating spatial planning tools like the 3-D topographic model helps increase spatial perception, understanding of physical features, potential risks and land use, and understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish. Something that happened on this trip was that we got lost on our way to the site because the names of towns did not correspond to the map and the GPS unit. We used the model to help make a connection to what they’re seeing on the paper maps.

A Haitian local studies a map and topographical model of the watershed.
A topographic model of the Port-a-Piment watershed (left) helps local Haitians make connections to the printed maps visualizing watershed research and findings. Developing locals’ spatial literacy is a key element of the HRI communication/education plan.

For example, when I returned to the site after a hike there were six people gathered around the model trying to identify an area nearest to their town.  Unlike with the paper maps, which caused some confusion, they could relate to the small hills and rivers formed on the model in relation to their town. This showed the potential to combine tools—paper maps combined with the 3d model—to better communicate our information. We’ll also consider this concept later when we’re planning our training programs and community mapping programs.

There’s been a series of development projects that have brought mixed successes so far. Our goal is to build on past successes and maintain the momentum of integrated development. The way that HRI is different is we’re looking at building an integrated development agenda—a plan—for a geographic unit defined by the watershed [the primary zone of risk that’s involved in natural disaster risk reduction]. Our goal is to support local initiatives with comprehensive planning—integrating existing projects and expertise with physical and socioeconomic planning at a watershed scale. We are basing this work on a strong foundation of science and data that allows more precise planning and supports innovative design.

Rain monitoring station.
An HRI team member installs a pluviometric systemin the upper watershed. These gauges measure rainfall and are located throughout the watershed.

How will the HRI leverage CIESIN’s expertise developing and integrating spatial data with other kinds of data?

This is an EI collaboration. So we’re drawing on the combined expertise of a variety of centers and different disciplines. The data analysis and the spatial visualization of the data we’re collecting are CIESIN’s focus. CIESIN plans to combine the rainfall and hydrologic data that Wade McGillis from the Geochemistry division and Lior Asaf from the Water Center/CIESIN are collecting with settlement data that CIESIN has identified from satellite images.   CIESIN is working directly with Sean Smuckler, Clare Sullivan, Leigh Winowiecki, and others at the Tropical Agriculture and Rural Development Program to build a comprehensive set of maps and analysis on land degradation and soil fertility maps. With all of these combined data sources, CIESIN will increase the ability for development projects and strategic planning using spatially integrated hazard risk mapping, key information for land use management and agricultural planning.

Land use map, Haiti, Port-a-Piment watershed
This elevation map of the watershed shows the 16 clusters where more than 160 sites were sampled for soil and biophysical characteristics.

Like any traveler to a new place, you arrived in Haiti with certain assumptions. At this point in the process of helping lead a restoration project for one of the poorest countries in the world, what are you conscious of now that you hadn’t been aware of before?

The biggest question I had prior to going was, what was the awareness within Haiti of the connection between environmental degradation and the increasing natural hazards and risks? I didn’t realize that people were already very aware of the impacts of their behaviors on the environment and on physical safety. In retrospect I should have anticipated this answer– it’s not a question of the awareness of the problem but drivers of behavior. In other words, people are concerned that cutting trees increases risk of flooding. They are willing to plant fruit trees and other trees that provide economic stability. So now Sabine Marx at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) is investigating the link between awareness and behavior and how perceptions impact decisions.

We have observed the need for immediate cash, for putting food on the table. That’s obvious. So the real question is, how do we create economic incentives to shift destructive behavior? The major issue this project addresses is how to provide economic incentives—e.g., different energy systems– at the same time. New ways to generate income and reforestation. What is the right mix that shift behaviors that have led to this entrenched situation?

You’ve been back and forth to Haiti a handful of times. You’ve witnessed an earthquake and been through an evacuation, had a multitude of related personal experiences where you were privy to extraordinary suffering and devastation. It seems inevitable that your connection to the country has become more emotionally complex. Yet as a researcher, with a structured science-based agenda, you need to remain as objective as possible.

It’s a traumatized society. But that presents new opportunities, too—new hope. We have encountered many youth throughout our visits to the watershed who had returned from  Port-au-Prince; they had left for the city, often to worse conditions but more hopes of success and a better lifestyle—more electricity, movies, the potential for work. But they return to the countryside and there’s eagerness and enormous interest to do something. The engagement and willingness to make a difference seem higher—a hunger to do something beneficial. There’s a drastic sense of urgency.

So on that front it’s been encouraging—the earthquake has not diminished the engagement with our project by the people in the watershed and the people at the regional and national level. There are new opportunities now because of increased funding, more donors and strategic planning—potential for substantive work and capacity building. I feel like people recognize the need for this project even more—and there is more willingness to provide the information and support so communities can take action.

For more information on the work of the Haiti Regeneration Initiative, go to http://haiti.ciesin.columbia.edu/ and http://www.haitiregeneration.org/.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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