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Charcoal, Construction and Coffins: Tracing Links from Disasters to Deforestation in Haiti

Photo of a donkey carrying bags of charcoal from the upper watershed towards Port-á-Piment town.
A donkey carries bags of charcoal from the upper watershed towards Port-á-Piment town.

We are sitting on plastic chairs in a schoolyard half way between Port-à-Piment town and Randelle, in Southern Haiti.  Louis-Jean Jean-Marc speaks to us in French with the backdrop of children singing from inside the school building and the smell of two local charcoal stoves cooking rice and beans at a nearby house.  Our feet and jeans are soaked from the climb up the “road”— a rock bed crossed with thigh-deep rivers every 50 feet―and drying socks are laid out in a circle around our small group of energy investigators. Through schoolyard trees, the road is clearly visible and hosts a steady trail of donkeys carrying large bags of charcoal.  During the hour we sit in conversation, approximately 16 donkeys,  each carrying two large bags of charcoal, pass by.

Randelle, a densely populated town in the upper Port-à-Piment  watershed—the locus of studies for the Earth Institute Haiti Regeneration Initiative over the past year and a half―was in part chosen for its role because of its proximity to Parc Macaya, one of two remaining national parks in Haiti.

Louis-Jean grew up here. Although has left Randelle briefly over the years for different consultancies with development agencies throughout Haiti, he is a permanent fixture in the town.  He tells us there is a clear trend of deforestation in the watershed (we do not make it up to Parc Macaya, but can see this is true from the number of donkeys carrying charcoal to the road below) and he believes that the increased reliance on fuelwood is due at least in part to the number of natural disasters occurring in Haiti, the impermanence of structures, and consistent shocks to advancement.  Louis-Jean also talks about the distinction between those who make charcoal—generally households in the watershed—and those traders in Jacmel and Cap-Haïtien who pay for large, green trees cut from the inner portions of the park.

Charcoal for sale in the weekly Port-à-Piment market.

The Charcoal Connection
There is a huge, complex sector surrounding Haiti’s charcoal sector, he explains, and although it doesn’t begin or end with villagers in the watershed; they are a crucial link in an intricate supply chain of charcoal and wood supplying a growing demand in Port au Prince.  While most of the households in the watershed consume wood as their primary fuel source (an estimated 80% according to 2007 surveys), they are producing charcoal by the truck-load to fuel the energy demand in Port au Prince.  And since villagers are largely using dry wood picked up off the ground, the charcoal sector is viewed as more detrimental to the diminishing Parc Macaya because charcoal is often made from green wood.

When hiking through the watershed, the charcoal-producing households are not hard to identify: large white sacks of charcoal sit piled outside homes, waiting for transport.  Households freely told us that they are making an estimated one to two bags a day and selling each at $25 Haitian dollars (earning between 25-50 Haitian dollars a day, or US$4−US$8 a day.)

Photo of bags of charcoal in the the Port-á-Piment watershed await pickup.
Bags of charcoal in the Port-à-Piment watershed await pickup.

Partially obscured by a large pile of white charcoal sacks, a group of young people on a household porch greet us and we ask when the next truck will pass by to collect their store, and how frequently they expect a pick up.  Roughly six trucks a week come, able to carry about 40 bags of charcoal, they inform us.  On our return drive to Port au Prince we observe such trucks carrying upwards of 100 bags of charcoal.

It is clear that although charcoal is available in the town, the majority of that produced is leaving the watershed and is headed to Port au Prince.  The 2007 World Bank SMAP report, one of the most recent available, estimates a Port au Prince population of roughly four million consuming just over 7,000 tonnes of charcoal per week.  At that time, 70% of energy needs in Haiti were met using charcoal and firewood and although forest cover was in constant reduction, charcoal prices remained relatively constant.  The demand in Port au Prince has likely changed since 2007, and most especially after the earthquake, though the price of charcoal remains still relatively affordable.

Surveys conducted by CRS post-earthquake suggest that the average family in the southern department took in 5.8 IDPs, increasing the stress on the family.  Charcoal production is a typical method for meeting emergency cash needs in Haiti, and it is likely that many families increased charcoal production post-earthquake to meet the increased need for income in the rural areas.

Undercover Trees, Valuable Coffins
The supply-chain for felled trees is more complicated and more secretive:  villagers cut wood in the cover of the night to supply to large companies who then transport the trees to larger cities for lumber.  The value of these trees (especially the pines, preferred for their hardwood and their resistance against termites) is huge, especially compared to their cousin, charcoal.

Photo of a truck carrying bags of charcoal on the road from the Southern department to Port au Prince.
A truck carrying bags of charcoal on the road from the Southern department to Port au Prince.

The price offered by companies is high—in part because of the value, but also because the work is risky. Pine trees from the inner woods of the Parc Macaya are locally referred to as “kokayin,” or cocaine—considered as valuable as cocaine and nearly as illegal.

Louis-Jean explains that the trees have several main uses throughout the country, but two come to his mind as most prevalent.  Despite the rampant poverty through much of Haiti, customs and religious beliefs contribute to people’s wiliness to spend disproportionately on coffins.  Families will save or take out credit to afford large, sturdy coffins, sometimes costing more than their homes, he says.  Pines of the Parc Macaya type are the preferred wood for these coffins.  The other market for these felled pines is building construction. The hard, termite-impenetrable wood is used for building in urban hubs throughout the country.  The demand for large pines in both markets, he explains, is exacerbated by Haiti’s frequent natural disasters.

Urgent Questions
From our plastic chairs in a Haitian schoolyard watching donkeys descend a rocky river road, a statement Louis-Jean made early in our conversation becomes clearer—Haiti’s reliance on fuelwood resources increases in the wake of natural disaster. At household level, families increase their production of charcoal to satisfy quick cash needs, while on a national scale disaster and destruction increase demand for coffins and construction.  In post-earthquake Haiti, the urgent questions for  the Parc Macaya is how to replace charcoal as a coping mechanism, and how to substitute for pine in recovery and reconstruction.

Kate Kennedy Freeman is the energy and income generation specialist for the Millennium Villages Project. Her work focuses on bringing efficient energy services to rural communities in 14 Millennium Villages across Sub-Saharan Africa. As part of this team, Kate manages the Solar LED Lantern Program and the Efficient Biomass Cookstoves Program. Kate also works on the energy and agriculture teams of the Haiti Regeneration Initiative.

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Erich J. Knight
13 years ago

Charcoal can also save Haitian Soils & seas all the while saving money, Lungs & forest.

WorldStoves in Haiti;

NSF Awards $1.6 million in grants;
BREAD: Biochar Inoculants for Enabling Smallholder Agriculture

Harry Stokes
13 years ago

We are working on small scale ethanol in Haiti to supply ethanol stoves. We are doing a similar project in Ethiopia with the Millennium Village as a partner and steering committee member. In Haiti our partner is the IRC (and others).

If you would like more details, please be in touch.