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Haiti’s Charcoal Challenge

Three Columbia University graduate students, Mayumi Moro, James Taylor, and Milap Patel, recently spent a week in Haiti trying to understand the nuances of the charcoal production process. The study site was in the Port-à-Piment watershed of the South Department, centered on the picturesque town of Port-à-Piment itself, the administrative center of the area. The villages lining the Port-à-Piment River, which flows down from the Massif de la Hotte mountain range – Randel, Sache, and Guillaume – made up the majority of the interview sites. These villages are on the front lines of climate, agricultural, and water challenges with many of the people literally living on the edge of survival. Charcoal production and its related activities make up a large part of the income-generating undertakings for many residents, further destabilizing the watershed through deforestation and erosion.

Household in Sache village at risk of flood damage and erosion

The toll of decades of unsustainable forest harvesting is apparent from miles above the Haitian landscape through infamous border satellite photos with neighboring Dominican Republic showing the differences in forest cover between the two countries. For the recently landed observer, the sight of denuded hills rolling off into the azure Caribbean, mile after mile, offers the starkest confirmation. Less than 3% of the country’s original forests still remain intact and this number is rapidly diminishing. From this landscape, however, it is still possible to discern positive signs and the stirrings of major initiatives to implement long-lasting beneficial changes to the complex lived environment of rural Haiti.

Deforested landscape around Guillaume village

In a country which presents development challenges in almost every imaginable area, solutions must be hydra-headed, capable of addressing the interlocked issues of health, education, agriculture and natural resource management in tandem. Within the Earth Institute’s ambitious Haiti Regeneration Initiative (HRI), which is attempting just such an approach in the South Department, our research project on charcoal production was a small segment in this wider narrative, offering a glimpse into the ambitious nature of the Initiative. Our analysis will drive eventual recommendations to the United Nations Environment Program’s Post Conflict and Disaster Management Branch (PCDMB), which is the major implementing partner of the Earth Institute in this region for the HRI.

Major research outcomes desired from this field component included a greater sense of the volumes of wood currently flowing out of the watershed, which contains the Parc Macaya – one of the last intact forests in the country, and a sense of how the actors at each stage contributed to the eventual consumption of charcoal in the urban areas of the country. Incorporated within this framework were detailed questions on pricing strategies, labor-time trade-offs, species selection, and temporal variation.

Through 36 structured interviews, a focus group discussion, and site visits to charcoal production and tree grafting sites, the team was able to build up important quantitative and qualitative data points which will greatly assist the eventual project outcomes. However, the individual stories some of us heard and the sometimes unimaginable survival choices people have to make add a dimension of gravity to what could otherwise turn into detached, academic work that has little bearing on the situations from which this data was gleaned.

Leonel Azor, resident of Sache village, Port-à-Piment watershed

“Making charcoal is my life. Without it I couldn’t sustain my existence, send my children to school and buy things. If someone had a program to help me make charcoal better or pay me to do other things, yes that would greatly benefit me.”

We would like to draw attention to the invaluable services provided by our local partners: Jean Elie Thys from UNEP, Celiane St. Luc, Louman Cesar and Marc Arthur Saint Cyr, all from the American University of the Caribbean in Haiti, Agroforestry Department who served as translators and project design partners.

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Arikia Millikan
12 years ago

Hello, I’m the Community Manager of Wired.com’s Haiti Rewried. This is a fascinating project, and I think our readers would love to hear about it. I would like to invite you to cross-post this entry on Haiti Rewired, or write about the project in another way if you like. Also, I’m in Haiti now and would love to meet up with your researchers if they are still here and get a first-hand look at what they’re doing. ~Arikia

mr coolio
mr coolio
12 years ago

I have posted a video to Youtube about solving many of Haiti’s problems. One of the issues with a proposed solutions was that of deforestation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1LbIgrDRBo

David Stillman
12 years ago

Very interested to connect with the students and program. Please write to ppafoundation@gmail.com and see recent blogs at http://www.ppafoundation.org. Thanks, David Stillman

james kishlar
12 years ago

Very interesting project, perhaps you may be interested in our Haitian agro-forestry nursery re-forestation program in the Montroise water shed.

Bob Fairchild
12 years ago

I have done a little work in Haiti and am interested in improving the efficiency of charcoal production. I think the currently wasted woodgas generated by charcoal production could be used to dry firewood for use directly for cooking fuel or for the next batch of charcoal.

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11 years ago

[…] challenge to insight on best business practices and clean energy. Through class research projects, SIPA capstone seminars, summer internship placements, and school-year research assistantships, students contribute to the […]

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