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Restoring Damaged Ecosystems – The Challenge of Haiti

The border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic shows the extent of Haiti’s deforestation. Photo credit: NASA

The natural services that healthy ecosystems and their biodiversity deliver—providing clean water, sequestering CO2, protecting us from floods, producing food and medicine, and much more—are worth over $21-$72 trillion annually according to the United Nations Environment Programme. But in 2010, almost two-thirds of the world’s ecosystems were deemed degraded due to human impacts and mismanagement. This has profound implications for our well-being, health and security, especially as the planet faces a growing population and the unpredictable effects of climate change.

The good news is that it is possible to restore damaged ecosystems, and in fact, ecological restoration is going on all around the globe. But the situation in a country like Haiti illustrates just how complicated ecosystem restoration can be.


Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 77 percent of its growing population of 10 million living on less than $2 a day. The last comprehensive data available from 1998 showed that only 2 percent of the national forest cover remained; to better understand the scope of the problem in the south, the Earth Institute is conducting comprehensive surveys on land use and land cover to get more accurate data on both forest cover and agricultural use. Deforestation has caused the loss of soil fertility, erosion and serious flooding. Acute poverty forces the populace to rely on wood and charcoal for fuel and income, leading to ever more deforestation. Sixty-six percent of Haitians depend on agriculture and small-scale farming, but most cannot produce enough food on the eroded hillsides to even feed their families. When tropical storms regularly hit Haiti, rainfalls ravage crops, bring flooding and wash more topsoil into the sea. The 7.0 Mw earthquake in January 2010 added new dimensions of suffering and urgency. And Haiti’s government, which has been chronically weak for decades, has not been able to provide sustainable solutions to these problems.

In the past, numerous aid programs have attempted to deal with Haiti’s environmental problems, but they have lacked national coordination, comprehensive data collection and consistent funding, been too small scale and short-term, and have often not taken aim at the real roots of problems or followed up with monitoring. The Haiti Regeneration Initiative has learned from past mistakes.

Marc Levy, deputy director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, said that the goal is to put forth comprehensive ways to improve the income and food security of the Haitian people, and to restore the ecology. Because these issues are inextricably linked, strategies to restore the ecosystem must be tied to increasing income for farmers and creating incentives for them to adopt agricultural production with both short- and long-term benefits.

The partnership is working in the 102-square-kilometer area of the Port-à-Piment watershed in southwest Haiti, which is one of several watersheds in the Côte Sud, the 3,000-square-kilometer southern region. Much of the initial work is focused on Port-à-Piment, but effective measures will be scaled up as part of the Côte Sud Initiative.

With ecosystem restoration, the question is always, what baseline state of nature do you restore to? Levy said that in Haiti it doesn’t make sense to attempt to restore back to pre-Columbus days—so what level of restoration does makes sense? The scientific challenge is to figure out which environmental scenarios offer what advantages, i.e. what mix of plantings and landscape provide the best ecological and economic benefits. The political challenge is to work with locals to see what they want so that their long-term cooperation is assured. In the next 6 to 12 months, both challenges will be addressed to come up with a land use management plan.

“The local communities know that conditions are not good and are getting worse,” said Levy. “They know there are better ways, but they lack a long-term way to come up with a plan and with funding.”

Growing crops on steep hillsides. Photo credit: TreesfortheFuture

Most of the Haitians in the Port-à-Piment watershed who depend on agriculture grow annual crops like beans and maize on steep rocky hillsides (95% of the watershed is hilly) in only 3-4 cm. (less than 1.5 inches) of soil. Their yields are low, and their farming techniques result in severe soil erosion. Increasing crop yields would reduce the pressure on farmers to grow on marginal lands and help raise their incomes. Demonstration plots set up in conjunction with local farmer associations have shown farmers how to work with improved crop varieties, double or triple crop yields by planting more densely and adding fertilizer, and use soil conservation techniques such as contour planting of vegetative barriers. The demonstration plots empower farmers to make their own decisions about what alternative farming practices work best for them, and teach them to train other farmers.

Sean Smukler, associate research scientist for the Earth Institute’s Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program, explained that the ultimate goal is to move agricultural production away from annual crops, which shouldn’t be grown on the hillsides in the first place (once harvested, they leave the soil bare and vulnerable to erosion for much of the year), to perennials like mango and coffee, which stabilize the soil because they remain in it year-round. In addition, mango and coffee provide farmers with higher value products that can be exported. Tree nurseries are being set up with local partners to grow species such as citrus, mango, avocado and coffee, and locals will be trained to produce their own seedlings through grafting or cuttings.

Charcoal production. Photo credit: Thomas Hackl

Approximately 80 percent of households in the Port-à-Piment watershed use wood as their primary fuel source, and many produce charcoal to sell for fuel in Port au Prince. It’s estimated that charcoal production in Haiti, which involves burning wood at low temperatures, consumes more than 1.3 million tons of wood each year, so reducing Haiti’s overall charcoal production is key to curbing deforestation. Eventually fuelwood and timber plantations will be established to promote sustainable charcoal production, but the areas that need reforestation haven’t yet been identified. Smukler noted that reforesting is both labor-intensive and costly, and because it takes 3 to 5 years before realizing any financial returns, it is not easy to devise incentives that will persuade the locals to plant trees.

One incentive has been suggested by Vijay Modi, professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University and director of the Modi Research Group: a biomass gasification plant, to be built in the south, that produces electricity using sustainably grown wood as a feedstock. Farmers would cultivate and harvest wood specifically for fuelwood and sell it to the plant. The fuelwood would sell for more than charcoal, so the plant would give farmers a source of income and an incentive to grow trees, as well as provide a much-needed reliable source of electricity in the region. A feasibility study of the plant has been completed, more extensive planning and preliminary proposals are underway, and funding is being sought.

Other Côte Sud Initiative strategies that have been piloted and will be scaled up in 2012 include efforts to promote more efficient charcoal stoves, increase farmers’ access to better seeds and fertilizer, and establish facilities to enable farmers to store grain so it can be sold later at better prices.

Reliable data collection has historically been lacking, and must be amassed and analyzed before restoration strategies can be devised. A soil surveillance study of the watershed has been completed and will soon release its findings, enabling scientists to identify soils at risk of further degradation. Wade McGillis, associate research professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has been studying the watershed’s hydrology (water system); has installed satellite-linked climate monitoring stations that track rainfall, wind and soil moisture; and is measuring the river flow and fecal coliform levels (indicators of raw sewage) in order to devise strategies to control flooding and minimize pollution. Eventually a baseline assessment of how prevalent irrigation is in the lowlands will be needed, as well.

Reforestation works. Photo credit: Nick Hobgood

There are also plans to provide small grants to community-based organizations for erosion control and reforestation projects, and to farmers to enable them to start small businesses or purchase farm equipment, animals or fertilizer.

In a 2007 report, the United States Agency for International Development said that reforestation would likely only be achieved in Haiti when the rural population leaves the hillsides and finds work in lowland areas and coastal cities. This means that, “For the countryside to be sustainable, cities have to become sustainable,” said Levy. “We need manufacturing and service jobs in much bigger numbers than we have now.” So the Côte Sud Initiative is also concerned about other job-creation opportunities, such as enlarging a small airport in the south to accommodate international flights, which would open the area up to tourism and export business; and expanding Haiti’s role in the vetiver (a plant that produces an essential oil used in cosmetics) industry from simple cultivation to processing and manufacturing.

Fortunately, donors were generous to Haiti in 2008 and 2009, and additional funds poured in after the earthquake.

As Haiti’s situation illustrates, ecosystem restoration can entail involvement not only with ecology, but also agriculture, politics, economics, urbanization, demographics, education, disaster recovery and health, all with an eye to improving resilience to coming climate change effects.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

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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12 years ago

[…] as the physical impacts of climate change continue to impact this already stressed country, a wide range of initiatives and partnerships will be required to strengthen the country’s resilience in a changing […]

Jennifer @ aromatherapy diffuser
9 years ago

I cant imagine that Haiti is so poor than another states. BTW, I think the government is doing right when donating for Haiti to improve this poor state and encouraging them to plant more trees. I am so happy to read this title.