Flying over the mountains into Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a few years ago, I sat next to a volunteer taking her first trip to the country. “I see trees,” she said, pointing down at the hillsides. “They told us there are no trees.”
Foreign descriptions of the country frequently claim it is almost completely deforested; people often reference a striking 1987 National Geographic photograph of the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, forested on one side and barren on the other, as proof. In the common imagination, Haitians literally devour their forests; last week a meteorologist in Florida, describing the impact of Hurricane Matthew, said, “Even the kids there, they are so hungry they actually eat the trees.”
In fact, about a third of Haiti is covered in trees, and many areas with little forestation have always been that way. But the country does have a deforestation problem — it’s just more complicated than the world imagines. In the wake of the devastating hurricane, with crops destroyed across the country, Haitians urgently need help rebuilding homes and securing access to water and food. But this is a crucial moment to push for a serious, longer-term response to deforestation, which worsens the flooding caused by hurricanes and storms. A first step is to stop portraying the problem of deforestation in simple, misleading terms. Haiti’s rural populations are not culprits or victims, but key players in the project of reversing deforestation.
The destruction of Haiti’s forests has been going on for centuries. When the French colonized the island starting in the 17th century, they cut down trees for lumber and fuel, and mahogany for furniture. By the late 18th century it was the most profitable plantation colony in the world, populated mostly by slaves and producing sugar and coffee for export. Hillsides near towns were already bare, and colonial towns frequently flooded.
After Haiti’s successful war of independence in 1804, former slaves got access to the country’s land, and deforestation continued apace. They grew trees for coffee, fruit and lumber on their farms, which were part of an expanding economy rooted in a network of markets and ports. Dyewood was harvested and exported from Haiti throughout the 19th century.
The first aerial photographs of the island, taken during the American occupation in the early 1930s, still show relatively widespread tree cover. By the 1940s and 1950s, however, deforestation was accelerating. In their novels, Haitian writers like Jacques Roumain and Marie Vieux Chauvet depicted a rural country tilting into poverty in a steadily worsening cycle: Increased population put more pressure on the forests, whose overuse and destruction made the land less productive. Many left for the cities, which expanded exponentially, their populations dependent on charcoal produced by cutting down trees in the countryside.
The Haitian government did little to help, instead courting outside corporate interests. In the early 1940s, a Haitian-American project cleared 50,000 acres to plant rubber trees to contribute to the American war effort. The plan foundered and left the landscape scarred; in the area of Jérémie alone, as many as a million fruit trees were destroyed. Industry wasn’t the only culprit: In 1941, as part of a “anti-superstition” campaign led by the Roman Catholic Church, sacred mapou trees were cut down.
The situation worsened during the three decades of the Duvalier dictatorships. François Duvalier ordered sections of the border with the Dominican Republic cleared to make it easier to police. By the time his son was overthrown in 1986, the country faced an environmental crisis. The new Constitution included a call for the protection of “forest reserves” by developing alternatives to charcoal, but little has been done to carry this out.
Some projects, however, have succeeded. In the 1980s the American anthropologist Gerald Murray developed a program to help Haitian farmers plant trees for charcoal and lumber. Saplings were provided from a network of nurseries, and over two decades roughly 300,000 households participated in planting, growing and harvesting millions of trees. More recently, the Lambi Fund of Haiti has worked with a network of community groups to plant three million trees in different parts of Haiti.
Roadblocks to reforestation remain, especially for hillsides. Rural residents are wary of putting the effort into cultivating trees far from their homes, where it is easy for someone else to cut them down. But in recent years some have succeeded in tackling this problem by organizing reforestation efforts along entire watersheds. Where there are trees higher up, their roots and richer soils absorb rain, which decreases flooding below. When organizations tackle the problem holistically, connecting communities up and down a watershed, deforestation can be reversed with remarkable success.
Over the last two decades, for instance, an organization called Codep has helped Haitian communities in the Cormier watershed, in the south of the country, create forests on the hillsides, where fruit is harvested for local markets. In Port-au-Prince, another organization, Fokal, has built a remarkable project around verdant Martissant Park — once the property of the American dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham — combining education, work with rural communities on the hills above the city, and a careful reconstruction of canals to channel water during rains.
These initiatives provide clear examples of what works. Such strategies should be scaled up and shared on a national level, so that they can be applied in Haiti’s diverse watersheds.
The challenges are daunting, to be sure. But this is the moment to build on the knowledge already present in many communities about how to reforest the country. We should imagine a Haiti covered in trees, and begin to plant that future.
Laurent Dubois, a professor of romance studies and history at Duke, is the author of Haiti: The Aftershocks of History.