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HAITI: A Land Crumbling Beneath Their Feet

Carmen Gentile

PORT SALUT, Jul 17 2007 (IPS) - Dardy Saint-Jean gazes at the rock-strewn river coursing through his village and shakes his head in disgust.

Rivers like this one in southern Haiti are clogged with silt and stones due to deforestation in the surrounding hills. Credit: Carmen Gentile

Rivers like this one in southern Haiti are clogged with silt and stones due to deforestation in the surrounding hills. Credit: Carmen Gentile

“Look at this river – it’s filled with stones from the mountains,” said Saint-Jean, referring to decades of erosion caused by the deforestation that has stripped Haiti of much of its green cover.

The destruction is blamed on necessities of daily life here in this poor Caribbean nation, where the majority of the populace subsists on less than one dollar a day and public utilities are unreliable and far from universal.

With few sources of fuel for cooking and bathing, most people burn charcoal made from trees. More than 70 percent of the energy usage in Haiti is derived from wood and other biomass. Over the last several decades, this system has left the country’s once lush countryside decimated, leading to serious problems with soil erosion.

Daily rainstorms during the summer hurricane season often lead to flash flooding and the dumping of massive amounts of silt and stones into the country’s streams and rivers, blocking water sources. Replanting efforts by local and international organisations have proven unable to keep pace with the mass consumption of wood.

The consequences of deforestation can be deadly. In September 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne swept through the city of Gonaives, unleashing walls of mud and water that killed more than 3,000 people and destroyed homes, livestock and businesses.

Earlier that same year, floods killed a similar number of people on Haiti’s southern border with the Dominican Republic.

Erosion coupled with pollution has also muddied the once fruitful fishing waters of Haiti, forcing fisherman to cast their nets further out to sea.

Hoping to reverse that trend, Haiti is looking to alternative energy sources such as biofuels in hopes of curtailing the rampant deforestation, Haitian Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis told IPS.

By finding an alternative to charcoal, said Alexis, “We could finally begin thinking about ways to protect our environment.”

“But we must work to diversify our sources of energy…it will not happen on its own,” the prime minister said.

Just how a country with so many other problems on its plate will start thinking about how to save its environment is another matter.

Haiti’s new government led by President Rene Preval is already under pressure to produce results in terms of easing the country’s grinding poverty, and to implement anti-corruption measures promised ahead of his election last year. Alexis also stressed to IPS the importance of getting some half a million school-age Haitians back in the classroom and improving the level of education across the board.

That leaves little time and resources for promoting and funding new fuels, which is why the government is relying on privately funded research to introduce alternatives such as the jatropha curcas plant, a hearty seed-bearing plant already grown in India and Africa for use in lamps and stoves.

Once planted, the jatropha curcas needs little moisture and can thrive for up to 50 years, even in poor soil conditions like those in Haiti.

Livestock and other animals won’t eat jatropha after it is three months old and the plant begins bearing seeds needed to make fuel after nine months, yielding anywhere between 6 to 12 tonnes of fuel per hectare planted. In comparison, the soybeans used to make biofuels yield less than one tonne per hectare planted.

It takes about two average-sized trees to produce one tonne of charcoal, meaning that in a one-year period, several million trees are cut down under the current system.

Despite the positive reviews given by farmers and users of jatropha, some have expressed concern about investing money in a country like Haiti, where political upheaval is not uncommon, international peacekeepers have become a permanent fixture and corruption is endemic.

“It’s the chicken and the egg problem,” said Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “If you never do anything in the country (Haiti) to address the problem of stability, then you won’t have stability … and you’ll never get it without taking a risk.”

Others are decidedly less pessimistic about Haiti’s chances of improving its lot – at least when it comes to finding an alternative energy source to charcoal.

Last month, at a regional summit in Panama, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice provided a vague outline for pilot projects promoting alternative energy in Central America and the Caribbean, including Haiti.

“We seek to promote the democratisation of energy in the Americas, increasing the number of energy suppliers, expanding the market and reducing supply disruption,” said Rice at the Organisation of American States summit.

For Haitians, that means a chance, perhaps a final one at that, to do something to save a country literally eroding beneath their feet.

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