This is a multi-faceted issue that seems to evoke strong emotional responses from many people, including ex-patriot Haitians, native Haitians, as well as a host of liberals and conservatives from all over the world. Much attention has been focused on this issue in the past 30 years or so, starting in the 1980’s when programs began trying to replant trees in Haiti, only to find them cut down a few short years later to become charcoal for cooking.
The roots of the problem as much as anything else, are clouded, and seemingly as nebulous as the problem itself. The central issue is that today Haiti is 98% deforested, and the problem is spreading to their neighbor on the island of Hispaniola – The Dominican Republic (DR). Folks there are alarmed at the increase in trees cut along the border, the encroachment into protected national forests in the DR, as well as incursions seeking wood for making charcoal. We also should be alarmed, because what’s happening in Haiti is a symptom of what is going to happen in the rest of this world as we continue deforesting and destroying the environment of our planet.
I will not attempt to lay blame for the problem, nor will I attempt to point out all the places where deforestation has caused problems. Rather I will approach it as an issue that needs a concerted effort to solve. It’s going to take businessmen, government leaders, grassroots efforts, teachers, children, husbands, fathers, women, housewives – everyone – working together to solve. Let’s start with a few facts:
In 1923, about 60% of Haiti’s forests still existed. The exploding population of the 20th century, and especially the latter half of the 20th century seem to have caused an exponential increase in the amount of trees cut to use for making charcoal for cooking. Trees are used for other purposes also, it is evident following the devastating earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, that trees are being cut to be used as tent poles, and for other structural purposes. Architectural lumber is imported to the island, both from the US and other countries (very little can be found that is native Haitian anymore), but it is expensive, and difficult to obtain, so is only used by the wealthy and by Non-Governement Organizations (NGO’s) providing aid in the form of buildings of various types (Churches, schools, housing, etc…).
Jacques Cousteau was made aware of the problem of Haiti’s deforestation in the 1980’s and did an analysis of the issue proving that deforestation had led directly to soil erosion and that in turn caused runoff into the ocean that killed the coral reefs around the island. That process either killed the fish directly or drove them away to seek other sources of food and shelter. Soil erosion in turn causes problems for farmers, as the bulk of the farming in Haiti is done with simple manual tools, and such as these cannot keep up with damage to croplands due to excess runoff and flooding. Still, there are many hundreds of thousands of acres of land farmed in Haiti, not only for seasonal crops such as rice and corn, but also many varieties of fruit trees and such (bananas, mangos, etc…). Sugar cane is still grown in large quantities as well, though not nearly to the extent it once was grown.
When one flies over the northern parts of the island it becomes obvious that deforestation has left devastating consequences for the Haitian people – and by extension all of us – to deal with. Thus, it is imperative that a concerted effort be devised to address this problem. Many programs have been created to replant trees, but those programs have mostly been doomed to failure either due to lack of resources, inadequate coverage and lack of education programs for native people, or they failed to address the roots of the problem. The roots of the problem lie in the fact that the trees are the sole source of cooking fuel for the bulk of the Haitian population which remains mostly poor, and without adequate means or resources to purchase other types of cooking fuel.
Some programs aim to address this problem through the use of solar or natural gas powered ovens. However, these programs may not succeed due to the levels of technology required to achieve “independence” from charcoal. In and around Port Au Prince alone, there are an estimated 3M people living in squalor that by most western standards seem appalling. The bulk of those people are also dependent on some sort of food aid. Clearly, the lack of Haitian grown food crops is part of what has driven these folks to the cities to begin with. And, according to many studies released in the past few years, the amount of food being grown in Haiti itself is declining!
How can that be? The reasons, again, are not clear, but apparently are due to the increased amounts of food aid, and the cheap rice and grains made available through these programs – mostly from the U.S. Haitian farmers have been shut out of the process of growing more food for the population. The influx of populations into the cities (esp. Port Au Prince) to work as cheap labor in factories, the Haitian equivalent of the “Maquiladora” industries of Mexico, has led to an increased demand for food in the cities. Not only food, but clean drinking water and all kinds of other sundry items and services. On a recent trip to Haiti, I saw that the bulk of the population is equipped with cell phones. This anachronism is made even more glaring when one realizes that only about 30% of the homes in Haiti (in Port Au Prince even!) have electrical power!
But Haiti is like that, horrifically poor by western standards, but with a people desperate to drag themselves into the 21st century. Haiti is filled with contrasts, the people are colorful, noisy, happy – for the most part. They sing and dance, the children fly home-made kites, they tend their animals. On my recent trip there I was struck by the fact that there was a question on the U.S. Immigration form coming back that asked if I had been around any livestock – the whole island is one large barnyard! There were animals everywhere! Pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, dogs, rats (in the city), ducks, horses and cows… Literally everywhere! What the heck was I supposed to answer to that question? I said “No” because I did not wish to get into some esoteric discussion with an Immigration officer who understands nothing of the situation.
I digress… The problem at hand is how to create a thriving forested island again, where folks will use some alternative means for cooking their meals, not charcoal or wood. It becomes obvious that many programs will need to be tried. In Brazil they have been enormously successful converting their economy to alcohol made from sugarcane. Haiti once supplied 70% of the world’s sugar, and all of that from sugarcane. That could be a revolutionary thing in Haiti, the thought that once again they could use sugar to lift themselves up from poverty. The one thing that once identified them as slaves to France could possibly be their salvation! But obviously, that would need to be accompanied with consequent advances in technology for the general population.
I would think that if they manufactured stoves that burn alcohol, or diesel, or gasoline, or just about any liquid fuel, then they ought to be able to wean themselves from charcoal. These types of stoves have existed for many years. I have one for backpacking, it’s made by (Mountain Safety Research) MSR, but could easily be copied and made in mass quantities on a much simpler pattern, and designed to cook in the way most Haitians do: Like they cook now over a charcoal fire, with a large boiling pot. Cooking is a relatively simple thing in Haiti in other words (for the most part), and as long as we preserve the pattern or style of cooking, then the cooking heat source should be irrelevant.
The cooking apparatus must be simple and easy to use, or it will never catch on. As they also like to cook over open charcoal fires in large barbecues, a type of stove could likely be designed to use either liquid or natural gas fuel that would be an adequate replacement there as well. Again, these types of barbecues have existed for a long time already and can easily be adapted for use in Haiti.
The government will likely have to take steps to outlaw charcoal use. Gradually, they can phase out its use as more and more of the population is outfitted with stoves that burn liquid fuel. The only problems foreseen with this approach is that liquid fuels are inherently volatile, and somewhat dangerous. They are not inert and easily transported in mass quantities like charcoal. As such, they are not suited for cooking indoors. Thus, others have proposed the use of natural gas stoves, and these would seem adequate for use in the cities in indoor settings. The bulk of the population, however, still cooks outdoors, or in a setting where liquid fuel stoves would be appropriate.
As regards distribution, there are many fuel trucks in Haiti, and smaller fuel distribution vehicles could be created to transport fuel (both liquid and natural gas) to outlying areas. In addition, there are fuel stations existing all over the island. If they could be converted to provide alcohol and natural gas as primary fuels on the island, then they could use these same fueling stations as cooking fuel depots as well. These days, alcohol can be made from many sources, including wood and other cellulose material (cellulose is the most common organic material on the planet). And things grow well in Haiti, they grow so well in fact, given the tropical climate, that you cannot help but have vines and weeds and such all over the place in no time in your garden!
In conclusion, if we help the Haitian people move beyond charcoal as a cooking source, then we can undertake the large scale replanting and reforesting programs and hope for some success. That’s the only way I see Haiti becoming the “Jewel of the Antilles” again. The problem is going to require hard work, education for the Haitian people, large amounts of resources, and fierce dedication from both Haitians and support organizations for generations to come. I hope and pray it will work. We all had better hope and pray that it will work, because if it doesn’t, then eventually what we can look forward to is the rest of the world looking like Haiti, as we continue to deforest this planet and destroy our environment.