A charcoal seller scoops charcoal into a customer's bag at a market in Port-au-Prince. Charcoal is the main cooking fuel for most Haitians
A charcoal seller scoops charcoal into a customer's bag at a market in Port-au-Prince. Charcoal is the main cooking fuel for most Haitians Corey Flintoff/NPR
Workers sort garbage at a Port-au-Prince recycling plant. Stacked along the walls and under the table are cakes of recycled paper for cooking fuel.
Workers sort garbage at a Port-au-Prince recycling plant. Stacked along the walls and under the table are cakes of recycled paper for cooking fuel. Corey Flintoff/NPR
Jane Wynne stands in the garden she helped create to demonstrate environmentally friendly ways of farming on Haiti's mountainsides.
Jane Wynne stands in the garden she helped create to demonstrate environmentally friendly ways of farming on Haiti's mountainsides. Corey Flintoff/NPR
Mangoes ripen on a tree in Port-au-Prince. A tree like this can produce up to $150 in income for a Haitian farmer, making it too valuable to cut down.
Mangoes ripen on a tree in Port-au-Prince. A tree like this can produce up to $150 in income for a Haitian farmer, making it too valuable to cut down. Corey Flintoff/NPR
The desperate poverty in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, isn't just a matter of economics. It's also a matter of the environment.
Haiti is trapped in a classic downward spiral. Desperately poor people have stripped the mountainous land of its trees to use for cooking fuel. Rains then wash away the unprotected soil, destroying potential farmland and leaving people even poorer.
But several emerging programs hope to pull Haiti out of the predicament by planting trees too valued for their fruit to be destroyed, finding better crops to preserve the soil, and exploiting a new and plentiful source for fuel — garbage.
The fate of Haiti's trees is evident in almost any market in the capital, Port-au-Prince. In the charcoal sellers' corner, vendors — mostly women — scoop fragments of carbonized tree branches into bags.
Mimi, a charcoal seller for six years, says a medium sack goes for the equivalent of around $12, enough for a small family to cook its food for about 10 days. Other fuels, such as propane, have to be imported and are too expensive for most Haitians.
Many of the trees used to make the charcoal that Mimi sells were not much bigger than broomsticks. They were cut before they could become useful for shade or fruit, or to hold the soil. They were cut because many people in rural Haiti have nothing else to sell.
Many reforestation efforts in Haiti have ultimately failed. International organizations have underwritten the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees, only to see them cut down as soon as they are big enough to burn.
Haiti's Richest (Legal) Crop?
Some Haitians say a way to prevent tree cutting is to plant trees that are too valuable to cut down, such as mango.
"It's the highest revenue that a farmer can grow legally," says Jean-Maurice Buteau, a mango exporter. "Because a mango tree at mature stage can provide him anywhere from $70 to $150 U.S. [a year]."
Buteau sits in a small office overlooking the packing line at his JMB mango plant in Port-au-Prince. He gestures toward a satellite image of Haiti's bare brown mountains on his computer screen.
"You can see here on a map the level of deforestation, where there is nothing standing on those mountains, and every single dot that you see there in the valley are mango trees," he says.
Buteau points out that the trees have survived because they had a financial value beyond that of charcoal. The trouble with mangoes, he says, is that they take five to seven years to mature, so the farmers need help developing crops that can be grown alongside the trees, such as corn, sorghum and beans.
Why Not Cook With Garbage?
Another part of the solution, many people say, is to replace the need for charcoal with some other cheap cooking fuel. Various programs are exploring the potential for making fuel from other sources, including one that is plentiful in Haiti: garbage.
Massenat Patrick stands before a heap of garbage at a recycling center in the hillside slum of Carrefour-Feuilles. It is reeking, sodden and barely recognizable stuff that even the poorest of people couldn't find a use for.
Patrick, president of the Sanitation Action Committee of Carrefour-Feuilles, gestures proudly at the tables where workers with industrial breathing masks are sorting through the evil-smelling mass — pulling out metal, plastic and paper for recycling.
The project is run by the United Nations Development Program and is supported by donations from India, Brazil and South Africa.
Patrick is especially proud of the paper recycling. Cardboard and paper are soaked in water, mashed into pulp and then — using the pressing power of a tire jack — squeezed into hard round briquettes that resemble rice cakes.
At one end of the sorting shed, Ginette Sejour uses a fire made of the recycled paper to cook a lunch of beans and rice for the recycling crew. She says the cakes burn longer and hotter than charcoal, and they will be cheaper, too, once the committee starts marketing them.
Patrick says the recycled cakes are a byproduct of a project set up to provide jobs, reduce violence and clean up one of the city's most desperate slums. But they could be the profit center that helps make the project sustainable.
The Search For A Wonder Plant
A group of Haitian researchers is looking for a way to make cheap fuel from plants that will also grow on the country's mountainsides and help stabilize and regenerate the soil.
Gael Pressoir is a geneticist and plant breeder for CHIBAS Haiti, an institute that is trying to develop a commercially valuable version of the jatropha plant.
Jatropha is a drought-resistant shrub that is found in several varieties in Haiti. Pressoir says its roots can help hold soil in place, its branches can be used to make bio-diesel fuel, and its seeds can produce a high-protein meal for poultry and livestock.
Pressoir, who earned his Ph.D. from the School of Agronomy of Montpelier, France, is excited about the plant's potential.
"For Haiti, jatropha has the potential to be a game changer," he says. Pressoir says Haiti's economy could add "a couple of percentage points of growth every year" if the country could reduce its diesel consumption, plus produce a huge amount of meal for animals.
Pressoir is hoping his breeding program will yield a commercially viable form of jatropha within three years, but he cautions that there are many other steps needed, including developing good growing and harvesting techniques, and creating the infrastructure to process the plant. He says foundations are showing interest in funding the work.
Grow Your Own Jungle
One of the greenest places remaining in Haiti is far from the noise of Port-au-Prince. In the mountains beyond the city, Wynne Farm is run by Jane Wynne, whose father founded it in the 1930s. The farm has perfected techniques for farming on the mountainous terrain without eroding the soil, and serves as a model to help Haiti combat deforestation and erosion.
Wynne, clambering down a steep path, her long, graying hair bursting from a red head wrap, points to a hillside.
"All of this yard is terraced like this ... it has contour canals to retain the water, so we never lose one handful of soil," she says. Water from a recent rain is pooled in the canals — small trenches, really — slowly soaking into the ground.
Wynne points out the varieties of trees and shrubs her father introduced to the area, many of them from South and Central America. They include many varieties of bamboo, which is considered invasive in many parts of the world.
Wynne says Haiti's deforestation is so severe that invasiveness is not a worry. "I don't think any plant can be a pest here in Haiti," she laughs. "We need plants that are pests."
She says her efforts are only a small-scale demonstration of what could be done throughout Haiti. "To me, the larger-scale solution has to start with the government. Alone we cannot do it."
Nearly all the remedies that are being promoted in Haiti now will eventually depend on action from the government. But so far, Haiti is barely able to react to the disasters that arise from a ruined environment — the mudslides, floods and famine that come with nearly every rainy season.