Paradise Lost: Haiti Without Trees was written by Maggie Steber- text and photos.
A balmy pre-evening breeze brushed the terrace. Port-au Prince sprawled in the view below like a shiny jewel, the whitewashed, domed presidential palace standing as its centerpiece. The scene passed like some great silent symphony until the anthropologist broke the quiet.
|A boy stands in the shallow Duverger River in southern Haiti. The river is the village’s sole source of water for bathing and drinking.|
“Water and deforestation problems have been cocktail conversation here for years,” he said. matter-of-factly, resuming a conversation that had gone silent for a few beats. “For years, people have been predicting the impending doom of Haiti saying it’s just around the corner,” he said, glancing at his watch, as though it marked the time until Haiti’s doomsday.
We sat on his veranda as an orange-red Caribbean sun set into the sea. Further below, down from the hill where the anthropologist’s house perched, people had gathered at the front gate of a big, white stucco house, the one-time residence of an influential Tonton Macoute who had shot a hole in the kitchen wall of the host’s house. It was never learned whether it was by accident or on purpose.
The people brought buckets and plastic jugs to fill with water. They were waiting there, about 20 of’ them, for the water system to be turned on so they could get supplied here and forego the long trek up the hill to the public water fountain.
Up the hill, out of sight, a larger crowd of people gathered around the only public water fountain in the area, set in a small, idyllic gully shaded by tall trees and surrounded by expensive houses. Each day for several hours, the public water system was turned on so that local residents from the bidonviles (carton cities) could get their supply. They had no water in their shanties. Some people brought towels and washed themselves with their first load of water and then stood in line again for water to take home. Little was wasted, because sometimes the public supply didn’t work.
Later that evening, it rained long and hard. Soil mixed with huge stones washed down the hillsides. The roads. all of which lead to the harbor and slums lining the port, became impassable. People abandoned their cars and found them the next day crashed into the walls of’ the national cemetery, where bodies had been washed out of their caskets. People walked gingerly around gaping graves to get a look at the decomposed corpses.
In the slums, people stood on their beds during the night of rain as it swelled the canals of sewage that run alongside their shanties. The mixture of rocks and mud and sewage flooded their dirt floors by nearly a foot. Babies cried and already-exhausted people who desperately needed sleep didn’t get any. Rats swam where they could and otherwise drowned. Even after the water subsided, the mud remained and people sank into it up to their knees as they made their way to their jobs the next day.
Before the rainstorm was over, Haiti had lost tons of precious topsoil from the hills surrounding Port-au-Prince, along with thousands of gallons of water reserves. Some people drowned in the deluge. Here, as if in some evil pact, the problems of deforestation and lack of clean water played out their drama in which the Haitians were caught as unhappy victims.
No matter how many environmental, agriculture and forestry experts in American and international aid agencies one talks with, there are no illusions that even the best techniques available today can save Haiti. It will never be restored to the richest jewel that adorned France’s colonial crown in the 18th century. The French brought a million African slaves to clear the forests for sugar and coffee. As a result, a huge part of Haiti’s precious woods were felled. This was followed by a procession of lumber companies in the 19th century that paid large sums to landowners and corrupt government officials for access to the forests. The Haitian peasantry also was in need of fuel, building materials and crop lands. They cut down more forests and ended up being blamed for the devastation, now in epic proportions.
The country is dependent on wood; charcoal is used for 76 percent of Haiti’s energy needs. Experts says that bakeries, rum distilleries, and housewives use the charcoal equivalent of 27 acres of wood each day.
At the beginning of the 16th century, Haiti was mostly covered with lush forests of great ecological variation. Today, the forest cover has been reduced to only 2 to 4 percent of the land, according to figures from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The single largest forest left in Haiti, the Foret des Pins, covers only 26,400 hectares of land and is being reduced by chopping daily. (One hectare equals 2.47 acres). The loss of trees has caused the destruction of 21 watersheds for the country. Floods and droughts are the result and alternately plague the countryside.
Land in Haiti is overtaxed by population. The average density as a whole is 560 persons per square mile. But only 20% of the land mass is arable and half the country’s people live on this 20%. Because of erosion and over-farming, only 11% of all land is now capable of sustained farming,
“Trees are an endangered species here for many reasons,” a Haiti-based United National development expert related. “Whether we cut the last tree in the next two years or the next twelve is really unimportant. For every two trees planted, one survives if we are extremely lucky. After that, it still takes seven years for it to grow.
“Another problem is the deep mistrust of the central government. And we have to find the correct way into the community, which is still a problem for aid agencies, no matter if we are U.N. or U.S. or private. Especially as Americans, we tend to repeat the same mistake, thinking a powerful community leader is the door to the people.
“In Haiti, these usually have been Macoutes, the bullies of the Duvalier regime, and the people hate them and all they are connected with. We’ve had projects destroyed or go bad because of this. There is extremely poor coordination between all these different programs.
“Our actions here in Haiti show no sensitivity to what is going on. Really, solving these environmental problems is about changing a way of life. In reality, we cannot change things here…What the U.S. doesn’t know about this hemisphere outweighs what it knows.”
This article could have been written without leaving home. All of the information can be found in the CIA Factbook.
People know the foreigner likes to hear Macoutes blamed for everything. So they tell the foreigner what he wants to hear. An honest survey in Haiti will show that Duvalier was always popular, and remains so. The majority would welcome him back in a heartbeat!
If we start from assuming the Jean-Claude Duvalier regime was all bad, we will never arrive at any valid conclusions or solutions. I was in Haiti during his presidency. There was law-and-order, tourism, investment, school attendance was up, literacy accelerating, and there were jobs for the people. Under the Caribbean Basin Initiative, created by the Reagan team, Duvalier accumulated nearly 100,000 assembly jobs. The Duvalier presidency had a major reforestation project underway when he was removed from power.
Since Duvalier’s departure things have declined at an ever-accelerating rate until we have now arrived at the Rene Preval regime that is totally focused upon retaining power, by any means necessary, and could not really give a damn about the survival of Haiti or its people.
Deforestation has reached a point where less than one percent of Haiti has tree cover. Preval has been offered major projects but has refused to give his approval so things accelerate towards oblivion.
Preval, and his criminal government survive only because the international community supports him in the misguided belief that he must survive for what they call Democratic Continuity. Preval is a criminal and those international forces who support him will be seen as part of his anti-Haitian criminal apparatus.. Anyone reading Aristide’s New Year’s message will see this warning among his words.
It is time for the International Community to distance itself from Rene Preval and see him for what he is.. In any other society he would be impeached, indicted, convicted and tossed in the slammer along with his criminal associates.