Rebuilding a country one tree at the time
The earthquake that shocked Haiti on the 21st of January 2010 was not the first natural disaster to devastate the country. Once covered with tropical vegetation, the western side of the Hispaniola Island already had begun to dry in colonial times, yet it was the introduction of coffee farms that sped up the deforestation process. While in 1923 more than 60% of Haiti’s territory was covered in forests, in the early 2000s only 2% of it was preserved. This is terrifying if one considers that the 48% of the neighbouring territory of the Dominican Republic is covered in woods, and the average US city up to 60%.
The residents use the wood as fuel to satisfy the country’s energy demand, or they export it to close countries. The democratic growth of the past decades didn’t help. Haiti’s eco-nomy is almost entirely reliant on agriculture, so the move to deforest in order to create more cultivatable areas seemed to be an obvious and favourable choice. The deprivation of trees exposed the soil to immediate erosion and other climatic events. Preceded by periodical devastating hurricanes, the tragic 2010 earthquake came as no surprise. Exposed due to the deforestation, Haiti’s land was severely affected by weather phenomena and its soil’s productivity continuously declined. This set in motion a vicious cycle in which the farmers had to continue the deforestation process in order to face the depreciating annui-ties.
Many experts have commented that the deforestation was majorly responsible for the 2010 earthquake. Following the catastrophe, the American geologist Shimon Wdowinsk, together with a research group from the University of Miami, studied the earth crust in the Port-Au-Prince area. The data collected show how the two tropical storms and the two hurricanes that affected Haiti in 2008 displaced sediments from the mountains to the delta of the Leogane river. This could have been enough to trigger the shake two years later.
Hugh Locke and Timoté Georges, co-founders of Smallholder Farmers Alliance (an association that brings together local smallholders), inaugurated a partnership with Timberland and the Clinton Global Initiatives in 2010, only few months before the earthquake, to collaborate in reviving the country’s economy. Georges and Locke had already organised many initiatives to sustain Haiti’s environmental development, and both Timberland and the Clinton Foundation already had environmentally conscious backgrounds. The immediate interest for the project was to inform and support the farmers practising a conscious and eco-friendly cultivation and reforestation of the land. The habitants were in charge of 19 nurseries, and each farmer received a certain amount of seeds to be returned with the first harvest, with the aim of reaching independency in about 5 years.
The operational cycle is precise: a period of time as a volunteer in the SFA nurseries offers each farmer training to improve their abilities, and seeds and quality tools in order to get the best out of the plots. The nurseries are naturally bordered with newly planted trees that protect the land from the sun and the soil from erosion while also producing fruits for sustenance or for sale. Thanks to the training offered, the Haitian farmers optimise their harvests by increasing their income while reducing the operating costs. Because of the increase of their income, they can then return the seeds received by the Smallholder Farmers Alliance and can volunteer in the nurseries in which they can plant more trees. It is a virtuous cycle that can make the Haitian population aware and responsible for their land, whilst remaining economically independent.
An operation that support women’s emancipation, men and women alike get offered tools to take care of their lands side by side. The intent has been proven forward-looking: a study conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization demonstrated that the decision to offer equality in the agricultural experiment to men and women, giving the latter exactly the same technical resources and training as the first, made the annuity increase on average by 20% - 30% . For the next 5 years, the goal is to engage over 17000 farmers, to double their income and therefore to be able to plant over 25 millions of trees. This is all in the prospect of giving back to Haiti what years of colonialism and intensified agriculture took away from the country and its land.
Timberland not only sponsored the project, but also decided to invest in the revitalised cotton market by employing the Haitian smallholder. The production from the Haiti project had been invested by Timberland into its own company production. The results have already exceeded expectations: one can observe an improvement of living conditions for more than 3000 smallholders. Moreover, the market for cotton – once the third most exported material from Haiti – is now regenerated, after collapsing from 1975 because of non optimal economic management and continual or constant political crisis. Nowadays, Haiti is greener and the smallholders’ incomes have increased, reinvigorating a market pro-foundly damaged by the earthquake. On the Smallholder Farmers Alliance’s online page it is possible to check the current statistics: harvest grew about 40% since the project started, the average family’s income by about 50%, and between 2010 and 2016, 5.784.000 trees were planted.
After four hurricanes, a 230,000 victims earthquake, and a cholera epidemic from which it is still currently facing repercussions, Haiti is looking ahead, investing in the empowerment of its population and the restoration of its ecosystem. The new model has at its core auto sustainability and an export market that does not necessarily entail damaging choices for the environment. One tree at the time, Haiti reforested its land and therefore restored hope in its population. In the past few months, Timberland launched the same project in Puerto Rico (which was destroyed by a hurricane in 2017). Hopefully, this model will be exponentially replicated all over the world.