Haiti quake opportunity to restore rural ecology?

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The January earthquake in Haiti was not as powerful as the one in Chile, but it was much deadlier. Haiti was more vulnerable than Chile, in part because of the environmental degradation in its rural areas. Now, development specialists say that a key to creating a resilient Haiti is to restore the country's ecological infrastructure. The World's Marina Giovannelli has our story.

MARCO WERMAN: The January earthquake in Haiti was not as powerful as the one in Chile, but it was much deadlier. The Haitian quake killed more than 200,000 people. Haiti was more vulnerable than Chile, in part because of the environmental degradation in it's rural areas. Now development specialists say that a key to creating a resilient Haiti is to restore what you might call the country's ecological infrastructure. The World's Marina Giovannelli has our story.

MARINA GIOVANNELLI: Leoni Hermantin is 51 years old. In her lifetime she's seen the landscape around her hometown in Haiti completely transformed.

LEONI HERMANTIN: In my childhood I lived in Petionville and I would look at the mountains that faced my home and they were all verdant, absolutely beautifully green and now you don't see any more trees.

GIOVANNELLI: Hermantin is Deputy Director of the Lambi Fund of Haiti, a grass-roots environmental group. She's watched her country's trees almost completely disappear, cut down mostly to make charcoal. Wood is the primary source of energy in Haiti. It's used for everything from cooking to dry cleaning. It's also made and sold by people desperate to make a little money. And now, Hermantin says with almost all of its trees gone, Haiti's mountainous landscape can no longer hold it's soil.

HERMANTIN: The topsoil has been washed away by rain waters that you actually see rocks.

ANDREW MORTON: You can see the sort of flowing down every rain. It's incredible to watch. It's tragic to watch, actually.

GIOVANNELLI: That's Andrew Morton. He runs the United Nations Environment Program in Haiti. The country's complex history can't be summed up in a few sentences. But it's fair to say that decades of corruption and inconsistent foreign involvement have contributed to a seemingly endless cycle of poverty in Haiti. In rural areas the country's natural services are nearly destroyed. Natural services like trees that hold soil. Soil which in turn nurtures crops and holds and filters water. You could say Haiti's ecological infrastructure is in shambles.

MORTON: Essentially the land cannot feed its' people and it's still degrading so there's a very, very tight link between environment and poverty.

GIOVANNELLI: Over the years, that environmental degradation has forced more and more people to flee the countryside for Haiti's cities where most live in squalid conditions, vulnerable to the ravages of natural disasters. But the January quake is once again changing how and where Haitians live says Melinda Miles. She's the founder of the environment NGO Konbit Pou Ayiti, or working together for Haiti.

MELINDA MILES: What we've seen because of the earthquake is a forced decentralization.

GIOVANNELLI: The U.N. estimates more than 500,000 people have left Port-au-Prince since the quake.

MILES: People are leaving Port-au-Prince because they can't stay. And they're going back out into the countryside and this gives us sort of a moment of opportunity to finally see some of these millions of dollars flowing into Haiti really go to reinforce the rural areas.

GIOVANNELLI: So the question is, how exactly do you reinforce the rural areas? Well, Miles says a good place to start is to get trees in the ground.

MILES: We focus on trees that have immediate value and so there are a lot of mangoes, but especially the Fronsic, which is the variety that most valuable for export.

GIOVANNELLI: But it's not just about planting them. Miles says trees must be more valuable in the ground than they would be as a bag of charcoal. That means also developing markets for things like mangoes. Leoni Hermantin of the Lambi Fund says it's also crucial for Haitians to develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for the trees.

HERMANTIN: You know, if you come and hire me to plant trees, I'm not really going to protect the trees because if they die, maybe you'll come back and hire me to plant more.

GIOVANNELLI: Hermantin's organization works to educate Haitians about the benefits of raising and tending trees. The U.N.'s Andrew Morton says direct financial incentives are also key.

MORTON: Really, we're looking at the actual land owners taking better care of their land. So it's more about financial incentives such as we'll give you fertilizer if you keep ten percent of your land forested.

GIOVANNELLI: Morton says it's also vital to reduce the temptation to chop trees down by developing a dependable alternative fuel source to charcoal.

MORTON: The solution in the long term is to switch urban settlements away from charcoal and put it onto propane gas.

GIOVANNELLI: Of course that's all easier said than done. Weaning Haiti off charcoal and restoring it's trees will take years of coordinated effort by the government, aid groups and community leaders. Long terms restoration efforts will also compete with intense short term needs. Things like restoring supplies of water, food and medicine and rebuilding homes and hospitals. And ecosystem restoration alone won't be enough to break the cycle of poverty in Haiti.

MORTON: The plan to reforest so to speak, by itself will always fail if it's just reforestation. We're looking at rebuilding rural economies.

GIOVANNELLI: And that, the U.N.'s Andrew Morton says, will ultimately require a whole new approach to aid and development in Haiti. But Morton says the best place to start is to invest in the land so the island's natural ecosystem can again support the Haitian people. For The World, I'm Marina Giovannelli.