Sweet potatoes were Feneck Gilbert’s crop of choice for his 1.4-acre plot of land on a Haitian hillside until the math no longer made sense. After subtracting expenses from income for his last crop in 2007, he had a profit of 100 Haitian gourdes, or $2.37.
“That’s when I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Gilbert explains as he stands on the same land in a new forest of gangly trees, their leafy canopy filtering the sunlight which even in mild January makes Haitians wipe their brows and don hats.
In 2008, with the help of his neighbors and the expertise of MCC Haiti’s reforestation staff in the town of Desarmes, Gilbert planted 5,000 fast-growing tree seedlings, a microforest.
Now — five years later — he can harvest the biggest trees to sell for firewood, construction material or charcoal, Haiti’s primary source of cooking fuel. Microforests, which generally cover about an acre of land, rely on trees that are fast-growing and regenerate after they are cut. MCC Haiti staff say farmers can expect a harvest each year once a forest is established.
“I could make 15,000 Haitian gourdes ($355) right now, and I’m still going to have trees forever,” Gilbert says. “That’s so much better for me.” The money, he says, will be used to pay school fees for his six children, ages 3 to 16.
Gilbert’s microforest is one of 140 that have been planted on the hillsides around Desarmes.
Since the voyages of Christopher Columbus, foreign countries have exploited Haiti’s forests, claiming shiploads of trees for their own benefit. Disasters, corrupt Haitian officials and Haitians desperate to support their families have decimated the forests that remained.
Today 98 percent of the mountains that once were covered with trees are bald.
In Desarmes, though, three decades of MCC reforestation efforts are helping to restore the land, water systems and ecosystem of the hillsides that surround the Artibonite River.
“Since we started forests again the birds are starting to come back,” says Gilbert. He has seen wild turkey, which had almost disappeared in the 1980s, and song birds that help to transplant seed for new trees in the area.
MCC began work in this area in 1983 and started tree nurseries in 1994. Today, MCC partners with 22 local tree nurseries that grow about 450,000 tree seedlings a year to be sold or given away.
Committees trained by MCC’s Haitian reforestation and environmental education staff grow the seedlings, distribute them and help educate farmers on their uses.
Every year, at the beginning of the summer rainy season, nurseries give people as many as 75 seedlings each. Often recipients will buy additional seedlings. Then they plant the trees wherever they wish.
Green swaths of forest are visible on the mountaintops, indicating the benefits of the program. Participants talk of how the fruit from these trees helps them eat healthier and earn more for their families.
MCC studies, however, indicated that only about 55 percent of the free trees survived after three years. MCC’s reforestation staff wanted better results, so they began additional projects to develop microforests, like the one Gilbert planted.
New trees in Haiti
- 7.65 million trees distributed through MCC’s reforestation program since 1995
- 450,000 tree seedlings produced by 22 local, Haitian-run tree nurseries last year
- 600 students who have received hands-on environmental education
- 140 microforests established
The new strategy includes “shoulder-to-shoulder accompaniment,” says Francklin Paulismé, an MCC reforestation technician. Through the project, nursery committee members and Paulismé and the other MCC technicians offer their technical knowledge and experience to forest owners, starting with training about sustainability.
Farmers learn how to determine which trees to harvest and which to let grow. They are taught how to thin additional seedlings so their forests will continue to regenerate with trees that are spaced widely enough to be strong instead of spindly.
By using these teachings, “there is a constant harvest and constant growth,” Gilbert says. Farmers don’t have to replant after harvesting trees. Staples of these forests are the fast-growing cassia, lucena and tcha tcha trees, which will regrow new trees from the stumps of trunks that are cut off. Other trees such as mahogany propagate when seed pods drop from existing trees. In addition to technical assistance, MCC provides barbed wire to build fences that protect trees from the goats that roam freely. Farmers buy the tree seedlings, pay workers to plant them and sell or donate seeds to tree nurseries as their trees grow.
The idea spreads as residents see forests such as Gilbert’s. “The forest has served as an example for everyone passing through this area,” says Paulismé. “The land was here, but it wasn’t doing anything. They saw the forest and they started to understand and plant their own trees.”
Gilbert says the nursery committee in his community, of which he is a member, will sometimes donate seedlings to people who have land but don’t have enough money to buy all the trees they need.
In addition to microforests and seedlings for individual trees that people can plant on their properties to help improve their income or diet, MCC supports reforestation to help preserve mountaintops. In the past three years, for instance, more than 80 landowners and many more volunteers planted 212,000 trees that they promised not to cut down on the side of Sejour Jean-Pierre mountain. Others built terraces and planted thousands of trees to protect the spring that supplies clean water to Desarmes.
Each week, MCC environmental educators give classes in 10 primary schools to help students learn about the environment and trees. Students study natural science and use what they learn to make compost and plant vegetables and trees.
Jean Veny Normil, an MCC environmental educator, says he tries to encourage children to love the environment and to understand that their behavior and that of their parents affects their future.
Educators teach about the role of trees in maintaining the water table, providing fruit and preventing erosion and landslides that threaten gardens and homes in the valley.
“If all these mountains were reforested . . . we would have so much food,” says Normil. “We would be so comfortable. We would have vegetables to eat and fruit to make into juice. The birds — we could find eggs anywhere. We would have beautiful days just hiking in the mountains and the forest.”
Around the world, MCC’s livelihoods projects help provide basic supplies or training that people need to start new ventures or discover new opportunities where they live.
$25 helps plant trees and support environmental training in Haiti.
$100 is the cost of a sewing machine for graduates of a skills program in Nigeria.