Haiti has long been plagued by natural catastrophes as well as political-economic strife. Looking to break a cycle of poverty and environmental degradation, multinational businesses, multilateral development banks, foreign aid agencies, non-governmental organizations and local communities are working to help put Haiti on the path to recovery from a devastating 2010 earthquake.
Haiti has the highest rates of deforestation of any country in the world – a mere 2 percent of Haiti's original forests remain. Deforestation on such a grand scale has contributed significantly to a host of profound, persistent socioeconomic problems. Loss of soil from erosion, higher and more extreme incidences of flooding, degradation of water resources, and habitat destruction have all but crippled agriculture and drastically reduced biodiversity in Haiti. Compounding this, shifting seasonal rainfall patterns and less in the way of precipitation are also taking a heavy toll.
Official statistics from Haiti's government and multilateral agencies such as the United Nations and World Bank estimate agriculture accounts for some 40 percent of Haiti's GDP and 60 percent of employment. Unofficial statistics put the number of smallholder farms -- ranging in scale from 0.50 to 1.5 hectares (1.24 to 3.7 acres) -- at around 1.1 million, Hugh Locke, co-founder of Haiti's Smallholder Farmers Alliance, a partner with Timberland in a milestone-setting community agroforestry development project, told 3p in an interview. [Ed. note - more on this tomorrow]
Offering a clear indication of just how closely and inextricably intertwined are poverty and environmental resource degradation, rural Haitians – for wont of access to affordable, reliable energy sources – continue to chop down trees in order to survive from day to day.
Climate change is also having a negative impact on agriculture and rural communities in Haiti, exacerbating the effects of unsustainable farming practices and environmental resource degradation. “There has been a discernible rise in temperatures over the past 10 years,” as well as greater uncertainty regarding the timing and amount of seasonal rains, Locke pointed out.
“There's less and less arable land because of deforestation and climate change – there has been loss of topsoil, erosion and more flooding. The spring rainy seasons have become very unreliable or don't occur at all, particularly in the north, which now suffers from prolonged drought.”
Having subsequently begun to develop an agroforestry co-op in which local farmers would plant trees across a 40-square-mile area, SFA's co-founders approached Timberland, asking if the company would sponsor the project.
“The bottom-line goal was to plant trees. Only smallholder farmers are willing and able to do that, but they're living in poverty, at a basic subsistence level,” Locke elaborated. “They just don't have or can't take the time to focus on anything with longer-term benefits when they have to focus entirely on basic, day-to-day survival.”
“The response was that [Timberland was] willing to assist by financing a project for farmers to plant trees, but they wanted to see an 'exit' strategy that would assure the program's long-term sustainability,” Locke recounted. “Demonstrating financial independence was not something I was particularly interested in, but after long, hard study and experience, I've be come a zealous convert."
SFA, NGOs, and the international aid and development community saw direct evidence of that between 1980 and 2000, when the U.S. government sponsored an ambitious program that aimed to pay farmers to plant as many as 100 million trees across Haiti. The program, Locke recounted, “came with the best intentions. They handed out trees, paid the farmers and provided training, but only a handful [of the trees] lived because they had no immediate economic value to the farmers.”
The fundamental flaw in such projects, Locke said, is that “if you create a project predicated on continual payments in a 'cash for work' program – you pay them to plant better seeds, improve harvesting and adopt more sustainable agricultural practices – when the payments stop, so do the improvements.
Rather than taking a traditional NGO "cash for work" approach, SFA’s co-founders, in partnership with Timberland, instituted a community agricultural development model whereby farmers volunteer to grow trees in order to earn seed, tools and training. That includes education and training regarding how to cultivate an appropriate mix of plants and tree crops on their lands.
Among a host of associated sustainable benefits, the payback for farmers has been healthier soils, land and water resources, higher quality crops, and greater yields. In sum, after five years the agroforestry project has resulted in a sustainable, robust and resilient mix of plant and tree crops that has raised farmers' incomes and given them free time they have not had for many years to engage in other family and community-based activities and development work.
Tomorrow we'll share the details of the partnership with Timberland.
*Image credits: 1) Smallholder Farmers Alliance; 2) Timberland
An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.