Commentary: Haiti rebuilding plans must include reforestation

People stand on rubble the day after an earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
People stand on rubble the day after an earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Jorge Cruz / AP

Presidents, rock stars and business leaders from around the world are pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild Haiti, which is great.

But they are making a potentially disastrous mistake — focusing too much on bricks, and too little on trees.

I was alerted to this problem in a conversation with Carlos Morales Troncoso, vice president and foreign minister of the Dominican Republic, Haiti's neighbor on the island of Hispaniola. No other country has been more directly affected than the Dominican Republic by the flood of Haitian evacuees following the Jan. 12 earthquake that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people in Haiti.

Morales Troncoso was in Miami, on his way back from an international conference in Montreal, where the United States, France and more than a dozen other major nations kicked off a 10-year plan for the reconstruction of Haiti. And the Dominican foreign minister was not impressed by what he heard at the meeting: There was too much talk about rebuilding government offices, schools and hospitals, and too little about planting trees, he told me.

"What's the point of rebuilding Port-au-Prince, or moving it south, if we don't reforest Haiti?," he asked. "Where are they going to get their water from? Where are they going to farm? It makes no sense to rebuild a country that won't have trees."

Haiti has long been the poorest country in the hemisphere, to a large extent because of deforestation, he reminded me. Early in the 20th century, about 60 percent of Haiti's landscape was covered with forests. But since then, Haitians have cut down nearly 99 percent of the trees in the country to use them as firewood or charcoal for cooking.

As a result of not having trees, Haiti's soil has lost its ability to retain water, drastically reducing the water supply and crippling intensive agriculture.

In addition, hurricanes and major storms have caused devastating floods that kill thousands after water flowed unimpeded down the mountains.

When you fly over Haiti to the Dominican Republic, the difference in the two countries' landscape is striking. From the plane, you see desolate mountains filled with makeshift homes on the Haitian side, and the landscape turns green as you cross the border to the Dominican Republic.

And, following the earthquake, Haiti's deforestation problem will worsen because the hundreds of thousands of Haitians fleeing Port-au-Prince to the countryside in search of food and shelter will cut the few remaining trees in the country, experts say.

What can be done? Foreign donors have tried almost everything to help Haiti turn greener, without much success.

In the 1980s, the U.S. Agency for International Development launched the Proje Pyebwa, which paid Haitians to plant 25 million trees. But amid political chaos, lack of government protection and Haiti's steady population growth, people kept cutting trees at a much faster rate than they were planting them.

International experts have come up with all kinds of sociological, political and historic explanations for why much of Haiti looks like a desert and the Dominican Republic is much greener.

But Morales Troncoso told me that the explanation is much simpler: Dominican Republic governments started subsidizing natural-gas cooking stoves to peasants nearly 50 years ago, so that they would not use wood or charcoal for cooking.

"The first measure of [late president Joaquin] Balaguer in 1966 was to shut down all sawmills, and to start subsidizing natural-gas stoves to the poor," he said. "Haiti needs a massive plan to give natural-gas stoves to the poor, hand-in-hand with a scientific reforestation program."

My opinion: At a personal level, it would be nice if all of us could donate one tree for Haiti.

At the international level, it would be great if the big donor countries that will meet in March at the United Nations headquarters in New York to formally launch their 10-year plan to rebuild Haiti could resist the temptation to put all their energies on the reconstruction of buildings.

That would be a largely cosmetic solution if it doesn't go hand-in-hand with other measures to make the country environmentally viable. Haiti needs trees — and natural-gas or solar ovens — just as much as bricks.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

Related stories from McClatchy DC