Commentary: Reforestation of Haiti gets off to a slow start

Shortly after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I wrote that the hundreds of millions of dollars pledged by the international community to rebuild the country would be a waste of money unless accompanied by a massive re-forestation effort.

I said each of us should donate one tree for Haiti.

Nearly two months later, we're beginning to see the first -- admittedly limited -- steps in that direction.

On Friday, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations launched "A tree for a child in Haiti" campaign.

The FAO, which at the time applauded my column, is calling on people to donate at least $5 to plant a fruit tree in a Haitian school garden.

"Your donation pays for an avocado, mango or other fruit tree seedling, its planting, a small amount of fertilizer and watering and weeding for the first year," the campaign goes.

It will help schools teach children how to care for the environment, and at the same time provide food for the students, it says.

Simultaneously, several other international institutions and non-government groups are studying other approaches, such as urging Haiti's diaspora or foreign visitors to the country to each donate one tree for Haiti.

Deforestation has long been one of the main reasons behind Haiti's chronic poverty. For more than a century, people have cut down about 98 percent of Haiti's trees to use as firewood or charcoal for cooking. That has left the ground almost useless for agriculture. It also dried up water supplies.

At the same time, deforestation causes devastating floods. When it storms in Haiti's mountains, the water flows down into nearby villages with nothing to absorb it, or stop it. Thousands die.

Why aren't you more ambitious and go beyond trees for school yards, I asked three senior FAO officials in a telephone conference.

They said schools will be the first step of the reforestation campaign, while experts figure out how to overcome legal problems with land ownership in Haiti.

Unless people own the land and own the trees, they will cut them down sooner or later, they said. There have been massive international tree planting campaigns in Haiti in the past and most have failed because people ended up cutting more trees than were planted.

FAO forestry experts Walter Kollert said it would take 220 million trees just to raise Haiti's forested areas from the current 2 percent to 10 percent.

"If you calculate realistic planting activities by year, if they had a good forestry department, it would take 44 years to reach a forest cover of 10 percent of the country," Kollert said. "That tells you something about the magnitude of the problem."

My opinion: The FAO deserves a round of applause -- and our $5 for a tree -- for its campaign (www.fao.org). But we should aim for a more ambitious plan.

Why not urge the more than one million Haitians living abroad to donate one tree each for Haiti, much as Jews around the world have done for generations for Israel?

The Jewish National Fund, which has planted more than 240 million trees in Israel, offers "Tree Certificates" for births, graduations, weddings, anniversaries and memories of deceased loved ones, so that people can donate a tree in their honor. Wouldn't it be a good idea to do the same for Haiti?

And why not start a campaign "One Tree per Tourist" in Haiti?

Royal Caribbean cruises alone are taking 650,000 tourists to Haiti's northern coast annually and the company is already working with the Inter-American Development Bank to try to maximize the visitors' economic impact by luring them to visit some of the country's historic sites.

Why not ask cruise passengers to each leave one tree behind in Haiti?

It's true that it would be irresponsible to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into Haiti's reforestation before experts resolve complex legal and technical issues.

But it's also true that if we let more time go by, world attention will turn somewhere else, and it will be more difficult to get funds for the regreening of Haiti. The time is now.


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.