One hot June day this summer when I was in Haiti, my sister and I were driving with my step mother to her sister’s house in the mountains. I enjoyed those trips. The downtown areas of Petionville and Port-au-Prince were claustrophobic and overwhelming; with the intense heat and sluggish pace of the traffic due to the condition of the roads (to describe them as ‘weathered’ would be the understatement of the year) car rides through the city were, at times, near unbearable for me. Eventually, the city would release its magnetic grip, allowing the car to go faster and a breeze to rush in through the windows. Then it was green, jungle, shade, and a calmer vibe all-around. The mountains were, literally, a breath of fresh air. The elevation of the roads increased quickly, exposing the entirety of the densely-clustered city in the valley below.
I was pretty excited about taking pictures of things in Haiti, and this day in particular I was preoccupied with taking pictures out of the car window, trying to find a setting that would make them turn out non-blurry. I was idly chatting with my stepmother while doing this, when she asked me: “Arikia, what do you think about the mountains?”
“They’re huge, I’ve never seen anything like them.”
“Do you notice anything about them?”
I looked over the LCD display at the mountains that I had been staring at for the past half hour. “They’re really pretty,” I offered.
“You think so? Do you notice anything strange about them?”
At this point, I was knew she was getting at something but I didn’t know what. I just smiled at her and shrugged. They were mountains! What was there to notice besides the fact that they were huge?
Finally, she sighed, exasperated with me. “There are no trees on them, Arikia.”
And sure enough, there were not. “Are there supposed to be?” I asked, snapping another picture:
It turns out, yes, mountains are supposed to have trees on them. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me immediately, as I’ve driven through the Appalachian mountains enough times to remember what the snow-covered pine tree tops looked like. But I guess it’s just one of those things* where if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can’t see it.
So where did Haiti’s trees go? Around 1954 logging companies went totally out-of-control, cutting down trees left and right to make charcoal, the demand for which grew with Haiti’s population. According to the U.S. Library of Congress, “Haiti was once a lush tropical island, replete with pines and broad leaf trees; however, by 1988 only about 2 percent of the country had tree cover.” The trees were cut down but not replanted, leading to soil erosion that rendered most of Haiti’s land useless for growing the agricultural products Haiti’s growing population depended on. In 2000, USAID projected Haiti would become the first country in the Western hemisphere to be considered an “eco-catastrophe.” I don’t know what the exact classification for that is but I would say the term probably already applies. In 1997, Kristen Picariello wrote in a case study of deforestation in Haiti: “If one were to fly over the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the border appears like it was drawn by an ‘acetylene torch’ owing to massive deforestation in Haiti.”
The rest of the car ride, all I could think about was The Lorax, the title character in that Dr. Seuss book we all read as children. Everyone poo-poos the Lorax for spouting science and warning people what would happen if they consumed without consideration for what it would take to replenish the resources that were depleted. In the end everyone is miserable and desperate, “like fish out of water,” as their society ceases to be able to sustain their population.
There have been some replanting efforts in Haiti in the past, one major round in the ’80s through Projè Pyebwa, and initiatives over the past 10 years by USAID. But with present lives hanging in the balance, the reforestation process is viewed as a secondary, long-term need compared with the immediate needs of providing for people in Haiti. If someone needs to cook for their family, of course they’re going to cut down a tree to make some charcoal. They’re not going to keep starving based on the idea that in 10 years or so, some other random people might have more than them. In Projè Pyebwa, Haitians planted over 20 million trees, “but as many as seven trees were cut for each new tree planted.
So like the Lorax, who would have completely flipped his lid if he saw what was going on in Haiti over the past 50 years, the message here is “Unless.” In addition to food scarcity from the desertification of land, deforestation in Haiti also damages “other productive infrastructure such as dams, irrigation systems, roads, and coastal marine ecosystems.” It made the climate harsher for people by reducing shade cover and removing protection from Haiti’s heavy torrential downpour-style rains that are just beginning for the year. And when it does start to rain, Haitians are now at a much larger risk of harm from landslides as a direct result of the recent earthquakes.
*My Cognitive Psychology teacher played this video in a lecture of about 250 people, asking the class to count how many times the ball was passed back and forth. Only about five people noticed the gorilla after watching it the first time, myself not included. Mind fuck!