Nation on environmental brink scrambles for a lifeline

First of a six-part series.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- A hard rain can be deadly here.

A family of four was reported killed late last month when rushing stormwater loosened soil under their hillside house and brought the structure down on them.

The denuded slopes around this city of 2 million turn stormwater into lethal torrents. Trees, shrubs and other vegetation that anchor soil and buffer runoff are rare here. They mark private compounds of the wealthy, islands of green protected by fences and armed guards in a sea of slums that have sprawled up sandy hills as the city's population tripled over the past 20 years.

"They are informal human settlements with very, very weak construction methods," said Stephanie Ziebell, an aid worker with the Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Haiti, or MINUSTAH, the United Nations' only peacekeeping mission in the Americas. "There's nothing to protect them from water flooding down from the hillside."

Haiti -- the developing world's first and oldest independent nation -- is today a ward of the United Nations, dependent on foreign aid and the $612-million-a-year peacekeeping operation that only recently managed to smother the violence that has long plagued this country.

But it is violence done to the environment that is haunting Haiti now. Degradation of natural resources here is both a consequence and an amplifier of poverty and disorder. The country has become a poster child for environmental neglect, and many fear Haiti is close to total ecological collapse.

Haiti has few and weak environmental laws. Its dense population has just two small national parks where no agency protects resources. Its forests have been overharvested, its marine resources overexploited.

"The environmental degradation has gotten to such a point that there's danger everywhere," said Jean-Cyril Pressoir, a Haitian native and owner of a new tour company here.

But the response to the growing crisis does not involve massive World Bank-financed industrial projects that were common in the past and put wads of cash into the pockets of U.S. or European experts. Instead, money and resources are now being diverted to smaller-scale pilot projects designed mostly by Haitians themselves, with a goal of saving their country and perhaps creating a new development paradigm.

"The crucial thing, because we're a country facing both an energy security crisis and a food security crisis, is how can we reconcile energy security and food security?" said Gael Pressoir, Jean-Cyril's brother and founder of a new nonprofit setting out to do just that.


Haiti's greatest challenge by far is deforestation. At the heart of the problem: the demand for charcoal.

The country's 10 million residents meet 60 percent of their commercial and residential energy needs with charcoal. It is used in most household cooking but also runs bakeries, laundries, sugar refineries and rum distilleries.

Charcoal production is a major factor in the deforestation that experts say has felled 98 percent of Haiti's tree cover, with the remaining 2 percent disappearing fast. While mature trees provide the best material for charcoal production, the scarcity of wood has forced people to take smaller and smaller trees and shrubs. Today people are even pulling roots to make charcoal.

Haitians are aware of the damage being done to their landscape, but they say the deforestation for charcoal persists because there are few employment opportunities. About 80 percent of the population survives on less than $2 per day in income; the country ranks 149 out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index, a comparative measure of the quality of life.

But that drive to extract more and more from diminishing resources is only adding to the Haitians' problems.

There is "a very high rainfall-to-casualties ratio in Haiti -- mudslides, flooding, flash floods, etc.," said Matthew Marek, an official with the American Red Cross who has lived here for seven years. "It's probably fair to say that ... Haiti has experienced natural disaster-related fatalities regularly."

From security worries to biofuel development?

Concerns about Haiti's environment have risen recently as security has improved.

U.N. troops arrived in 2004 following the latest in a series of U.S. military interventions, prompted when armed factions took over several rural towns and demanded the removal of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Aristide was eventually forced out, but mass insecurity continued until last year. Gangs took over municipalities and much of Port-au-Prince, which endured 30 to 50 kidnappings per month before U.N. forces took control.

Crime continues to be a problem, but kidnappings are down; at least eight a month on average were reported during the first six months of this year.

"The security situation in Haiti today is very stable, absolutely under control compared to what we used to have along the years since 2004," Maj. Gen. Floriano Peixoto Vieira Neto, the Brazilian force commander of MINUSTAH's roughly 7,000 troops, said in an interview. "We have reached such a stable condition that all the national and international agencies can really work in order to restore the country to a normal situation."

As security normalizes, a Haitian nonprofit is proceeding quickly with a plan to stabilize degraded hillsides, which threaten entire neighborhoods now as well as the nation's future development.

Gael Pressoir, a plant geneticist, believes the answer to the nation's deforestation and energy woes lies in Mexico and with a nontoxic variety of the jatropha plant that grows wild there.

A former researcher at Cornell University, Pressoir passed on the opportunity for a lucrative career in U.S. agribusiness to return to Haiti and establish CHIBAS, a nonprofit biofuel venture featuring jatropha. He flew to Mexico two weeks ago to find the jatropha seeds he will need to begin his experiment, which he maintains could solve Haiti's deforestation and fuel problems.

Jatropha has the same protein concentration as soybean, meaning that like soy, its seeds and oil can be transformed to biodiesel and other fuels.

Last year, Haiti spent nearly $380 million importing diesel fuel to power its electrical generators, almost all of it from Venezuela and at a discount under Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's Petro Caribe initiative. Mass production of jatropha-based biodiesel could potentially offset this entirely, freeing those funds for other sectors of the Haitian economy.

Jatropha can also be used to make straight vegetable oil, which could power electrical generators in rural areas. The pulp waste generated from creating biodiesel and vegetable oil is rich in nutrients and can be turned into either compost for crops or animal feed for chickens, pigs, and even tilapia in small aquaculture operations.

Moreover, jatropha is an extremely hardy bush. The plant can thrive in poor soil that other plants cannot take root in, including Haiti's eroded hillsides. Funding has been secured from the Inter-American Development Bank, and Pressoir is scouting sites in the outskirts of the capital for pilot growing projects slated to begin early next year. He fully expects others to rapidly copy him if the pilots turn out to be a success.

"We are going to be conducting a mapping of Haiti to characterize where we can grow jatropha without affecting food production. That's strategy No. 1," Pressoir said. "Ultimately, the success of the pilot project is what's going to make the success or failure of the whole industry."

The government is also interested in what CHIBAS is doing. Though Brazilian diplomats have been working hard to sell their sugar-cane ethanol model for energy independence, officials here have reportedly dismissed it in favor of jatropha and possibly sorghum. Haiti already grows a lot of sugar cane, but the crop consumes a lot of water and competes with food crops for prime growing land.

Initiative features small, local projects

While CHIBAS works on deforestation on one track, the Haitian government is receiving gentle encouragement from one of the United Nations' smallest agencies on another.

Antonio Perera, a program manager with the U.N. Environment Programme, is working with officials on a comprehensive plan to restore the nation's lost forests. Having set up shop in the country just eight months ago -- after MINUSTAH troops and police officers made it safe to do so -- Perera has been undertaking a painstaking survey of the Haitian territory to determine where tree cover can best be restored without upsetting food production or incurring the wrath of various landowners.

A report spelling out one course of action is now under review, and the hope is to launch a concrete program early next year. While the details are being kept under wraps, Perera said the plan involves a collection of locally designed, incremental projects expected to take at least 20 years to complete and cost some $1 billion.

Perera's team is starting out by working with other agencies with more extensive experience here, most notably the World Food Programme. Several food production efforts are already under way, but UNEP is trying to devise ways that forest protection and restoration can be incorporated.

Organizers of the reforestation campaign insist the government must quickly take charge, lest the campaign be dismissed early on by the citizenry as more uninvited meddling by foreigners. Though UNEP is now taking the lead, it aims to turn the scheme entirely over to Haitian officials by the end of 2010 or early 2011. But given the chaotic state of government institutions, highlighted further by last month's dismissal of the prime minister after a raucous 10-hour Senate session, that is easier said than done.

"The problem is not the lack of enthusiasm," Perera said. "The challenge is to create the capacities inside those ministries in such a way that they can lead an initiative like this in the near future."

Cultivating jatropha on barren hillsides and a variety of other targeted reforestation efforts can, over time, go far in reducing Haiti's extreme vulnerability to the storms and powerful hurricanes that routinely sweep over the nation. But ultimately, experts say the nation has to find an alternative or outright replacement for charcoal, the dominant source of energy here.

"With any reforestation campaign, you have to find first a solution for energy," Perera said.

'A very sensitive moment'

Energy figures prominently in CHIBAS and the efforts of a community group to change household fuels.

CHIBAS says some pulp fibers from processed jatropha could be converted into burnable material, and households could use that for cooking.

And the community organization is transforming urban trash into burnable bricks of recycled paper (see related story). That initiative also started at a very small scale, but domestic demand for the charcoal substitute is growing fast, helping the pilot project gain notice throughout the country and abroad.

These proposed solutions to Haiti's environmental and energy crises seem almost too good to be true. They require relatively little financial assistance to get started and produce marketable, commercially competitive materials that could transform whole segments of the economy.

But what is needed most is a government capable of providing security and the fiscal and administrative incentives to see them through.

Though no one has been willing to admit it publicly, U.N. officials and locals both quietly speculate that Haiti could easily become another Somalia if MINUSTAH troops and police left today. But all acknowledge that they cannot stay forever, either, meaning that eventually the Haitian leadership will have to step up and assume the responsibilities that it has shirked for decades.

"I feel that we are in a very sensitive moment," said Didier Le Bret, France's newest ambassador to Haiti. "The prerequisite is that we have to keep the country stable, to keep in the people a feeling that they are not risking their lives every day. And if this is to be consolidated, then I think everything will follow."

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