'We know that this is destroying the land, but charcoal is what keeps us alive'
BOMBARDOPOLIS, HAITI-- The men in this town hunt their trees in packs.
Fanning out in groups of four or five with handmade axes, picks and crowbars, they may happen upon a mango tree, a vital fruit producer, that no longer earns its keep. Down it comes. Or they may bring down a gayoc -- an extremely rare hardwood tree once prized for the medicinal quality of its resin.
When a tree cannot be found, men turn on the stumps of timber long gone and dig, hack, poke and pry the wood out of the ground.
They then dig a pit in the wet, brown soil and set the wood -- trees
or stumps -- ablaze. The burning pile is covered with mud, grass and leaves
in a mound from
which smoke rises. Joining milky white tendrils from other mounds, the resulting haze wafts over denuded mountainsides that look like scar tissue on the
A week passes and the men known as charbonniers dig up the "black gold"
-- charcoal -- the product that fuels this poor nation's cities while devouring
what's left of
Sold by charbonniers to urban residents -- for use in home cooking,
bakeries and dry cleaners -- charcoal has been the chief source of energy
accounting for 85 percent of energy consumption. Electricity has never penetrated the rural interior where half the country's 8 million people live. Oil prices have
risen dramatically in the last two years, making the dwindling forests the only fuel option for most Haitians.
But with every downed tree, this nation's natural legacy is going up in smoke. Charcoal production is the engine driving Haiti to the brink of environmental collapse.
"We're not fools; we know that this is destroying the land, but charcoal
is what keeps us alive," said Liberus Mesadieu, a 34-year-old farmer, as
he hacked at a tree
stump, sweat staining the old Domino's Pizza delivery shirt on his back. "This area used to be dense with trees, but we uprooted them all for the wood."
Added his neighbor, 44-year-old Delius Alcius: "Cutting trees leads
us to more misery. If we didn't have to cut the trees, the soil would be
richer here. But to make
money here, you have to take all the wood to make the charcoal."
The practice is not only decimating once-lush forests. The dearth of
wood for homes has led to mining of rock and sand from Haiti's mountains
to make cement,
which intensifies erosion problems. In Port-au-Prince, at least 7,900 acres of land has been mined to build small homes in the expanding slums, according to the
As trees disappear, so do parts of the culture. The nation's artists
no longer have enough wood to make sculptures. Indigenous dishes are disappearing
fruits and vegetables become more rare and harder to grow, and cheap imports like breakfast cereal replace them.
Rural farmers don't use charcoal; the product evolved to meet the growing
demand for fuel in Port-au-Prince and other large cities, as people fled
the countryside for
urban areas. Yet as more trees fall in rural areas to meet the demands of the cities, ever more young men and women leave the countryside for urban slums,
escalating the nation's deforestation.
The economics of charcoal production are so favorable that even when
conventional crop harvests are good, they pale in comparison to the money
a farmer can
make burning trees.
To raise lima beans during a single harvest on 3 acres of land, Mesadieu
must work with three other farmers and buy the seed for about $15 -- the
equivalent of 500
gourdes in Haitian currency. A good harvest yields 60 pounds of beans, earning 900 gourdes, or $28. The profit: $13, or $3.25 for each partner.
But in a single week, one charcoal pit yields at least three bags, earning
375 gourdes, or $11 in total. If he finds a way to transport it to local
markets, he can make
nearly twice that amount.
The impact on local economies is similar to that of the coca industry
in Colombia, where food crops are forsaken for the environmentally damaging
practices that provide the key ingredient in cocaine.
In Bombardopolis, charcoal has become a form of currency. Heaping bags
of it lean against homes, an outward reflection of wealth. Farmers take
out loans against
it and use the bags to pay for food or school.
But the area around the village is almost treeless, and farmers say the next generation won't even have charcoal to fall back on.
"For the first time, people are really talking about leaving" Bombardopolis,
said Alcius, explaining that he must harvest charcoal to buy medicine for
his ailing wife.
"You never saw that before because it was too hard a trip to make to the Dominican Republic. And finding a boat for the United States is very difficult."
UPROOTING THE FORESTS
The United States, foreign governments and international charities have
been sponsoring reforestation projects in Haiti for decades. But the multimillion-dollar
are overwhelmed by Haiti's political instability and staggering poverty.
The Atlanta-based CARE organization has extensive nurseries and tree-planting
programs in Haiti's northwest, but its agriculture specialists concede
farmers off charcoal is an immense task. Their nurseries produce 300,000 seedlings a year, usually fruit trees like mango and citrus, as well as forest trees like
eucalyptus and cedar.
"You can't force people to keep trees on their land, if for no other
reason than there's no government enforcement around here," said Wilbert
reforestation chief in Bombardopolis. "One guy will tell you he needs this tree for money to send his wife to a hospital, another will say it's for school. What we can
do is suggest they not cut down one tree and then give them 10 seedlings to grow some more trees."
Bombardopolis and three other nearby villages are famine zones with
180,000 people at risk, according to the United Nations World Food Program.
It is a region
so poor that young men climb up stone walls to study textbooks under the single light at a local CARE compound.
In a report last December, the United Nations noted: "Most of the households
can hardly afford one meal a day ... others live on coconuts or mere tea.
lack of income and hunger, some parents can no longer maintain their children in school. Others are just too hungry to commute to school. In some areas, part of the
able population [mostly males ages 14 to 40] are migrating to the cities and abroad, hence diminishing the agriculture labor base.
"Young girls who migrate to urban areas in search of food are forced
by circumstances to engage in prostitution, putting them at the risk of
early pregnancy or
contracting HIV/AIDS. Some young schoolgirls have returned to their villages with babies, hence creating additional burden for their parents."
Environmental experts date the charcoal boom to the early 1960s, when
world coffee prices fell so low that Haiti could no longer compete in the
coffee market. The
country was in the early years of the Duvalier dictatorship, which ruled brutally for three decades. Haitian farmers began ripping up their coffee plants to replace
them with crops that would fetch a better price.
"Coffee was being exported, but during the Duvalier years there were
lots of high taxes on it and lots of exploitative practices by the government
practices," explained John Currelly, an agronomist with the Pan American Development Foundation in Haiti. "More and more of it was smuggled out, and less and
less of it was actually harvested. And the techniques for growing it were very bad. It was just part of the whole disintegration of Haitian society during that time."
Because coffee beans grow on a bush that doesn't have to be replanted
every year, it holds tropical soil very well. Coffee also grows well with
cover, so there is no need to clear forests.
But as farmers grew desperate, they began moving to other crops -- including
corn, peanuts and bananas -- to support their families. But those crops
unsuitable for Haiti's mountainous terrain.
"Geography plays a key role: It tells you what you can plant and what
you can't," explained Currelly. "What you cannot plant on highly sloped
fields is corn. Or
peanuts, which you have to pull up out of the ground in order to harvest them."
In the village of Figuiers, 79-year-old Fabius Augustin recalls the
day an entrepreneur named Thomas showed up to tell farmers about the charcoal
industry in the
1960s. Thomas taught them how to make charcoal and set up a system of middlemen to bring the product to markets in Gonaives, six hours away.
"Everybody here overnight went crazy," said Augustin, a local minister
regarded as a village elder. "They began chopping down trees everywhere,
and nobody paid
much attention to planting new ones. There was shade all over here. It was a dark, thick jungle. But look at it now: It's a desert."
Local officials oversaw the thriving trade but protected larger forests controlled by the government or large landowners.
That system broke down with the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in
1986. Tree harvesting, charcoal production and wood transport exploded
production spread into previously protected forests. The expansion moved into new forests, flooding the market and keeping wood cheaper than alternatives such as
fuel oil. The devastation intensified in 1991, after Haiti's first democratically elected government was overthrown in a coup.
An international trade embargo later that year so ransacked Haiti's
economy that peasants who could not afford seed or fertilizer turned to
trees to survive. Some 65
million trees that the United States Agency for International Development had planted during the 1980s were chopped down for wood fuel.
In June 1994, the embargo was extended to include mangoes. For the first
time, farmers turned their axes against fruit trees. Many peasants believe
and other trees are homes to ancestral spirits. They also are important sources of folk medicine used to treat everything from diarrhea to lung infections.
"I recall going up to the top of a watershed at the height of the embargo,
turning off the jeep, in an area that was well-planted and had always been
left alone because
it was the area that had always collected water for the hydroelectric facility," recalled Currelly. "This was absolutely essential to maintain the water flow to maintain
electricity for the area. Nobody cut down trees there ever. And all you could hear was the tap-tap-tap-tap of trees being cut down all over the area.
"There are ups and downs in this economy. And every time there is a
down[turn], trees get cut. Remember, the Haitian farmer is the greatest
He knows precisely what he is doing. Like any of us, he will make the decision to feed his child today at the expense of the environment tomorrow. And if he didn't
he'd be a murderer."
Copyright © 2004