Deforestation, natural disasters force Haitians to reprioritize palm tree traditions
Part 1 of 2 in a Series: Deforestation in Haiti
By Ganyelar Laurent, Global Press Institute, June 26, 2012
Palm trees have religious, cultural and economic uses in Haiti. But the destruction of this important tree threatens its status as the national emblem and its potential to serve as a natural barrier against frequent disasters.
JÉRÉMIE, HAITI – Sen. Maxime Roumer, 50, of Grand’Anse department, says he’s worried about the future of the country’s national emblem: the palm tree. “The national tree has a long-standing tradition ever since the liberations struggle from the French,” Roumer says in a phone interview. “For about 100 years, all the towns in Haiti had a central plaza, where the mayor’s office was, and right next to it always stood the tree of liberty, which symbolized revolutionary social change. On top of the palm, they placed a liberty cap, which they called the weapon of the republic.”
This symbol stands on a white square in the middle of Haiti’s blue-and-red flag. Article 52.1 of the Haitian Constitution obligates citizens to respect the constitution and the national emblem, he says.
But every day, more palm trees are disappearing. “We only have less than 2 percent of forest cover left, and every day we are cutting more trees,” he says, speaking loudly and quickly. “First of all, the palm is our national emblem. We should be giv[ing] it more respect. And furthermore, this is a tree that takes a while to grow. If we continue this way, the palm will completely disappear.”
"If we continue this way, the palm will completely disappear."- Sen. Maxime Roumer, Grand’Anse department
He cites the massive destruction of the palm tree for Holy Week, when people cut the trees down to use their leaves for worship. Though he recognizes that this annual practice is tradition, he says it’s threatening the national emblem of Haiti. “What I am saying is that what we could do 100 years ago, we can no longer do,” he says.
A native of Jérémie, a town in the Grand'Anse department, the senator urges citizens to reprioritize. “It is not only in Haiti that people eat hearts of palm,” he says. “This is considered a food of high quality in a number of Caribbean countries, a refined food. But at the same time, the way things are going, we will need to make a decision.”
He says the government needs to do more to conserve the palm tree. But as many people in the country lack basic needs, the tree’s future looks bleak, he adds. “The negligence of the authorities, who should be concerned about this, makes the situation worse every day,” Roumer says. “In some sense, if the lives of people do not have much importance in their eyes, then the palm has certainly even less importance.”
He says this reflects the overall weakness of the state. “We have a state in this country that is practically nonexistent,” he says. “Instead of talking about it, we should be reconstructing it.” He views young people as key in this reconstruction. “The kind of state we need is for the young people to reconstruct,” he says. “Young people need to think differently and begin to put a different structure into place.”
The palm tree has various uses in Haiti, from religious to cultural to economic. But rapid deforestation to fuel these uses threatens the future of the palm tree, the national emblem of Haiti. Beyond promoting natural pride, palm trees also aid in soil conservation, which serves as a defense against the country’s frequent natural disasters.
Haiti is off track to meet targets to ensure environmental sustainability – goal seven of the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. anti-poverty initiative that countries worldwide have agreed to complete by 2015. One target is to significantly reduce the rate of loss of the proportion of land area covered by forest.
Tropical forests covered 60 percent of Haiti in 1923, according to the U.S. Haiti Reforestation Act of 2011, which was sent to the U.S. Senate in February. Now, just 2 percent of that forest cover remains. From 2000 to 2005, the deforestation rate accelerated more than 20 percent.
The palm tree has various uses in Haiti, from religious to cultural to economic. Many Haitians say they take pleasure in the religious tradition of cutting down the national tree every year for Holy Week. More than 80 percent of Haitians are Roman Catholic. In the Catholic Church, palm leaves are distributed on Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of Holy Week.
“I cut a palm tree every year for Holy Week because it is a tradition I am brought up with,” says Marie Venise Innocent, 51, a small-scale farmer and merchant in Chirak, an area outside Jérémie. "It dates back to my great-great grandparents, and until this day, I follow that tradition.”
Innocent wears a black skirt, a red blouse and a sky-blue headscarf. Sitting in the scorching sun, she uses her hands to block its rays from her face as she sells manioc while other merchants chatter around her. Innocent says that cutting down a palm tree every year is a pleasure because she can share it with neighbors who do not have one of their own to cut down. She also regards eating hearts of palm during Holy Week as much of a cultural tradition as eating pumpkin soup on Jan. 1.
People say that eating hearts of palm is an important tradition that dates back many centuries. “When Jesus left the desert to go to the synagogue, they cut down a palm tree to take as supply,” says Edner Dubois, 71, a farmer who lives outside Jérémie in Baz Voldrog. “When they looked inside the fruit and saw it was all white, they tried to cook it, and Jesus said that it was a pure food. Ever since then, people looked at it as a quality kind of food.”
Dubois sits on a veranda in a plaid shirt, torn pants and a cap, relaxing after returning from assisting other farmers in the fields as part of a rural work group. His machete from the day’s labor rests by his bare feet. “Does the palm tree really have an importance in Haiti?” he asks, speaking slowly and deliberately. He says he’s never heard the government discourage people from cutting it down in his lifetime.
In Tessia, another area outside Jérémie, Alin Noel, 32, sits on a sack holding two gallon containers. He says he likes eating hearts of palm. “I cut it because I like to eat its fruit,” says Noel, dressed in light beige pants, a white T-shirt and gray tennis shoes. “And then there is some money to be made with it also.” He says that besides selling hearts of palms for consumption, people also sell the tree’s clusters as pig feed. “There are also people to utilize it to build their houses with it,” he says.
Exil Lucienna, 40, a specialist in environmental law and professor of ecology, says that Haiti exports palm tree products and that there are no laws against cutting the tree down. But he warns that the destruction of the palm tree has grave consequences for the environment because of its crucial role in soil conservation. “Palm trees … do not have roots that pivot and go deep into the ground,” he says in a phone interview. “But where they are, they branch out to create a palm forest. That means these trees have a tremendous value for soil conservation and retention.”
Because of this capacity, palm trees can even serve as a form of defense against natural disasters, which are frequent in Haiti. “They can prevent mudslides and rapid movement of soil,” Lucienna says.
Like Roumer, Lucienna also says that Haitians need to re-evaluate their use of the palm tree in order to preserve it. “Why do we not do what they do in Cuba?” he asks. “They don’t eat hearts of palm because it is also a national symbol there. Why don’t we try to do the same?”
Citizens like Noel admit to giving little thought to the meaning of the national emblem. “I always cut the tree without really thinking about the importance it has,” Noel says.
Lucienna advises that it may be easier for the population to respect the tree if it considers its value in protecting against natural disasters. "It holds more advantages than using it for food or wood,” he says. “It is time we gave it its proper value as our national symbol.”
The U.S. Haiti Reforestation Act of 2011 aims to help the Haitian government to develop and implement as well as improve existing national policies to reduce deforestation and forest degradation. The act recognizes the importance of forests in preventing soil erosion in order to preserve natural barriers against disasters, which increase poverty.
Roumer says that educating people about the importance of the palm tree is crucial. He also proposes increasing the prices of palm tree products to discourage demand. “In order to give the palm its proper value,” he says, “we need to increase the price for everything that can [be] made from it, so that people will get tired of paying such a high price for it. Then, they will quit cutting down the tree.”
Another strategy he proposes is to pressure the authorities to enforce Article 52.2 of the constitution – that failing to abide by the provisions in Article 52.1 is punishable by law.
Lucienna agrees that cutting down the tree is a crime – for many reasons. “In the case of Haiti,” Lucienna says, “the destruction of the palm tree is a crime with regards to its historic, symbolic, religious and sacred value – as well as its value for environmental conservation, the ability it has to spread out in an area, along with all the other usefulness it has. So, cutting it down is a great, great crime.”
New highway construction forces Haitians to weigh economic and environmental interests
By Rosenie Mont-Gerard, Global Press Institute, August 21, 2012
Part 2 in a Series: Deforestation in Haiti
As much of Haiti struggles with deforestation, the Grand’Anse area has been able to maintain its green cover in recent years. But the construction of a new highway linking this remote area to the capital may change that. The new road could boost transportation and trade, but opponents say it could threaten the environment. The project is currently on hold because of a dispute between the government and construction company.
JÉRÉMIE, HAITI – Agronomist Boursiquot Edger says that a number of factors – both natural and manmade – can explain deforestation in Haiti. Natural factors include climate change and insufficient rainfall, says Edger, who specializes in the environment and teaches botany at several universities in Haiti.
He also attributes the diminished green cover in Haiti to human exploitation of the land. This includes cutting down trees to produce charcoal; contaminating the soil with chemical fertilizer, which prevents the future growth of plants; and exploiting the terrain in an unplanned and uncontrolled way. He cites the lack of a building code and supervision of land distribution and construction.
He acknowledges that the Grand’Anse area is the Haitian department that has best avoided this deforestation. When compared to other areas in Haiti, the Grand’Anse still has its green cover, Edger says. It still has many trees and a large plant cover. But the construction of a new highway linking Jérémie, capital of the Grand’Anse, to Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital, may threaten this.
"We already know what is needed to combat deforestation. What we need is a population that is conscious of the consequences of deforestation and says enough is enough." -- Aquis Peguy, agriculture student
The lack of accessibility between Jérémie and Port-au-Prince has shielded the Grand’Anse department from the rapid deforestation plaguing the country in recent years. But the construction of a new highway, meant to boost transportation and trade, threatens that. As a dispute between the government and the company building the road has paused construction, Haitians have time to weigh the economic growth versus the environmental risk at stake. Environmentalists and government officials agree that the best solution is regulating the export of wood used to produce charcoal and raising awareness about reforestation.
From 2000 to 2005, the deforestation rate in Haiti accelerated more than 20 percent, according to the U.S. Haiti Reforestation Act of 2011, which was reported to the U.S. Senate without amendment in May 2012. Tropical forests covered 60 percent of Haiti in 1923, but just 2 percent of that forest cover remains today. Haiti is off track to meet targets to ensure environmental sustainability as part of the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. anti-poverty initiative that countries worldwide have agreed to complete by 2015. Reducing the rate of loss of the nation’s forest cover is one of these targets.
Citizens of the Grand’Anse agree that the department is lucky to have retained its green cover as the rest of the country has suffered this deforestation. They say that because subsistence farmers in Jérémie produce abundant fruits and vegetables, there is little pressure to pursue cash crops, including cutting down trees to produce charcoal. “The population of Jérémie does not cut down trees as much because they have enough to eat,” says Jean Louis Fabrice, a management student at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse.
Pierre Renel, an agronomy student at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse, attributes Jérémie’s unique green cover to its remoteness. “Jérémie stayed green with trees and fruit because there was no road,” Renel says. “Transport to go other places was very difficult. Maybe that is the reason we got this gift.”
Flobert St. Fleur, the mayor of Anse d’Hainault, a small town in Grand’Anse, also attributes the department’s rich resources to its distance from the capital – nearly 130 kilometers. Standing in front of the town hall complex in a blue and black plaid shirt, jeans and Puma tennis shoes, he says that there hasn’t been a national highway between the two to enable rapid transportation and, therefore, no means to drain the department of its rich resources. But this may all change with a new highway from Jérémie to Port-au-Prince that is currently under construction.
Construction on the road, which was supposed to be ready by the end of this year, was halted Aug. 7, says Alex Lamarre, director of the Public Works Department in the Grand'Anse. He attributes the pause to a funding dispute between the government and Construtora OAS, the Brazilian company overseeing the project that has since pulled its support. Government officials say that the project, which the Inter-American Development Bank and the Canadian government are funding, will continue, though they have not announced specifics.
But a resumption of the project won’t mean a resolution of economic and environmental interests. Although citizens welcome the development’s potential economic benefits, they also worry about how the road will affect the Grand’Anse’s resources. St. Fleur, who also works as a teacher and studies agriculture at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse, says the new road will have enormous consequences for the Grand’Anse.
The areas where the farmers produce and cultivate their crops are a considerable distance from Jérémie, where the means of transportation are currently scarce. Farmers bring their goods to market mostly on foot or by donkey, so what they can carry contributes little to deforestation. Sometimes goods are transported via boat. But the boats are flat, and there is always the risk of getting the goods wet, so they can’t transport much either. But once the road is finished, it will be easier to transport chabon, charcoal made from wood, to Port-au-Prince.
“Having the road is good, but at the same time it is also a problem for the Grand’Anse because a lot [of] trucks will leave the Grand’Anse with chabon and wood,” says Francois Hebreu, an agriculture student at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse. He calls on the state to create a plan. “With a department like the Grand’Anse, which is a tremendous resource for the whole country,” Hebreu says, “the state needs to open its eyes because the road can destroy the Grand’Anse as it is now. Both the road and the trees are important – they need to be there for each other’s advantage.”
He suggests that citizens use the road to transport produce, but not wood to produce charcoal. “The department cannot use all of the mangos, breadfruit, bananas and plantains it produces,” he says. “It needs the road to bring the produce to the capital. But it does not need the road to transport chabon.”
Local citizens call on the government to create a policy to manage trade along the new road. “I think the state needs to open its eyes to the coming and going of trucks and cars in order to control the amount of chabon which leaves the region,” says Louise Pierre Moise, who studies agriculture at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse. He says that government officials need to protect the Grand’Anse’s riches so that it can remain self-sufficient.
Latayad Remana, who also studies agriculture at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse, urges the state to recognize the importance of trees to the Grand’Anse. She says that people rely on growing produce from trees for income, so if people begin to cut down trees in an uncontrolled way to export charcoal via the pending road, then people will soon need to find other sources of income to be able to afford necessities such as education and health care. “I think the state needs to think about schools and hospitals in the department, so that deforestation is not taking a toll on people and they can no longer send their children to school,” she says.
Aquis Peguy, who studies agriculture at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse, says that in order to halt deforestation, there is a need for forestry agents – experts in how to protect soil and trees. He recommends that the agents conduct motivational campaigns to encourage the people to care more about the environment and to protect it. He also asks the government to subsidize gas so that the population has access to an alternative source to use for cooking, decreasing reliance on charcoal. “We already know what is needed to combat deforestation,” he says. “It is not difficult. But what we need is a population that is conscious of the consequences of deforestation and says enough is enough. But it also takes active government intervention, which lends greater support to the agricultural sector.”
Peguy also encourages local nongovernmental organizations to get involved in educational campaigns in the city as well as in the countryside to raise more awareness about environmental protection.
Lorreus Jean Louissier, an employee of a microcredit organization called Kolektif Finansman Popilè, says that microcredit organizations can also help regulate charcoal production through the projects it lends money for. “Microcredit organizations could play an important role in keeping people from cutting down trees,” he says. “They lend people money for commerce, and then people buy chabon and wood with the money.”
Edger says the strategy to preserve the forest cover in the Grand’Anse needs to come from the state. “The state needs to start a mobilization campaign on the local as well as the national level against deforestation, the use of chemicals and the destruction of natural resources,” he says.
St. Fleur says that local authorities have not yet addressed the potential environmental consequences of the road. “We, as the local authorities, need to put our heads together to see how we can control the coming and going of trucks and to look at how much charcoal and wood leaves the area,” St. Fleur says. “We also should regulate how people cut down the trees, so that we have measures in place to control the environment.”
Edger is optimistic. He says that it’s possible to restore the nation’s green cover through a reforestation campaign, as he stresses that every tree plays an important role in the environment. He recommends sensitizing the private as well as the public sector, increasing the availability of seeds and training the farmers on cultivation techniques that do not exploit the soil.