Three Common Myths About Deforestation (and charcoal) in Haiti

UPDATE (9/2017):

A new (2016) USAID analysis of forest cover in Haiti, suggests that:

“the most stringent forest cover definition, >90% canopy cover, covers an estimated 11% of Haiti’s land area. An estimated 36% of Haiti’s land area would be considered forest cover defined as >50% canopy cover
(USAID Reforestation NFO, SOL-521-17-000011, page 51).

This finding is consistent with the other research presented below…


Three Common Myths about Deforestation in Haiti

 


Myth #1: Only 2% of Haiti is forested.

The pine forest, in southeastern Haiti – Photo: Andrew Tarter

This is perhaps the most insidious of all myths about deforestation in Haiti, and it is has spawned the subsequent myths about charcoal and alternative energies. Much more than 2% of Haiti is covered with trees and/or forests. 

It deserves mention that Haiti is situated on the leeward 1/3rd of Hispaniola, and thus occupies the side of the island that is largely in the rain shadow of the trade winds that carry moisture from the northeast; much of Haiti is dry and not conducive to the growth of large, dense forests. As one observant forester noted in 1945:

The appearance of many of the inland smaller mountains and plateaus does not indicate that they ever supported much forest growth, and many rocky hillsides probably never supported heavy timber stands, even though the valleys and ravines are known to have yielded some high-quality timber. A general survey of the country indicates that most of the stories of former vast timber resources of Haiti were probably greatly exaggerated. Even allowing for the difference in rainfall and topography between the North, West and South costs it is still obvious that many of the mountainsides in the central zone and on the West coast were never covered with the heavy mixed vegetation of the Northeast and Southwest nor with the pine forests of the higher mountain ranges of the Southeast (Klein 1945: 5).

As Haiti anthropologist Gerald Murray and Haiti agroforester Michael Bannister noted, “Ecologically Haitians inherited the ‘wrong side’ of the island” (Murray and Bannister 2004: 384).

Despite these geographical determinants, some 30% of Haiti is currently covered with trees and/or forests, and roughly 3/4ths of Haiti is covered by shrubs and/or dense vegetation. These figures fall within the parameters of the area of Haiti that should be covered with forests: according to the Haitian government’s forestry plan of 1975, when considering Haiti’s topography and climate, ‘forests should occupy 55% of the land’ (USAID 1979: 33).

In contrast, a 1982 World Bank report, citing a 1980 report by DARNDR (Département de l’Agriculture des Ressources Naturelles et du Développement Rural–now ‘Ministère de l’Agriculture des Ressources Naturelles et du Développement Rural), claimed only 35% of Haiti should be covered by forest (World Bank 1982: 17).


Myth #2: Charcoal production drives deforestation in Haiti.

A truck saddled with charcoal bags leaves Haiti’s Pine Forest, and will pass through La Source before heading west through Fonds Parisien toward Haiti’s capital. 2016. Photo credit: Andrew Tarter
If only 2% of Haiti is forested—as reported since at least the 1970s—and charcoal production drives deforestation, how then have Haitians continued to meet their domestic energy needs through charcoal production? Charcoal production has never been—nor is it now—the principal driver of deforestation in Haiti.

 

According to points made above, the surface of Haiti was probably never entirely covered with dense forests. Many of the primordial forests of Haiti were cleared during the colonial period for implementation of the plantation model of agricultural production. Other forests became fine furniture in the living rooms of France and elsewhere. Remaining forests fell to concessionaries’ axes in an effort to pay off a large war indemnity negotiated between Haiti’s early leaders and the government of France.

Agricultural production and continuing deforestation accelerated in Haiti after the revolutionary period, when farmers fanned out over the country, establishing hundreds of thousands of small farms. Till this day, Haiti is largely a rural country, and agricultural production is still the principal livelihood strategy for the majority of the population. Historical references to charcoal production in Haiti are virtually absent in the literature until the late 1920s or early 1930s.

Agricultural production remains the number one driver of tree cutting in Haiti, frequently manifesting as the clearing of arboreal fallow on agricultural land. Charcoal in Haiti is made from this arboreal fallow, or produced in rotations from trees on woodlots found on agriculturally unproductive or formally productive land (Tarter 2015).


Myth #3: The solution to deforestation in Haiti involves the promotion of alternative energies or technologies.

An assortment of different models of alternative or improved wood and charcoal cookstoves, Haiti.
This is not only a myth, it’s also a theory that has been tested numerous times in the development history of Haiti. The promotion of alternative energies or technologies is a misguided approach to preventing deforestation based on the myth that charcoal production is driving deforestation in Haiti. Furthermore, despite continued advocacy, Haitians have not adopted alternatives to charcoal on a wide scale.

 

First there were the solar cooker ovens of the 1970s and 1980s; then there was the push for more efficient cook stoves; then there was the push for briquettes made from agricultural waste; and now the popular trend is to promote improvements to the entire charcoal value-chain, from the rural kiln to the urban stove.

The main problem?—with a few localized and highly contingent exceptions, alternatives to charcoal have never seen wide-scale adoption in Haiti. And Haitians adopt good ideas that work: consider the widespread and wildfire adoption of cell phones and motorcycles, neither of which depended on educational or advocacy campaigns to convince Haitians of their value.

Stated differently, if alternative energies or technologies are a good way to slow charcoal production and consumption, why then have Haitians–despite continued exposure to such technologies–been reluctant to adopt them on a wide scale? Actually, in at least one case they have: rural and urban Haitians have quickly adopted the use of solar panels, not to replace charcoal, but to charge cell phones.

Even if Haitians adopted improved cookstoves, or alternatives to charcoal, such actions would not result in a decline in deforestation. Why? Because of the fallacy that charcoal production drives deforestation; the number one cause of tree cutting in Haiti has always been agricultural clearing.

A good first step to understanding the unique dynamics of charcoal production and consumption in Haiti is to update our knowledge of how much charcoal is consumed annually in Haiti, and where that charcoal originates from (also available here).

 

Sources

Klein, Morton A. 1945. Forest Conditions in Haiti and their Relation to the National Economy. Food Supply Division of the Institute of Inter-American Affairs.

Murray, Gerald F., and M.E. Bannister. 2004. Peasants, Agroforesters, and Anthropologists: A 20-year Venture in Income-generating Trees and Hedgerows in Haiti’, Agroforestry Systems 61: 383-97.

Tarter, Andrew. 2015. Adaptive Arboreal Practice: Haitian Farmer Responses to Ongoing Deforestation. Dissertation. Department of Anthropology. University of Florida, Gainesville FL.

USAID. 1979. Draft Environmental Report on Haiti. Prepared by the Science and Technology Division, Library of Congress. Washington, DC. Contract No: SA/TOA 1-77.