The many challenges that face Haiti and its people have been chronicled over the last year in newspapers and on television, in blog posts and radio reports. Haiti has been portrayed as a land devastated by a crippling mix of political instability, economic stagnation, and natural disaster. Its subtitle that's repeated in nearly every news report in the media -- "the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere" -- rings even truer now than it did during the first days of 2011. But after all the devastation wrought upon Haiti over the last year (decades, really), a country that was once the "Pearl of the Caribbean" stands at a crossroads of opportunity: continue its stagnation, or show the world the power of Haitian ingenuity and the promise of a sustainable global future.
Since the quake, billions of dollars have been pledged to the relief effort (important nuance: pledged) and Haiti, which has long been dubbed "a republic of NGOs," has experienced an influx of even more foreign aid organizations. Relief efforts -- which are absolutely essential -- are ongoing in Port-au-Prince's tent cities and the ramshackle camps that have sprouted along the shadeless hillsides outside the capital. However, over a year into the post-quake relief effort, too little foreign aid money has actually been delivered and too little attention is being paid to areas outside the quake's radius of destruction. Given the overcrowding in Port-au-Prince, and the almost complete lack of any growth industry in the city, the rebuilding of Haiti must be heavily focused on sustainable rural development. Economic revitalization efforts should be aimed at the environmentally devastated countryside to protect and rebuild the environment, and provide jobs that will discourage migration to city slums. And it is crucial that aid money be steered toward projects that clearly contribute to an environmentally sustainable future for Haiti.
Haiti's tragic history of mismanagement and strife has had resulted in a poverty rate that climbs over 80 percent, while the land is over 98 percent deforested and the topsoil washes away to the sea. But Haiti's dismal industry and infrastructure might now be capitalized upon, if the monies that foreign governments and regular working Americans pledged are spent to put Haitians to work in jobs that exist in harmony with their struggling natural environment. In a country whose status quo has been ineffectual for so long, people are eager and willing to embrace new ideas that go beyond making baseballs. I've seen how adaptable the Haitian people are, and how hopeful they are for a future economy that might value the act of preserving the environment to grow food over its destruction for fuel.
With the goal of sustainable agricultural development and job creation, in 2010 I co-founded a nonprofit called Carbon Roots International, which works with farmers in a remote valley in the Haitian highlands called La Coupe. We introduced biochar and other sustainable farming methods to help subsistence farmers increase their food harvest, revitalize their soils, stop deforestation, and combat climate change.
Although those goals might sound like the stuff of fantasy, biochar has the potential to achieve huge improvements through modest means, using a little modern engineering paired with ancient practices.
Biochar is essentially sustainably produced charcoal that is used as a soil amendment. Small-scale charcoal production has come at huge environmental costs in Haiti--there are virtually no forests left in the entire country. The widespread deforestation has had a domino effect: floods are more common, most of the topsoil and nutrients have been washed away, the local climate has become hotter, and food production has cratered. Biochar presents a new and exciting way to sustainably rebuild Haiti, starting with the rural areas and food production. For a country starved for trees and not able to feed itself these are essential building blocks, upon which a national green economy might be formed.
In Haiti, Carbon Roots International enables farmers to turn agricultural leftovers into charcoal, and then educates them about the benefits of adding it to their soils. When charcoal made from crop leftovers is put in the ground, some amazing things happen: crop yields rise, soil fertility increases, water retention improves so less irrigation is needed, and carbon is sequestered in the ground. Ancient Amazonian peoples knew this -- they were practicing biochar farming hundreds, even thousands, of years ago.
Incredibly, this process is carbon negative, meaning we can actually remove carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere by enabling Haitian farmers to grow more food and rejuvenate their environment. If done on a large scale, across the developing world, biochar could help feed the hungry and provide income for many poor farmers, and help to significantly mitigate global warming. We at Carbon Roots International see great potential in this approach to development, and we're not alone.
There are many organizations in Haiti that are finding new and creative ways to help rebuild a country in dire need of new and creative ideas. They are building composting toilets to use human waste in urban gardens, or developing clean energy stores that provide green products at local rates. We are all small organizations that are thinking big, envisioning a future Haiti that is economically and environmentally sustainable, and trying new approaches that foresee an economy that looks beyond the garment industry, or the tourism industry, or, yes, the baseball industry.
To find out more about Carbon Roots International and get involved, check out: www.carbon-roots.org
Follow Eric Sorensen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CarbonRoots