MIAMI -- It was long, long ago that the hills and steep, craggy mountains of Haiti were covered in rich, green forests. One by one the trees had been turned into firewood by a poor people on their way to becoming poorer. The hills and mountains became dirt slopes, spillways for rushing flood waters when it rained. The soil had worn so thin that it produced one of the most meager crop yields of any place on earth.
By the time an earthquake shattered the capital city of Port-au-Prince in January, a consensus was forming that lifting the country out of poverty depended to a great extent upon restoring the countryside. Several teams for international aid organizations had begun working on projects to replant trees and revitalize plots of corn and rice. One new group was planning to head out in a few days to begin taking soil samples in southwestern Haiti -- far from the capital -- when the ground shook.
Now with parts of Haiti in ruin and perhaps 200,000 people dead, the tree-planting and the soil sampling have halted. But the catastrophe makes it more critical than ever that Haiti be re-greened.
"To me this is one of the top three most important things for Haiti," said Marc Levy, a Columbia University professor of international and public affairs working on a joint effort of Columbia and its Earth Institute with the United Nations Environment Program. "Two-thirds of the people still live in the countryside and their livelihoods have been going down every year. They were already very, very poor and things have been getting worse. That's completely unsustainable and morally untenable. We've got to find some way to reverse that."
Jobs and political stability are also at the top of the list. But now there is an earthquake to deal with. Tens of thousands of people are living in tents and makeshift shelters. They need food and water. Medical teams are trying to mend crushed victims. The capital and Jacmel and other damaged towns must be rebuilt. Mr. Levy's own work has shifted to helping with the recovery. "The whole project is on hold," he said.
But he does not expect the hiatus to last long. The environmental work can contribute directly to the recovery. Tree-planting, for example, can be among the public works projects. So can work on dredging rivers and streams to make them less likely to flood in hurricanes.
A hurricane helped shape agreement on addressing Haiti's deforestation. Haiti officials and aid specialists had long known that the denuded landscape was like a dead weight on the country's development. I spent years as a foreign correspondent in Haiti. I only saw the degradation grow worse.
But after four storms raked Haiti in 2008 and more than 800 people died in heavy flooding, momentum on fixing the environment picked up. The United Nations turned to Columbia and the Earth Institute, headed by Jeffrey Sachs, the economic development expert. Their work was to study 38 square miles of mountainside, rivers and coastline in southwestern Haiti. The idea was to develop a comprehensive plan that could be applied to the entire country. They were going to do their first field testing just as the earthquake struck. There was $3 million in seed money for the first few years of the United Nations Environment Program's work. Mr. Levy and his colleagues thought the restoration efforts could easily stretch over 20 years - probably more. The cost would likely run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps even more than a billion.
"What makes this worthwhile," Mr. Levy said, "is that there is no way for me to image any other way to achieve what everybody says they care about -- alleviating poverty and restoring political stability."