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Haiti's Tomorrow May Be Rooted In Trees, Fertilizer

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MIAMI -- Throughout the history of foreign assistance, charitable organizations and government agencies have built schools and water treatment plants and created farm projects only to discover that their good works did not really fit in with the local scene. Or that one project contradicted another. Schools and water treatment plants fell apart and experimental farms withered.

Before the earthquake in Haiti, international aid groups had begun working on a comprehensive plan to convert the country's treeless, dirt hills and mountains and its over-farmed valleys into verdant, productive land. The key features of the plan would be linked together in mutual support. It would be the opposite of piecemeal.

That was before more than 200,000 Haitians died as homes, hotels, hospitals, stores, schools and small factories collapsed. Now the aid groups, including the United Nations Environment Program and Columbia University's Earth Institute, are urging that restoration of the Haiti's countryside be incorporated as a key element in rebuilding the country.

The task of restoring Haiti's countryside is almost too much to imagine and could turn out to be impossible. Very few trees are left in Haiti because the tradition -- as in many developing countries -- has been to chop trees into charcoal for cooking fires. In an impoverished country, people do not buy fertilizer. After a few decades the soil in their small plots becomes exhausted. In Haiti, farmland produces five times less corn than just across the border in the Dominican Republic. Farmland in Haiti is 10 times less productive on average than in the United States.

Some of the key points of an environmental restoration project would likely include:

  • Planting tens of thousands of trees, including fruit varieties that would set down long roots to help prevent erosion and also provide food.
  • Providing fertilizer to increase the growth of corn and wheat and other crops. Just adding fertilizer to fields in Africa has doubled yields.
  • Persuading Haitians to rely less heavily on wood and charcoal for cooking fires. Some ideas: providing inexpensive stoves that use less charcoal, hiring some woodcutters and charcoal makers to work in a security force to protect the trees, planting fast growing varieties of trees that could be used for charcoal and showing Haitians how these trees can produce the ingredients for charcoal for years if they are pruned instead of killed.
  • Dredging rivers and canals and, in some cases, erecting walls along the banks to reduce flooding.

A healthy countryside would provide more food for Haiti. Flooding would be less severe. The restoration work would provide jobs. Little by little, the land would support more farmers with better crop yields.

As envisioned by the experts at Columbia, the restoration would involve a series of coordinated projects within a small section of the country. Not overly ambitious, not staggeringly expensive. If the work succeeded, it would start anew in another section. It would move section by section until the entire country had been covered. It would take a long time, maybe 20 years at a minimum. Over the long run, the work could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But it would give Haiti a strong agricultural and environmental base for the first time in many, many years.

To start with, the Columbia plan calls for a study of the landscape and conversations with people in the area to find out how things have gone over the years and what might help. Then a set of complementary projects would be devised.

"An idea is always going to fail if you just kind of pick a village here on a hillside and try to do some good thing," said Marc Levy, the director of Columbia University's contribution to the Haiti project. The problems in an area, Mr. Levy said, "are all interconnected." So the plan is to make sure all the work meshes with "all the ecological and social dynamics."