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Homework: Plant a Tree

In Haiti, a country almost completely denuded of trees, the schoolchildren of the mountaintop parish of Saint Paul de Furcy are doing more than their share to counter the effects of a history of deforestation.

On a summer afternoon dozens of students marched down a steep footpath balancing small woven baskets on their heads. Inside each basket was a seedling grown in one of three nurseries managed by local schools. The children, ranging in ages from 5 to 12, were on their way to a nearby ravine to plant cedars, grevilleas and other soil-fixing perennials. Once the trees take root, they can help stabilize slopes and prevent landslides like the one that left a huge scar of bare rock and red earth on a side of the mountain right across from one of the nurseries.

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Children as young as five years old help plant seedlings grown in the nurseries managed by local schools.

Hundreds of schoolchildren have participated in Furcy’s reforestation project, launched in 2005 under a local development program run by the Haitian government’s social investment fund (FAES) and financed by the Inter-American Development Bank. In little more than a year they planted some 30,000 saplings in their parish, high up in the Massif de la Selle, a rugged plateau straddling southeastern Haiti.

Not only are children learning about forests and the consequences of environmental degradation, the project also involves their parents, since under FAES rules the community must decide what types of trees they will grow. In Furcy, where most families grow vegetables in tiny plots to sell in nearby towns and cities, people favored fruit trees such as avocado, peach and loquat, which can be successfully grown in this region’s cool climate, between 1,200 and 1,500 meters above sea level. The nurseries also generate some revenue for the schools themselves through the sale of fresh flowers, income used to cover tuition fees and to grant cash rewards to students with good attendance records. Moreover, according to FAES, school retention rates have risen since the reforestation project started.

All of which makes FAES and IDB officials hopeful that Furcy’s experience may inspire other communities in Haiti, which has lost nearly all its forest coverage due to the combined pressures of population growth, unsustainable farming practices and the production of charcoal, the principal cooking fuel in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.

“The problem of flooding starts up here,” said FAES coordinator Jean-Pierre Heurtelou, pointing to the surrounding peaks. During tropical storms and hurricanes rainwater rushes down the plateau’s gorges, washing away precious topsoil and swelling streams and rivers into violent torrents of muck and debris that often hit Port-au-Prince, 25 kilometers north of Furcy, and Léogâne, a lowland city 55 kilometers to the west. Similar conditions abound across this mountainous nation. In 2004 alone two major storms triggered flash floods and mudslides that killed thousands of people in the northern city of Gonaïves and in rural communities close to the border with the Dominican Republic.

If Haiti is to break the vicious cycle of environmental degradation and disasters, things must change in the upper reaches of watersheds, in places like Furcy, where the parish priest, Jean-Yves Urfie, has long championed the cause of reforestation. A veteran member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit who also runs the local Catholic school, Father Urfie approached FAES with a proposal to establish a tree nursery that would be run by pupils. After analyzing the project, the agency decided to fund it and to also involve both the local public school and the Methodist school. There is an element of competition, since schools vie for prizes for the best-run nursery. Father Urfie, who relishes the contest, played down any perceived interdenominational rivalry. “Reforestation is not a religious issue. Everyone has to do it,” he said.

The project required raising community awareness of the impact of deforestation. Participants were polled about which species they would prefer to grow and basic materials were purchased to set up the nurseries. Technical assistance was provided to train the trainers who lead the young tree growers. All told, the project cost under $40,000, most of which came from the local development program run by FAES and financed by the IDB. Since 2004, the $65 million program has supported hundreds of small-scale projects chosen by communities, such as rebuilding schools and health posts, installing drinking water systems, refurbishing public marketplaces or repairing rural roads.

Reforestation is certainly not a new concept in Haiti, and Furcy is not the only place where it’s being promoted. Failed experiments have fed rural communities’ mistrust of outsiders bearing projects, said Heurtelou. “People in the countryside have seen many projects come and leave little behind. They take a wait-and-see approach to make sure you do what you say you will do,” he added.

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Grandin: ‘You can’t just plant trees anywhere you think they’re necessary, because farmers might put their goats out to eat the saplings,’.

Besides securing the community’s support, the project has also had to win over individual landholders. “You can’t just plant trees anywhere you think they’re necessary, because farmers might put their goats out to eat the saplings,” said Gérard Grandin, a young French agronomist who volunteered to work with Father Urfie through a Catholic aid agency. “So we try to persuade them that trees are like a bank. If they plant fruit trees they can sell the produce. Other species can provide shade for growing coffee, leaves for making compost and, eventually, timber,” said Grandin. To which Heurtelou added: “If an environmental project does not generate income for the local people, it won’t be successful.”

While trees take years to grow, there are auspicious if indirect indications that reforestation is taking root in Furcy. According to Grandin, on some nights seedlings mysteriously vanish from the nurseries. “But that’s a good sign, because it means people really want those trees. You can be sure that they’ll be planted and well tended.”

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