Spring is upon us but in many places April showers don’t necessarily bring the hope of May flowers, instead they promise environmental disaster and damage to surrounding communities.

Every year, floods ravage Haiti’s countryside, injuring, displacing, and economically crippling many of its rural villages and townships. Rainfall, though necessary for agriculture in the hot Caribbean nation is more feared than it is welcomed these days. Due to widespread deforestation, the soil around riverbanks has eroded, the land has become arid, and there is nothing to anchor the foothills and prevent devastating mudslides.

Between 1954 and 1984 alone, nearly 90% of Haiti’s once abundant rainforests were depleted. An estimated 2% of what was once there remains today, and even that is at risk. Without tree cover or a natural means to replenish the soil with nutrients, the mountain region is now agriculturally useless, only perpetuating a cycle of poverty and harmful environmental practices.

Deforestation has been made significantly more prevalent by corrupt business practices and irresponsible regulations. Under the abusive dictatorships of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, many Haitians was forced to rely on the production of charcoal for subsistence, turning to the harvesting and burning of trees to supplement widespread unemployment. Charcoal is now, unfortunately, one of Haiti’s most thriving markets.

Additionally, like other developing nations, economic instability and unaffordable trade options have forced millions of Haiti’s inhabitants to rely on this “woody biomass” for fuel.  More viable options of electricity, petroleum, and even kerosene, though also not earth friendly, are less encroaching on the communities themselves. However they are nearly unattainable in many areas.

In more recent years, illegal logging, price negotiations, structural trade agreements, and the seizure of property rights from outside actors has also contributed to an economic environment that leaves many Haitians without much choice but to contribute to cutting down the forests.

For example, Swine Flu paranoia in the 80’s essentially wiped out Haiti’s once successful pork market. This forced pork farmers to annihilate their own acclimatized pigs and replace them with the more delicate North American variety which was too expensive to keep. This paved the way for Reagan’s “American Plan” for the country, which implemented a weak export economy of cheaply and inhumanely manufactured goods. With such bleak options, charcoal and deforestation are increasingly chosen out of necessity.

Journalist and political analyst Amy Wilentz states, “You can read about deforestation and its affects in the books and pamphlets written by these experts, and then you can read about it in the faces and bodies of Haitian peasants…. The summation of a story of dry earth, of the need for sustenance and comfort, of crops that are impossible to raise, even with the hardest and most grueling work, of rain that never falls, of food that just isn’t there.”

People continue to fight back, such as Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, who is a renowned in the world of environmental activism for his work in Haiti. After receiving a formal education in agronomy, he went on to found the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP) in 1973 with the expressed goal of establishing principles of sustainable agriculture. The Movement has been effective in the fight against deforestation and other contributions to soil erosion.

His life of activism has not been without contention though. Before winning the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005, he suffered multiple assassination attempts, death threats, and periods of forced exile. His outspokenness regarding forest protection and his role in sparking political dissent made him highly targeted. Still, he leaves an unwavering legacy of land protection in a previously colonized nation, and the MPP continues to be a strong political force.

Deforestation’s effect has been horrible, for the people, the infrastructure, and the very landscape of Haiti, which has seen its fair share of economic and political storms over the past half century. However, scientific awareness, increased environmental consciousness, and a climate of political activism provide hope that Haiti’s rainy season will come to an end.

— Stefanie Doucette

Sources: The Energy Journal 1, The Energy Journal 2, The Ecological Society of America, The World Today, The Journal of Developing Areas, Nathan C. McClintock, The Rainy Season