FOR HAITI, CLIMATE CHANGE IS MORE PRESENT FEAR THAN HORRIBLE IMAGINING
(Guardian.co.uk) - By Prospery Raymond
The Durban delay might mean little elsewhere, but in Haiti deforestation and drought are problems of the here and now.
For people in the UK, a weak deal at Durban on climate change may be disappointing, but it is not something that will affect their everyday life – at least not for some years to come.
In Haiti, though, hurricanes are becoming more frequent and unpredictable. In 2008, the summer before the earthquake, Haiti endured four tropical storms in a row. Our fourth largest city, Gonaives, was inundated for months.
It is not just the strength and frequency of rain, but the particular vulnerability of Haitian terrain. The same storms can pound the neighbouring Dominican Republic, or nearby Jamaica, and do far less damage. Haiti is almost completely denuded of trees, with less than 2% of its original forest cover still standing. So when storms hit, landslides almost invariably occur, as the topsoil has few tree roots binding it together and holding it in place.
Haiti has been progressively losing its lush woodland ever since 1804, when the country was forced to start chopping down its old growth mahogany forests to help pay the "reparations" imposed by its former French colonialists following independence.
Another major assault on Haiti's forest cover came during the US occupation of the island, from 1915 to 1934. A policy of concentrating land ownership is believed to have resulted in large swathes of woodland being chopped down. Before the occupation, forest cover represented 60% of the total land surface in Haiti; by 1945, the figure had been reduced to 21%.
In modern times, poor small farmers in the countryside have continued the tree-cutting trend, desperately trying to clear new land to cultivate while earning a meagre living from selling charcoal between harvests.
For years, Christian Aid has recognised how dangerous deforestation has become in Haiti, both in terms of the population's vulnerability to landslides and the toll on the global environment exacted by tree-cutting.
UK-based risk analysts Maplecroft recently rated Haiti as one of the three countries in the world most vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change.
Since the earthquake, our partners have been able to expand existing tree-planting programmes in the countryside as part of the "build back better" initiative.
For instance, Haiti Survive has planted 60,000 saplings in nurseries around Thiotte, in the southeast of the country, alongside new homes built to house people who have returned to the countryside from the city following the earthquake. At Nippes, in the west, mango, papaya and citrus trees have been planted, with a view to selling the fruit as a cash crop. This provides the farmers with a realistic incentive to tend the trees rather than cut them down.
We are also lobbying the Haitian government to subsidise propane and methane, so that they become more popular for cooking than charcoal, which is unhealthy and environmentally damaging.
It is not just excessive rain combined with poor forest cover that causes problems for the population, but the unpredictability of the rains. Some areas in the far north west of Haiti have been experiencing unseasonable droughts in recent years, causing pastures to dry up and crops to fail.
With a pioneering project to construct two artificial lakes, similar to the water pans in east Africa, our partners have been able to ensure local people have a steady supply of water for their livestock and their crops.
There are many initiatives like these to reverse the deforestation trend and deal with unexpected drought conditions. Most take place in the countryside, however, where reporters covering the aftermath of the earthquake rarely venture. The challenge for Haiti will be to continue prioritising this sort of work as the post-earthquake aid begins to dwindle.