In 2010, an earthquake devastated Haiti. The rebuilding work has been slow, with tens of thousands still living in emergency tents. It may not seem like a good time to talk about envisioning a sustainable future for the island, but that may be exactly what is needed to stave off the next disaster. Deforestation has been a major problem in Haiti, as with other Caribbean and Central American countries, where collectively 285,000 hectares of forest are lost each year. Haiti has been particularly hard hit, losing almost 10 percent of its remaining tree cover between 1990 and 2005. Tree cover cannot prevent an earthquake, but it is vital for increasing resilience in the face of floods and storms—both of which are expected to increase in this era of global warming.
Reforestation can lead the way to a more sustainable form of living. Agriculture is currently the leading driver of deforestation. Unsustainable agricultural practices such as “slash and burn” have been particularly detrimental to forests. Additionally, a growing population and its increasing need for fuelwood, timber, and other forest products have accelerated the rate of deforestation. Addressing the problem requires multiple approaches that encompass social, cultural, and economic dynamics.
Agroforestry is a land-use system that integrates agriculture, trees, people, and animals in the same space, resulting in improved soil quality, higher yields, and improved standards of living. Agroforestry has been practiced in varying forms for thousands of years, and as such it works well with the low-input land management systems that are common in the developing world. In the practice of agroforestry called intercropping, nitrogen-fixing native and noninvasive tree species are selected and grown alongside agricultural crops.
This can dramatically benefit soil fertility: a study from Nepal on the impact of agroforestry on soil fertility and farm income showed that agroforestry intervention nearly doubled farm income per hectare from U.S.$800 to U.S.$1,580.1,2 Intercropping can also protect agricultural crops from unwanted exposure to the sun, providing a “shade system” that creates a microclimate, resulting in higher yields. Rows of shrubs and bushes are planted to create buffers and windbreaks, which prevent soil erosion and overgrazing by livestock. Agroforestry also emphasizes crop diversity, increasing resilience among small landholders. Trees provide fuel, fodder, and timber. Fruit trees specifically can provide valuable income: a study of 1,000 farmers from 15 districts in Kenya found that tree fruits contributed 18 percent of crop revenue, while tea and coffee contributed an additional 29 percent of revenue.2,3
In a devastated country like Haiti, these benefits could help transform lives.
Trees for the Future (TFTF), an agroforestry development organization, has led the way in planting more than 1.4 million agroforestry trees since 2011. Agroforestry species such as moringa (Moringa spp.) and jujube (Ziziphus spp.) have been intercropped with income-generating trees such as neem (Azadirachta indica). Plans in Haiti are to intercrop agroforestry trees with coffee and beans as well.
More than 3,000 farmers in rural Haiti have adopted modern agroforestry techniques. Trees have been planted in four provinces about six to eight hours by road from Port au Prince, both north and south of the city. One particular site in Medor is so rural that the only way to get there is by foot, walking at least 12 miles from the closest city, Bethel. Each of the Haitian projects costs about U.S.$15,000 per year. The key to success has been to use a participatory approach sensitive to cultural practices, especially traditional patterns of land tenure, land use, and vegetation use. For example, it is common practice in many parts of the developing world for a single tract of land to be divided between several farmers or a whole village. Local people therefore need to be the drivers of agricultural change because they are, in the end, responsible for the sustainability of such projects.
Trees for the Future works directly with local communities to adapt agroforestry techniques to indigenous farming methods, building on local pools of knowledge. Projects in Haiti have used native trees that have a cultural value for the local people, such as the Hispaniolan pine (Pinus occidentalis). As a result, in some of our programs there has been a resurgence of native trees. Our projects have even led to the regeneration of native species that we did not plant—in the case of Honduras, for example, flowering species used locally for medicinal purposes have reappeared.
Because of the damage done by Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, it will take time for the country to realize all the benefits from agroforestry. But the agroforestry techniques already introduced are allowing farmers to overcome deforestation challenges in their communities. Teaching the farmers new techniques that build on local knowledge has enabled communities to take ownership of their projects and develop multigenerational reforestation plans while increasing harvest yields.
Worldwide, the scale of the challenge posed by deforestation is huge. The net loss of the world’s forests is estimated at 7.3 million hectares per year.4 Central America loses forests at a rate of 1.3 percent per year, Southeast Asia 1 percent, and sub-Saharan Africa around 30 percent. At these current rates of deforestation, it is estimated that the world’s rainforests will disappear in the next 100 years. Yet, if farmers the world over commit to implementing agroforestry techniques, it will be possible to at least stabilize the deforestation rates.
A major benefit of agroforestry is that it does not require huge investments or aid. It is a practice that creates self-sufficiency, as evidenced in Haiti. This bottom-up approach is what we need in order to tackle the widespread problem of deforestation. Therefore, we recommend the following: Help farmers learn how to effectively replace conventional agricultural practices with agroforestry. This should be done by forming partnerships with local farmers and communities. Native species of cultural value should be used whenever possible, as should noninvasive, nitrogen-fixing, multipurpose agroforestry species. Farmers should be trained to use shrubs and bushes for fencing, which limits overgrazing by animals and subsequent topsoil erosion. Low-cost alternatives to fuelwood, such as solar cookers, should be developed. Farmers should be trained in developing useful, economically viable, and environmentally sound products that build self-reliance rather than dependency. Communities should be trained in backyard horticulture, nursery development, and rainwater harvesting, the latter of which builds resilience to droughts. In short, successful agroforestry programs build on communities’ cultural values, norms, and traditions. Foreign ideas or technologies should be implemented with extreme caution, given that their sustainability depends on these communities.
We thank David Tye, Interim Executive Director of Trees for the Future, for his guidance and encouragement.