Haiti, an eroded nation with less than 2 percent tree cover, remains at risk unless environmental damage is healed.
KENSCOFF, Haiti — Plush mansions and concrete shacks perch precariously on the hillside of this steep green mountaintop retreat, miles from the storm-ravaged cities of Cabaret and Gonaives.
With the brick-red topsoil quickly eroding and few trees to hold what’s left, a heavy downpour can easily trigger a landslide, sending the hills crashing down, washing away homes, uprooting crops.
Haiti’s crumbling hillsides have made the country vulnerable to flash floods and lethal landslides, but that vulnerability has come into sharp focus recently, following four consecutive killer storms in less than 30 days.
Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike cut trails of death and destruction through this already impoverished nation, leaving hundreds dead, thousands homeless and a coastal town in the northwestern corner buried in mud from floodwaters.
Haphazard farming techniques, poorly constructed homes on unregulated land, years of neglecting rivers and storm canals, lax enforcement of environmental laws — have all left Haiti’s landscape in a particularly fragile state. Even heavy rain showers can create havoc.
The United States Agency for International Development estimates that only 1.5 percent of Haiti is still forested, compared to 60 percent in 1923 and 28 percent in the neighboring Dominican Republic today. Approximately 30 million trees are cut down annually in Haiti, according to the USAID.
”The whole country is facing an ecological disaster,” said Haiti’s new prime minister, Michèle Pierre-Louis. “We cannot keep going on like this. We are going to disappear one day. There will not be 400, 500 or 1,000 deaths. There are going to be a million deaths.”
Waterlogged Gonaives, sitting like a bowl on a flat plain between the ocean and barren mountains, only tells part of the story of Haiti’s environmental crisis.
As Tropical Storm Hanna pounded the port city last month, Pierre-Louis and a government convoy tried to reach there.
They couldn’t get through.
”On the road there, we almost died,” Pierre-Louis said.
Boulders crashed down the mountainside, bringing a cascade of muddy water.
Two of the government SUVs were washed out by the water on the Nacional, the road connecting the capital of Port-au-Prince to Gonaives and Cap-Haitien.
”You could see all this water falling down with rocks and mud,” Pierre-Louis said.
She ended up traveling to the devastation by air.
”Everyone is talking about Gonaives and Cabaret, but people forget this is a national catastrophe,” said Arnaud Dupuy of the United Nation’s Development Program with responsibility for the environment.
“Port-au-Prince one day will suffer the same fate. There are bidonvilles [shantytowns] in the hills, the mountains are deforested, all of the ravines and canals are obstructed, clogged with plastic bottles.”
This is not the first time Haiti has been wracked by natural disaster.
Last year, 20 people died in Cabaret after the Betel River burst over its banks.
During Hurricane Ike last month, the same river swelled and killed more than a dozen children with its raging floodwaters.
In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne killed an estimated 3,000 Haitians, most in Gonaives, when the three rivers leading into the city roiled down the denuded mountains loaded with boulders and muck.
‘With all of these disasters happening now, we have to ask, `What have we been doing wrong?’ ” said environmentalist Jane Wynne, who has spent her life trying to get Haitians to change their lifestyles to help the country avoid devastation.
Wynne, who was born and raised in Haiti, has transformed her terraced hillside slope into an ecological reserve of bamboos and shrubs that ”can save Haiti,” she said.
She learned the technique under the tutelage of her father, a U.S.-born civil engineer who moved to Haiti in the 1920s.
Wynne is among a handful of conservationists here who have been waging an uphill battle to help save the countryside from deforestation.
She shows schoolchildren and farmers how to terrace properly to keep slopes from crumbling during downpours.
She also shows how to turn recycled paper into briquettes, an alternative fuel source to charcoal.
”The main problem is the erosion of the soil, the way the people take care of the earth. They work it with no respect,” she said.
In addition, the country’s protected forests and reserves have been mismanaged and cut down to be used for fuel. Now, a once lush countryside is embarking on disaster.
”They build houses in the riverbed, in the ravines, where the current should go,” Wynne said. “When the water goes down, it’s blocked by trash.”
To illustrate her point, Wynne takes visitors on a brief tour of Kenscoff. Here, onion and spinach farms are planted along the slanted slopes. Although they appear to be terraced, they are not, she says, pointing to where the soil is beginning to turn brown and barren.
She points to a farm where the peasants have built canals or ”exits” instead of ditches to hold the water and channel it away from crops. The ditches also would serve to keep runoff from the mountainside from picking up speed.
”This is the problem of Haiti,” Wynne said. “They build exits all over the hillsides. The exits wash the soil down.”
Ditches are needed to catch the runoff.
When the runoff picks up speed, ”this is where it does the damage,” Wynne said. “You should never let runoff water pick up speed.”
The reef-fringed island of La Gonave, off the coast of Port-au-Prince, stands as a testament for how proper watershedding can halt destruction.
When Tropical Storm Hanna dumped torrential rains on the denuded hills for six hours last month, the island received only a downstream trickle instead of the usual flash floods.
The area benefited from a $10 million USAID watershed project grant in May 2008.
In exchange for food, World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization, recruited locals to build a series of parallel walls descending the mountain, thus slowing the cascading floodwaters.
”Nobody died. Crops were saved,” said Rachel Wolff of World Vision.
At one time, Haitians respected the land. But an exploding population and deepening poverty have created a vicious cycle.
It is not at all uncommon to hear among the poorest that if they don’t cut down the trees or farm on the slopes, their children will die of hunger.
Until recently, Haiti’s governments have lacked the political will to address its environmental problems, even as legislators passed laws instituting forest brigades and USAID poured millions of dollars into tree-planting programs.
But two decades of trying to raise awareness on the importance of conserving the environment seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.
”The more poverty increases, the more erosion increases,” said Dupuy, with the UN Development Program.
“There is no management of the territory, no employment to give people jobs. So you have a mass of people who are deep in poverty and what do they do? They tap the environment for revenues by cutting down trees for charcoal.”
All of that accelerates disaster, he said.
Dupuy sees the recent devastation as an opportunity for Haiti to reclaim its lands.
”There is an opportunity to build back better, to reconstruct the city and avoid rebuilding the vulnerability,” Dupuy said. “If we don’t seize this opportunity, it will happen again and again with a greater force.”
Following 2004’s Tropical Storm Jeanne, the international community pledged millions of dollars to dredge the rivers and to create watershed projects in Gonaives.
Very little was done, and government officials are still trying to research where the money went.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear what the government will do about Gonaives, Haiti’s city of independence that is all but destroyed today, encased in more than 105 million cubic feet of mud.
Pierre-Louis, who officially became prime minister two days before the fourth hurricane battered Haiti, says it’s time for everyone, the government included, to get serious about saving the environment.
She speaks of passing laws and erecting billboards throughout the country that warn “You Cannot Build Here.”
She even goes as far as saying that people should be arrested and homes demolished if they don’t abide by the law.
”It’s time for us Haitians . . . to start thinking about what are we going to do so that so this does not happen again,” Pierre-Louis said.