In my travels around Haiti, by foot, car, tap-tap, moto-taxi and airplane over the past several years, I’ve witnessed the evident lack of forest cover on the hillsides. Small wonder that every year the rains bring flooding to the lowlands and loss of life, homes and crops. But these tragedies are further exacerbated because, in the absence of forest cover, hillsides are unable to absorb the precious rainfall needed to recharge the aquifers that sustain agriculture, tourism and communities, as it washes in a torrent down to the sea. With it, countless tons of precious topsoil are washed from the hills forever, reducing farmers’ productivity and financial stability. This soil once in the sea becomes sediment that blocks the sunlight from reaching the sea grasses and corals, choking and killing them, resulting in a reduction in their capacity to provide fish to the thousands that depend on them for their survival in waters already increasingly inhospitable to sea life due to the warming effects of climate change.
Loss of forest cover is a cascading, ongoing crisis and barrier to development in Haiti.
Restoring Haiti’s forest cover in the mountain watersheds across the country is probably the most urgent and cost-effective way to mitigate against natural disasters, to adapt to climate change and to ensure the long-term viability and productivity of both agriculture and fisheries.
The scale of the crisis risks being understated, in part, due to the way forest is defined. The widely-used FAO definition of forest – which holds forest to mean greater than 10% canopy cover – would allow for an area to be largely deforested and still be defined as forest by this criterion. In terms of the viability of a forest ecosystem – it could be expected to be at least 60% canopy cover and above depending on the forest type. Additionally, forest cover analyses tend to be based on satellite imagery, and while satellite measurements are good at detecting green stuff (leaves) they are much less good at indicating if the green stuff is herbaceous, small shrubs and pioneer trees, or actual old-growth forest.
A recent (2016) analysis by USAID’s Geocenter produces a useful picture of Haiti’s forests (See figure 1).
However, it is important to recognize that this analysis does not distinguish between agroforestry, which includes plantations, exotic and invasive species, and native Haitian forest.
So, in terms of forest biodiversity, the situation is even more dire. Haiti’s remaining forest ecosystems, other than mangroves, now survive only in the Massif de la Hotte in the Southwest, and, to a lesser degree in the Massif de La Selle in the Southeast.
Outside of these remaining refuges of native forest habitats, tree cover is so dispersed and fragmented that they can no longer provide basic forest ecosystem services, such as:
- Slope stabilization and soil conservation;
- Wildlife habitat;
- Regulation of the hydrologic cycle;
- Carbon sequestration;
- Timber and non-timber forest products; and
- Recreation and cultural value.
Parts of the Massif de La Hotte and Massif La Selle on the South coast are exceptions that still have important areas of forest cover housing critical natural habitats for native and some endemic species. But even these areas are under considerable pressure with the advance of the agricultural frontier.
We must devote time and resources to help Haiti regain its natural forest cover and biodiversity. Some strategies for ensuring projects contribute to that objective include:
- Differentiate between native forests which are resilient and provide stable, sustainable ecosystem services and wildlife habitat, and agroforestry systems (which may not include resilient native species and frequently, very few trees);
- Strengthen the protected area system;
- Expand investment in biodiversity-friendly agroforestry systems integrating more native tree species;
- Prioritize investments in activities in the buffer zones around protected areas in critical watersheds;
- Provide direct economic incentives to local people to plant and care for native trees
The Inter-American Development Bank is integrating some of these strategies into the Bank’s Agricultural Technology Transfer initiative (PTTA2). These strategies can more effectively reduce disaster risk, improve agricultural and fisheries productivity and conserve Haiti’s unique biodiversity and remaining natural heritage.