Deforestation, Natural Disasters Force Haitians to Reprioritize Palm Tree Traditions


Article Highlights

Part 1 in a Series: Deforestation in Haiti


JÉRÉMIE, HAITI – Sen. Maxime Roumer, 50, of Grand’Anse department, says he’s worried about the future of the country’s national emblem: the palm tree. 

“The national tree has a long-standing tradition ever since the liberations struggle from the French,” Roumer says in a phone interview. “For about 100 years, all the towns in Haiti had a central plaza, where the mayor’s office was, and right next to it always stood the tree of liberty, which symbolized revolutionary social change. On top of the palm, they placed a liberty cap, which they called the weapon of the republic.”

This symbol stands on a white square in the middle of Haiti’s blue-and-red flag. Article 52.1 of the Haitian Constitution obligates citizens to respect the constitution and the national emblem, he says.

But every day, more palm trees are disappearing.

“We only have less than 2 percent of forest cover left, and every day we are cutting more trees,” he says, speaking loudly and quickly. “First of all, the palm is our national emblem. We should be giv[ing] it more respect. And furthermore, this is a tree that takes a while to grow. If we continue this way, the palm will completely disappear.”

He cites the massive destruction of the palm tree for Holy Week, when people cut the trees down to use their leaves for worship. Though he recognizes that this annual practice is tradition, he says it’s threatening the national emblem of Haiti.

“What I am saying is that what we could do 100 years ago, we can no longer do,” he says.

A native of Jérémie, a town in the Grand’Anse department, the senator urges citizens to reprioritize. 

“It is not only in Haiti that people eat hearts of palm,” he says. “This is considered a food of high quality in a number of Caribbean countries, a refined food. But at the same time, the way things are going, we will need to make a decision.”

He says the government needs to do more to conserve the palm tree. But as many people in the country lack basic needs, the tree’s future looks bleak, he adds.

“The negligence of the authorities, who should be concerned about this, makes the situation worse every day,” Roumer says. “In some sense, if the lives of people do not have much importance in their eyes, then the palm has certainly even less importance.”

He says this reflects the overall weakness of the state.

“We have a state in this country that is practically nonexistent,” he says. “Instead of talking about it, we should be reconstructing it.”

He views young people as key in this reconstruction.

“The kind of state we need is for the young people to reconstruct,” he says. “Young people need to think differently and begin to put a different structure into place.”

The palm tree has various uses in Haiti, from religious to cultural to economic. But rapid deforestation to fuel these uses threatens the future of the palm tree, the national emblem of Haiti. Beyond promoting natural pride, palm trees also aid in soil conservation, which serves as a defense against the country’s frequent natural disasters.

Haiti is off track to meet targets to ensure environmental sustainability – goal seven of the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. anti-poverty initiative that countries worldwide have agreed to complete by 2015. One target is to significantly reduce the rate of loss of the proportion of land area covered by forest.

Tropical forests covered 60 percent of Haiti in 1923, according to the U.S. Haiti Reforestation Act of 2011, which was sent to the U.S. Senate in February. Now, just 2 percent of that forest cover remains. From 2000 to 2005, the deforestation rate accelerated more than 20 percent.

The palm tree has various uses in Haiti, from religious to cultural to economic.

Many Haitians say they take pleasure in the religious tradition of cutting down the national tree every year for Holy Week. More than 80 percent of Haitians are Roman Catholic. In the Catholic Church, palm leaves are distributed on Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of Holy Week.

“I cut a palm tree every year for Holy Week because it is a tradition I am brought up with,” says Marie Venise Innocent, 51, a small-scale farmer and merchant in Chirak, an area outside Jérémie. “It dates back to my great-great grandparents, and until this day, I follow that tradition.”

Innocent wears a black skirt, a red blouse and a sky-blue headscarf. Sitting in the scorching sun, she uses her hands to block its rays from her face as she sells manioc while other merchants chatter around her.

Innocent says that cutting down a palm tree every year is a pleasure because she can share it with neighbors who do not have one of their own to cut down. She also regards eating hearts of palm during Holy Week as much of a cultural tradition as eating pumpkin soup on Jan. 1.

People say that eating hearts of palm is an important tradition that dates back many centuries.

“When Jesus left the desert to go to the synagogue, they cut down a palm tree to take as supply,” says Edner Dubois, 71, a farmer who lives outside Jérémie in Baz Voldrog. “When they looked inside the fruit and saw it was all white, they tried to cook it, and Jesus said that it was a pure food. Ever since then, people looked at it as a quality kind of food.”

Dubois sits on a veranda in a plaid shirt, torn pants and a cap, relaxing after returning from assisting other farmers in the fields as part of a rural work group. His machete from the day’s labor rests by his bare feet.

“Does the palm tree really have an importance in Haiti?” he asks, speaking slowly and deliberately. 

He says he’s never heard the government discourage people from cutting it down in his lifetime.

In Tessia, another area outside Jérémie, Alin Noel, 32, sits on a sack holding two gallon containers. He says he likes eating hearts of palm.

“I cut it because I like to eat its fruit,” says Noel, dressed in light beige pants, a white T-shirt and gray tennis shoes. “And then there is some money to be made with it also.”

He says that besides selling hearts of palms for consumption, people also sell the tree’s clusters as pig feed.

“There are also people to utilize it to build their houses with it,” he says.

Exil Lucienna, 40, a specialist in environmental law and professor of ecology, says that Haiti exports palm tree products and that there are no laws against cutting the tree down. But he warns that the destruction of the palm tree has grave consequences for the environment because of its crucial role in soil conservation.

“Palm trees … do not have roots that pivot and go deep into the ground,” he says in a phone interview. “But where they are, they branch out to create a palm forest. That means these trees have a tremendous value for soil conservation and retention.”

Because of this capacity, palm trees can even serve as a form of defense against natural disasters, which are frequent in Haiti.

“They can prevent mudslides and rapid movement of soil,” Lucienna says.

Like Roumer, Lucienna also says that Haitians need to re-evaluate their use of the palm tree in order to preserve it.

“Why do we not do what they do in Cuba?” he asks. “They don’t eat hearts of palm because it is also a national symbol there. Why don’t we try to do the same?”

Citizens like Noel admit to giving little thought to the meaning of the national emblem.

“I always cut the tree without really thinking about the importance it has,” Noel says.

Lucienna advises that it may be easier for the population to respect the tree if it considers its value in protecting against natural disasters.

“It holds more advantages than using it for food or wood,” he says. “It is time we gave it its proper value as our national symbol.”

The U.S. Haiti Reforestation Act of 2011 aims to help the Haitian government to develop and implement as well as improve existing national policies to reduce deforestation and forest degradation. The act recognizes the importance of forests in preventing soil erosion in order to preserve natural barriers against disasters, which increase poverty.

Roumer says that educating people about the importance of the palm tree is crucial. He also proposes increasing the prices of palm tree products to discourage demand.

“In order to give the palm its proper value,” he says, “we need to increase the price for everything that can [be] made from it, so that people will get tired of paying such a high price for it. Then, they will quit cutting down the tree.”

Another strategy he proposes is to pressure the authorities to enforce Article 52.2 of the constitution – that failing to abide by the provisions in Article 52.1 is punishable by law.

Lucienna agrees that cutting down the tree is a crime – for many reasons.

“In the case of Haiti,” Lucienna says, “the destruction of the palm tree is a crime with regards to its historic, symbolic, religious and sacred value – as well as its value for environmental conservation, the ability it has to spread out in an area, along with all the other usefulness it has. So, cutting it down is a great, great crime.”