New Highway Construction Forces Haitians to Weigh Economic and Environmental Interests


Article Highlights

Part 2 in a Series: Deforestation in Haiti

JÉRÉMIE, HAITI – Agronomist Boursiquot Edger says that a number of factors – both natural and manmade – can explain deforestation in Haiti.

Natural factors include climate change and insufficient rainfall, says Edger, who specializes in the environment and teaches botany at several universities in Haiti.

He also attributes the diminished green cover in Haiti to human exploitation of the land. This includes cutting down trees to produce charcoal; contaminating the soil with chemical fertilizer, which prevents the future growth of plants; and exploiting the terrain in an unplanned and uncontrolled way. He cites the lack of a building code and supervision of land distribution and construction.

He acknowledges that the Grand’Anse area is the Haitian department that has best avoided this deforestation. When compared to other areas in Haiti, the Grand’Anse still has its green cover, Edger says. It still has many trees and a large plant cover.

But the construction of a new highway linking Jérémie, capital of the Grand’Anse, to Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital, may threaten this.

The lack of accessibility between Jérémie and Port-au-Prince has shielded the Grand’Anse department from the rapid deforestation plaguing the country in recent years. But the construction of a new highway, meant to boost transportation and trade, threatens that. As a dispute between the government and the company building the road has paused construction, Haitians have time to weigh the economic growth versus the environmental risk at stake. Environmentalists and government officials agree that the best solution is regulating the export of wood used to produce charcoal and raising awareness about reforestation.

From 2000 to 2005, the deforestation rate in Haiti accelerated more than 20 percent, according to the U.S. Haiti Reforestation Act of 2011, which was reported to the U.S. Senate without amendment in May 2012. Tropical forests covered 60 percent of Haiti in 1923, but just 2 percent of that forest cover remains today.

Haiti is off track to meet targets to ensure environmental sustainability as part of the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. anti-poverty initiative that countries worldwide have agreed to complete by 2015. Reducing the rate of loss of the nation’s forest cover is one of these targets.

Citizens of the Grand’Anse agree that the department is lucky to have retained its green cover as the rest of the country has suffered this deforestation.

They say that because subsistence farmers in Jérémie produce abundant fruits and vegetables, there is little pressure to pursue cash crops, including cutting down trees to produce charcoal.

“The population of Jérémie does not cut down trees as much because they have enough to eat,” says Jean Louis Fabrice, a management student at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse.

Pierre Renel, an agronomy student at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse, attributes Jérémie’s unique green cover to its remoteness.

“Jérémie stayed green with trees and fruit because there was no road,” Renel says. “Transport to go other places was very difficult. Maybe that is the reason we got this gift.”

Flobert St. Fleur, the mayor of Anse d’Hainault, a small town in Grand’Anse, also attributes the department’s rich resources to its distance from the capital – nearly 130 kilometers. Standing in front of the town hall complex in a blue and black plaid shirt, jeans and Puma tennis shoes, he says that there hasn’t been a national highway between the two to enable rapid transportation and, therefore, no means to drain the department of its rich resources.

But this may all change with a new highway from Jérémie to Port-au-Prince that is currently under construction.

Construction on the road, which was supposed to be ready by the end of this year, was halted Aug. 7, says Alex Lamarre, director of the Public Works Department in the Grand'Anse. He attributes the pause to a funding dispute between the government and Construtora OAS, the Brazilian company overseeing the project that has since pulled its support. Government officials say that the project, which the Inter-American Development Bank and the Canadian government are funding, will continue, though they have not announced specifics. 

But a resumption of the project won’t mean a resolution of economic and environmental interests. Although citizens welcome the development’s potential economic benefits, they also worry about how the road will affect the Grand’Anse’s resources.

St. Fleur, who also works as a teacher and studies agriculture at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse, says the new road will have enormous consequences for the Grand’Anse.

The areas where the farmers produce and cultivate their crops are a considerable distance from Jérémie, where the means of transportation are currently scarce. Farmers bring their goods to market mostly on foot or by donkey, so what they can carry contributes little to deforestation. Sometimes goods are transported via boat. But the boats are flat, and there is always the risk of getting the goods wet, so they can’t transport much either.

But once the road is finished, it will be easier to transport chabon, charcoal made from wood, to Port-au-Prince.

“Having the road is good, but at the same time it is also a problem for the Grand’Anse because a lot [of] trucks will leave the Grand’Anse with chabon and wood,” says Francois Hebreu, an agriculture student at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse.

He calls on the state to create a plan.

“With a department like the Grand’Anse, which is a tremendous resource for the whole country,” Hebreu says, “the state needs to open its eyes because the road can destroy the Grand’Anse as it is now. Both the road and the trees are important – they need to be there for each other’s advantage.”

He suggests that citizens use the road to transport produce, but not wood to produce charcoal.

“The department cannot use all of the mangos, breadfruit, bananas and plantains it produces,” he says. “It needs the road to bring the produce to the capital. But it does not need the road to transport chabon.”

Local citizens call on the government to create a policy to manage trade along the new road.

“I think the state needs to open its eyes to the coming and going of trucks and cars in order to control the amount of chabon which leaves the region,” says Louise Pierre Moise, who studies agriculture at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse.

He says that government officials need to protect the Grand’Anse’s riches so that it can remain self-sufficient. 

Latayad Remana, who also studies agriculture at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse, urges the state to recognize the importance of trees to the Grand’Anse. She says that people rely on growing produce from trees for income, so if people begin to cut down trees in an uncontrolled way to export charcoal via the pending road, then people will soon need to find other sources of income to be able to afford necessities such as education and health care.

“I think the state needs to think about schools and hospitals in the department, so that deforestation is not taking a toll on people and they can no longer send their children to school,” she says.

Aquis Peguy, who studies agriculture at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse, says that in order to halt deforestation, there is a need for forestry agents – experts in how to protect soil and trees. He recommends that the agents conduct motivational campaigns to encourage the people to care more about the environment and to protect it. He also asks the government to subsidize gas so that the population has access to an alternative source to use for cooking, decreasing reliance on charcoal.

“We already know what is needed to combat deforestation,” he says. “It is not difficult. But what we need is a population that is conscious of the consequences of deforestation and says enough is enough. But it also takes active government intervention, which lends greater support to the agricultural sector.”

Peguy also encourages local nongovernmental organizations to get involved in educational campaigns in the city as well as in the countryside to raise more awareness about environmental protection.

Lorreus Jean Louissier, an employee of a microcredit organization called Kolektif Finansman Popilè, says that microcredit organizations can also help regulate charcoal production through the projects it lends money for.

“Microcredit organizations could play an important role in keeping people from cutting down trees,” he says. “They lend people money for commerce, and then people buy chabon and wood with the money.”

Edger says the strategy to preserve the forest cover in the Grand’Anse needs to come from the state.

“The state needs to start a mobilization campaign on the local as well as the national level against deforestation, the use of chemicals and the destruction of natural resources,” he says.

St. Fleur says that local authorities have not yet addressed the potential environmental consequences of the road.

“We, as the local authorities, need to put our heads together to see how we can control the coming and going of trucks and to look at how much charcoal and wood leaves the area,” St. Fleur says. “We also should regulate how people cut down the trees, so that we have measures in place to control the environment.”

Edger is optimistic. He says that it’s possible to restore the nation’s green cover through a reforestation campaign, as he stresses that every tree plays an important role in the environment. He recommends sensitizing the private as well as the public sector, increasing the availability of seeds and training the farmers on cultivation techniques that do not exploit the soil.