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Date: Tue, 15 Dec 1998 22:39:00 -0800 (PST)
From: Robert Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Subject: A Desert in the Caribbean (fwd)
To: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Message-ID: <Pine.3.89.9812152247.A18115-0100000@netcom2>

From: David E. Volk


A Desert in the Caribbean: As Axes Fall, So Do Numbers of Haiti's Trees

Reuters, 15 December 1998

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Dec. 15 - Once or twice a month, Maryse Charistile takes the bus to Haiti's western coast and brings back 20 to 30 large sacks of charcoal - a load many times larger than she is - by ferry boat.

Despite her efforts and a steady supply of the fuel - the product of constant tree-cutting that has left her homeland with only about 1.5 percent of its original forest cover - Charistile, 27, said her business is not good.

Sometimes I can spend a week not selling at all, she said in the market outside the Caribbean nation's capital where she sells charcoal, her face and arms marked with smudges. You buy but it doesn't always sell.

Environmental experts say Haiti has the worst case of deforestation in the Western Hemisphere because of charcoal's place as the primary fuel. The United Nations estimates that 70 percent of the population uses charcoal for cooking.

Logging Rate Has Accelerated

The use of charcoal has been an environmental catastrophe. Haiti has been losing forests for decades but the rate at which woodlands have been logged out, burned and turned into farmland or scrub has risen in the 1990s. Now Haiti's forests are disappearing at a rate of 15 to 20 million trees a year, slowly turning the once-lush country into the region's first desert.

In general, I think we are getting close to the dropoff point where parts of the country will not be able to come back, said Paul Paryski, an environmental specialist for the U.N. Development Program who contributed to a recently released U.N. report on Haiti's environment.

Charistile and other charcoal sellers say they are aware that deforestation is a problem but said they have no other way to feed their families. Haiti is the hemisphere's poorest nation with a per capita income of about $260.

Down to Basic Economics for Some

We have to make a living somehow. The children are crying in our arms and we don't have anything to feed them. It's just a little charcoal to sell, to get a little money to feed our children, the single mother of three said.

Every rainfall in Haiti now sends chunks of mountain down onto roads and into the sea. Hurricane Georges, which passed over the island in late September, did even worse damage. The entire village of Fond Verrettes, southeast of Port-au-Prince, was washed away in flooding that took 102 lives as Georges went through, nearly half of at least 229 lives lost nationwide.

Mapou, a valley village in the southeast, is still flooded more than two months after the hurricane. After Tropical Storm Gordon ravaged Haiti in 1994, it took 13 mo nths for the water to drain out of Mapou, which has no canal or drainage system.

The environment has continued to be degraded, Paryski said. Some areas are so degraded that they will never be what they once were.

Topsoil Pays the Price

The United Nations says erosion claims an estimated 36 million tons of Haiti's topsoil each year. Areas around Gonaives in the department of Artibonite and parts of Haiti' s northwest are the most badly deforested, with dry, brown desert-like mountains.

Political in-fighting and the government crisis that has left Haiti without a prime minister for 18 months have aggravated the already disastrous environmental situation. The environment ministry, created in 1995, has no official minister or law to determine its functions and it receives only 0.25 percent of the national budget, according to the report.

It's virtually dysfunctional, Paryski said. International donors are eager to work with the government to salvage what remains of the environment, he said. But with out a government that is motivated and willing to take action the donors are merely plugging holes in a dam that one day will break.

Dominican Tries to Avoid Problem

Some environmentalists point to the example of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. The Dominican government has outlawed the use of charcoal for cooking and subsidizes gas for stoves.

Agronomist Dimitri Norris, who works in Haiti's environment ministry, said the government will take aggressive steps to protect the environment and has just completed a National Environmental Action Plan outlining problems and solutions.

I think this plan is a significant accomplishment. Now there is a plan of action for the government and donors regarding rehabilitation and protection of the environment, Norris said.

Local groups and government projects have undertaken scattered tree-planting campaigns. But random planting will not solve Haiti's problems, environmental experts say.

We see there are no trees so we plant trees, but we are not attacki ng the roots of the problem here, said Aldrin Calixte, who works with a local environmental group.