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17311: Chamberlain: Deforestation and erosion (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>

(Los Angeles Times, 17 Nov 03)

Haiti Canít Gain Ground on Erosion

Reckless deforestation and construction on the nation's hillsides and
highlands have made floods common in the six-month rainy season.

By Carol J. Williams

KENSCOFF, Haiti - It begins in the lush orchards and terraced farms
skirting this mountaintop village, little rivulets of rainwater channeled
away from precious crops to the sole paved road that plunges in twists and
turns for 20 miles to the Haitian capital.

Once the runoff reaches the road, it joins an ochre-colored torrent already
cascading along the surface, picking up speed and gravel as the byway
becomes an aqueduct.

By the time the deluge makes its way to the suburb of Petionville, halfway
from the Massif de la Selle promontory to the sea, the raging waters uproot
shrubs, wash the ground out beneath homesí foundations and bulldoze
anything in their path, even cars and the flimsier shanties.

"People put out their trash when it rains so the water carries it off,"
said Jane Wynne, a farmer who, along with her late father, has been
battling for 50 years to raise environmental consciousness in order to halt
the rainsí annual devastation.

Misguided irrigation and drainage practices in Haitiís highlands,
unregulated construction on hillsides and excessive cutting of endangered
forests for fuel wood have combined to expose the area around
Port-au-Prince to erosion that threatens to wipe out whole neighborhoods,
rich and poor alike.

Damage from the heavy rain that falls almost nightly from June through
November has been accelerating in recent years because every tree cut means
less resistance to the waterís flow. Every new home or business built in
the hills above the capital scrapes away more grass and ground cover,
leaving nothing to slow the runoff. Officials at the Environment Ministry
blame corrupt local officials for failing to enforce laws against
harvesting timber or building homes on publicly owned land.

"The problem is that the peasants donít have the means or the will to
practice soil conservation," horticulturist Dimitri Norris said. "A peasant
can live for a week from the proceeds of cutting one tree. He sees that as
an immediate reward, whereas tending a fruit tree doesnít bring in that
much income and requires a long-term commitment."

In a country with 70% unemployment, cutting trees and selling the wood to
make charcoal is one of the few ways an indigent Haitian can make a living.

Foreign-funded organizations such as the Haitian Environmental Foundation
are making inroads by promoting tree-planting and developing alternatives
for fueling stoves.

Scientists working with the organization have developed briquettes made
from compressed recycled paper that burn more efficiently and cleanly than
charcoal, said Wynne, who operates a model farm here and works with
international conservation and relief efforts. Bakeries are among the
largest consumers of wood in Haiti, Wynne said, so the foundation is
subsidizing conversion of their ovens to run on propane.

The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that 71% of Haitian
fuel consumption is of wood and charcoal. Last year the agency replaced
47,000 wood stoves with oil-fired burners and planted 600,000 trees in the
most denuded and endangered regions.

But the baby steps toward education and recovery are drastically outpaced
by behavior that few expect to change. As long as grinding poverty afflicts
all but a tiny segment of this country, the majority of Haitians will be
compelled to give priority to the daily demands of buying food and putting
a roof over their families.

Although the government has 1,000 forest rangers to guard against wood
poachers, men and women carrying bundles of slender tree trunks and logs
brazenly tread the roadsides with their purloined burdens.

Fewer than 100,000 acres of forest are left in a country that was
three-quarters woods when European explorers arrived five centuries ago -
Haitians have cut down all but about 1.5% of the original tree cover. The
remaining woodlands are concentrated south of here in the La Visite and
Foret des Pins national parks, unapproachable by vehicle in the rainy
season because the surrounding roads have been washed out.

The consequences, seen in the low-lying slums of Port-au-Prince, are
stunning. Knee-high muck - mud, sewage, blown-off tin roofs, the occasional
car - covers the roads through Carrefour and Cite Soleil each morning until
jobless men and boys can be induced by driversí gratuities to shovel it to
the side. At a car dealership on a sea-level plain near the airport, a lake
of muck last month rose as high as the door handles, forcing much of the
inventory off the sales lot.

Lerisson Beauvoir, a tailor who recently moved to Petionville from Les
Cayes, rents a one-room shack perched precariously above a ravine - into
which dozens of similar structures have tumbled in recent rainstorms. He
has rigged up troughs and drainpipes to divert water from the homeís
foundation but fears that the effort is only postponing the inevitable.

"Thereís no such thing as building codes. People just build wherever they
want," he complained, gesturing at a new pink villa a mere dozen feet
uphill from his house.

Norris, the horticulturist, acknowledged that rampant corruption in
municipal governments allows reckless construction to persist. "Thereís a
lot of advantage for officials to let people squat on state land. Itís a
very profitable business."