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Deforestation at Root of Devastating Haiti Floods

Torrential rains barreled down the mountains because more than 90% of the island lacks trees, which people cut for fuel.

June 06, 2004|Paisley Dodds | Associated Press Writer

MAPOU, Haiti — Named after a sacred tree in the voodoo religion, this Haitian village has few remaining mapou trees and a scant number of others on its surrounding mountains.

When floods tore through town last month, many survived by clinging to roots, branches and trunks -- but it was the overall absence of trees that made the onslaught so deadly. At least 1,700 people died, half in the area around Mapou.

"We know we need trees, but we also need to eat and to cook," said Philis Milfort, 87.

With no tree roots to hold soil on the mountains, the torrential rainwater barreled down unchecked, collecting silt, gravel and boulders that slammed into villages. There, the floodwaters gathered new weapons in the form of aluminum roofs and other debris.

More than 90% of Haiti is deforested, in large part because most of its 8 million people use charcoal to cook. There's no electricity outside major cities and towns.

Government leaders met recently to look for ways to protect the environment. Aid workers warned that hundreds of villagers remained at risk from dams that could burst if a hurricane strikes.

One possibility is importing propane from Trinidad or Venezuela. Another is importing wood from the United States, Canada and Guyana.

Haiti's U.S.-backed interim government, which in March took over a treasury left bankrupt by ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is looking to the international community for help.

"After a disaster like this, we have to reorganize, make reforestation a priority and find a way to enlighten people," said Yves Andre Wainright, Haiti's undersecretary of the environment. "But we also have to give the poor an incentive, and find a way to police the forests."

Older villagers remember when there were more than a dozen mapou in the area -- trees that grow for more than a century, with massive trunks that take a score of men to span.

But as poverty deepened, the trees disappeared.

First villagers chopped down hardwoods like mahogany and cherry. Then they went after mango and avocado trees, destroying a food source. The sprawling mapou trees were cut as a last resort. Followers of voodoo, Haiti's official religion, believe the trees are repositories of a pantheon of spirits and hold ceremonies and sacrifices in their shade. And mapous usually indicate the presence of spring water.

In some dry patches of the country, only legends of the mapou remain.

"My grandmother used to tell me stories about the mapou trees and how they should always be respected for the power that they had with the spirits," said Dereston Jean-Louise, 45. "But that was a different time. People are poorer now and a lot of us don't have choices."

Mapou residents said one of their voodoo temples was built from scrap wood collected nearby. It disappeared in the flooding, along with its houngan, or priest, who was among hundreds missing.

The United States has promised more aid to help build water-catchment systems and to plant more trees. In the last two decades, the U.S. Agency for International Development has planted about 60 million trees, while an estimated 10 million to 20 million are cut down each year, according to David Adams, the U.S. agency's director in Haiti.

"There is a lot to be done and we only have so much funding," said Adams. "We hope that with the new attention to Haiti, there will be more of a focus on the environment and reforestation."

Foreign Minister Michel Barnier of France, Haiti's former colonizer, also promised help with reforestation, saying Haiti needed more than emergency help. "We are providing food and water aid, but that is not enough," he said.

With soil in some areas eroded beyond help, the government also is looking into relocating communities, particularly from flood-prone zones.

"Every time there's a flood, it's always the same victims," said interim President Alexandre Boniface. "We need to find a better place for them, and if the appropriate land is privately owned, the government must expropriate it."

Haitian officials also are looking to a new 8,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force to help halt the deforestation.

One of Haiti's few remaining forests -- Floret de Pins, in the flood-battered south -- has less than 34,000 acres of trees left. A decade ago, it had nearly 100,000 acres.

"No Tree Cutting" signs hang over the park entrance, but without money and staff, there is no way to enforce that. Loggers make nightly journeys, hacking away at trees until they fall.

Days later, they've been chopped up, burned and packaged in white bags offered for sale by soot-covered women.

"This is the only way I can feed my four kids," said Vena Verone, one of the vendors. "I've heard about the floods and deforestation that caused them, but there's nothing I can do about that."

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Associated Press writer Amy Bracken contributed to this report.

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