By Jonathan M. Katz
Sunday, February 17, 2008; Page A22
GRAND COLLINE, Haiti, Feb. 16 -- Far from the spreading slums of the Haitian capital, past barren dirt mountains and hillsides stripped to a chalky white core, two woodcutters bring down a towering oak tree in one of the few forested valleys left in the Caribbean country.
Fanel Cantave, 36, says he has little choice but to make his living in a way that is causing environmental disaster in Haiti. And these days, he and his son, Phillipe, 15, must travel ever farther from their village to find trees to cut.
For example, the U.S. Agency for International Developmentembarked on an ambitious $22.8 million project in the 1980s to plant about 30 million trees that could provide income for peasants. But the project focused on trees that can be made into charcoal for cooking, and nearly all were eventually cut down.
Environmental Minister Jean-Marie Claude Germain said reforestation projects and efforts to preserve trees in three protected zones were set back by the violent rebellion that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and prompted the United Nations to send in thousands of peacekeepers to restore order.
"Even though there were agricultural laws, the laws were not respected," Germain said. "We are trying to create order now."
Stability returned with the 2006 election of President Ren¿ Pr¿val and U.N. military action against powerful gangs in Port-au-Prince, the capital. But in a nation where 80 percent of the 8.7 million people live on less than $2 a day, trees mean income for those lucky enough to have access to them.
Some groups say they've found success on a limited scale by planting fruit trees and protecting hardwoods through micro-loans and agricultural assistance. Floresta USA, based in San Diego, has been working in Haiti for the past decade and is planting about 33,000 fruit and hardwood trees a year. The Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment, based in southern Haiti, has produced more than a million fruit trees since it began work in 1985.
Compared with USAID's failed plan, smaller programs have had more luck by focusing on fruit trees, which farmers are more likely to preserve to sell the fruit. And smaller organizations are able to work with farmers and tailor planting to the needs of specific areas.
"People aren't excited about 'Hey, let's go plant trees.' They're excited about 'How can I feed my family? How can I make ends meet?' " said Scott Sabin, Floresta's leader.