An army of workers mobilize to reforest their dying watershed. They get paid too: people living in poor communities of the northwest Haitian Artibonite overwhelmed by the population influx following the 2010 earthquake.
“Many people ran away from the Port au Prince disaster to live in the province”, recalls Jacques Vilgar. “A community already in a very bad socio-economic situation became twice as bad.”
Vilgar, affectionately dubbed ‘Tonga’ or uncle by his admirers, is a veteran community organizer, often called an animateur in Haiti. He has been mobilizing his community since 1973. “My role is to supervise the animation team. We assembled all people’s requests and suggestions. We recruited the leaders of the project and Paul Ziade came to coordinate.”
Paul Ziade is AMURT’s Rural Programs Coordinator, and runs the Cash-for-Work (CFW) program. Initiated by AMURT and joint-funded by the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, it is primarily a response to economic desperation exacerbated by the influx of displaced persons into two of Haiti’s most impoverished communes.
“As short-term relief you want to provide cash quickly – but you will try to have a long-term impact”, says Ziade, “so what did we do here? Watershed protection, soil conservation and reforestation.”
Most Haitians depend upon small-scale subsistence farming. Only two-percent of forests survive. Flooding and mudslides devastate crops and take lives.
Once-fertile soils erode to desert and unsafe water transmits infectious diseases, such as Cholera.
After consulting local communities in the Anse Rouge and Terre-Neuve communes, AMURT found that people recognised common threats to their existence related to the severe degradation of their watershed. “Many villages have no water”, observes Ziade. “But telling ‘I have something to give you’ is very different from ‘what do you need?’”
Animatuers activated village committees, who met agronomists and collectively determined priority ravine and hillsides sites. “We want to build a community that takes its destiny in its own hands”, says Tonga.
AMURT’s head of Human Resources, Suzette Cadet notes, “These people are well-trained. It was much easier for the project to succeed, as animation work was really well done.”
An AMURT-sponsored association for community leaders called AEPA joined the program and the area divided into fourteen sites, with one AEPA animateur at each site. However, coordinating sites in rugged terrain was difficult: “it’s three hours’ bike to get to one, two hours to another one. If it rains you cannot move; extreme mud, dangerous roads”, says Ziade.
“The people I am working with usually can’t be reached by cell phone. So we have to decide everything in our weekly meeting.”
Hiring committees were formed at each locality, composed of community leaders. The committees identify the most vulnerable persons to work each two-week shift. Ziade explains, “Thanks to this process we reached 10,000 people”.
There are 84 watershed work teams according to Ziade, “plus six teams free for the community to decide.” He gives the example of village road repairs, saying free teams have been one way to extend the outreach of the project.
The on-site watershed regeneration work has four key elements, according to Jacques Raquise, one of AMURT’s Technical Coordinators: slope contours, ravine barrages, ramp vivant, and tree-planting. On gentle slopes sugar cane, elephant grass, Guinea grass or moringa trees are planted in a shallow ramp vivant (living wall). On steeper slopes, deep contour ditches and forest trees are employed. Both techniques stop sheet water erosion and harvest precious rainwater. “When we plant seeds,” he says, “we have to do it according to the rain.”
A huge number of seedlings are also needed. Thelford Melisien, works in one of three AMURT nurseries, where seedlings are prepared months in advance. “What we have here we’ll start planting in the hills. January we’ll start again.” Plants are also supplied by six community nurseries set up by AMURT. Melisien already sees results. “When the rain falls, the water flows into the trenches and is retained.”
However, obstacles to widespread adoption of reforestation persist, says Raquise, “people don’t control their animals, so they go around and eat everything they can.” Trees are also axed and sold as charcoal to raise cash. Cadet explains: “If a person has no money for his kids to eat, he will just say ‘we have to cut it’”.
Ziade considers outcomes. “Paying 1000 people every two weeks without any problem is a success. We planted more than 2.5 million seedlings and seeds. I give all the credit to my technical team.”
Raquise is positive. “Now people are asking us to work near their gardens, to build retention walls and dams, because they know it helps their harvest and keeps the rainwater longer.”
He then reveals a community shift almost unthinkable six months earlier: “Now they have formed their own association and a cooperative that works on certain gardens together. If all the country adopts this kind of project we will become self-sufficient in food.”