Three Columbia University graduate students, Mayumi Moro, James Taylor, and Milap Patel, recently spent a week in Haiti trying to understand the nuances of the charcoal production process. The study site was in the Port-à-Piment watershed of the South Department, centered on the picturesque town of Port-à-Piment itself, the administrative center of the area. The villages lining the Port-à-Piment River, which flows down from the Massif de la Hotte mountain range – Randel, Sache, and Guillaume – made up the majority of the interview sites. These villages are on the front lines of climate, agricultural, and water challenges with many of the people literally living on the edge of survival. Charcoal production and its related activities make up a large part of the income-generating undertakings for many residents, further destabilizing the watershed through deforestation and erosion.
The toll of decades of unsustainable forest harvesting is apparent from miles above the Haitian landscape through infamous border satellite photos with neighboring Dominican Republic showing the differences in forest cover between the two countries. For the recently landed observer, the sight of denuded hills rolling off into the azure Caribbean, mile after mile, offers the starkest confirmation. Less than 3% of the country’s original forests still remain intact and this number is rapidly diminishing. From this landscape, however, it is still possible to discern positive signs and the stirrings of major initiatives to implement long-lasting beneficial changes to the complex lived environment of rural Haiti.
In a country which presents development challenges in almost every imaginable area, solutions must be hydra-headed, capable of addressing the interlocked issues of health, education, agriculture and natural resource management in tandem. Within the Earth Institute’s ambitious Haiti Regeneration Initiative (HRI), which is attempting just such an approach in the South Department, our research project on charcoal production was a small segment in this wider narrative, offering a glimpse into the ambitious nature of the Initiative. Our analysis will drive eventual recommendations to the United Nations Environment Program’s Post Conflict and Disaster Management Branch (PCDMB), which is the major implementing partner of the Earth Institute in this region for the HRI.
Major research outcomes desired from this field component included a greater sense of the volumes of wood currently flowing out of the watershed, which contains the Parc Macaya – one of the last intact forests in the country, and a sense of how the actors at each stage contributed to the eventual consumption of charcoal in the urban areas of the country. Incorporated within this framework were detailed questions on pricing strategies, labor-time trade-offs, species selection, and temporal variation.
Through 36 structured interviews, a focus group discussion, and site visits to charcoal production and tree grafting sites, the team was able to build up important quantitative and qualitative data points which will greatly assist the eventual project outcomes. However, the individual stories some of us heard and the sometimes unimaginable survival choices people have to make add a dimension of gravity to what could otherwise turn into detached, academic work that has little bearing on the situations from which this data was gleaned.
“Making charcoal is my life. Without it I couldn’t sustain my existence, send my children to school and buy things. If someone had a program to help me make charcoal better or pay me to do other things, yes that would greatly benefit me.”
We would like to draw attention to the invaluable services provided by our local partners: Jean Elie Thys from UNEP, Celiane St. Luc, Louman Cesar and Marc Arthur Saint Cyr, all from the American University of the Caribbean in Haiti, Agroforestry Department who served as translators and project design partners.