PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- On a sweltering afternoon, Howard Van Dam drives around the capital in his Toyota pickup collecting old textbooks, worksheets and other paper from schools.
Van Dam, a field coordinator with the Christian Reformed World Missions in Haiti, recycles the paper into briquettes, a square block of biomass made up of shredded paper and charcoal crumbs.
Usually no more than four inches in diameter, eight briquettes could cook a meal for up to 10 people. And, they are cheaper, too.
The technology has been around for at least a decade, according to Van Dam, but interest has only recently spiked as the country’s once plentiful coastline mangrove population — long a source of charcoal for many poor Haitians seeking an inexpensive fuel source — continues to decline.
“It seems like the corner has changed,” Van Dam said. “There is a greater interest to be environmentally conscious.”
For decades, deforestation has plagued Haiti, leaving the country today with less than three percent of forests covering the land. Mangroves, tropical trees and shrubs that protect coastlines are no exception.
Last week, President Michel Martelly and Environment Minister Jean Francois Thomas launched the second phase of a national reforestation campaign. The campaign’s goals are lofty: to plant more than 116 million fruit and other trees to increase Haiti’s cover to four percent in the next few years.
The focus comes after many past failed national and international efforts, and after Haiti’s government last year banned the cutting or selling of mangroves, and the construction, fishing or hunting in what’s left of the country’s depleting forests.
This has made briquettes an attractive alternative that some hope may stir change.
In the city streets, a container of charcoal, about the size of a gallon and enough to cook about two meals for a family of four, costs about 55 cents in a country where more than half of the population, according to the World Bank, lives on less than $1 a day.
But one briquette costs between two and nine cents.
And while paper briquettes seem like the most sensible alternative, they require special stoves called “cookstoves,” which are made especially to burn the blocks.
In 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched an Improved Cooking Technology Program in an effort to help Haitians reduce charcoal dependency. The aid agency signed a three-year, $8.2 million contract with Chemonics International, a for-profit agency, to get the environmentally friendly stoves into schools, and the hands of street vendors.
But according to an agency audit published earlier this year, the program failed to meet its targets. For example, the agency was unable to accurately calculate the number of beneficiaries in the program.
Among those that supported the alternative, USAID stoves was El Fuego del Sol, a paper briquette-making company that opened in Port-au-Prince in September 2012, but has been producing briquettes in the neighboring Dominican Republic since 2005.
The system isn’t perfect, company officials said, but insisted that word of mouth has increased the stoves’ use.
“With the briquettes, you need to know how much to put [in the stove], because the food could burn. It cooks fast,” supervisor Frida Hyppolite said.
Unlike regular charcoal, briquettes require more stove “space,” according to Hyppolite, because of the type of material. Still, access to the cookstoves, which the briquettes need, is a hurdle.
The USAID audit also found that fewer Haitians bought the stoves as the project anticipated because of costs. The cheapest cookstove costs about $10, while charcoal stoves cost as little as $2.
Briquettes can only be a viable alternative when Haitians have access to the cleaner energy stoves they use, said Elisha Moore-Delate, a former biomass cookstove technical adviser of the Improved Cooking Technology Program in Haiti.
“Most Haitians [still] have traditional stoves,” she said.
Moore-Delate said one reason the stoves aren’t as cheap as charcoal stoves is because of the expensive imported parts, and the various models of the same stove.
Cécile Duchier, a consultant with the USAID program, however, said thousands of Haitians have shifted away from charcoal and are using the stoves. Among them is Florana Saintflor, a street vendor.
Saintflor, who lives in the Delmas suburbs of the capital, cooks meals for her four children on a cookstove using briquettes. Saintflor said one added value is that the briquettes’ ashes remain hot enough to warm water or reheat food after cooking a meal. She said she prefers briquettes to charcoal.
“It takes a little while for people to really understand how to cook with them,” Saintflor said. “[But] one wouldn’t ever go back to charcoal [after using it].”
Haiti is no stranger to briquettes. The United Nations Development Program set up a recycling center in Port-au-Prince dedicated to making the cooking blocks in 2006. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton even touted the project at a Haitian Diaspora conference in Sunny Isles Beach in 2009.
“This could be done in every neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. It could be done in every city in Haiti. And if it were successful, it would sweep the poor urban areas of the world,” Clinton said at the time.
But the U.N. closed the recycling center in late 2011 because of lack of funding. It wasn’t sustainable enough then. And that is what still concerns Ostine Louverture, head of the reforestation effort within Haiti’s Ministry of Environment.
“For the population, the briquettes have some problems,” he said. “The energy is not enough for cooking.”
Although briquettes cook fast, they output little smoke, which goes against custom for Haitians.
“Haitians love high heat for cooking,” said Moore-Delate, the former cookstove adviser. “Households like mangroves because [the wood] burns extra hot due to its capacity to absorb and process salt water, and salt makes fire hotter.”
For some environmentalists, Haiti’s ban on cutting mangroves is a lost cause. With the only “true” mangrove forest left in northeastern Haiti near the bay of Fort Liberté not far from the internationally financed $300 million Caracol Industrial Park, the chances of finding any remaining mangroves along the rest of the country’s coastline is slim.
Even still, Jean Wiener, director of the Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversité Marine (FoProBiM), a non-profit environmental advocacy group, applauds the government’s recent creation of Haiti’s second protected marine park.
The newly designated 222 acres protected area in northeastern Haiti, includes the mangrove forests near the bay of Fort Liberté, as well as the bays of Limonade, Caracol and the Lagon aux Boeufs.
Earlier this month, Wiener was awarded a prestigious international environmental award, the 2014 Whitley Gold Award, for his work to help secure marine protected areas in Haiti and to conserve the country’s endangered coastal ecosystem.
As someone who has worked to help Haitians make a living, while saving the environment, he says much more needs to be done beyond just banning the chopping of trees.
“You have to have alternatives in place and running well before you institute such a ban,” Wiener said.
The challenge, for both the government and conservationists, he said, is to show poor, hungry Haitians that “the tree that is planted and growing is worth more than cutting it down and making a bag of charcoal.”
In the coastal city of Léogâne, just south of Haiti’s capital, mangrove stumps are a reminder of what once flourished along the coastlines.
Merove Drehamel has cut mangroves along the rural coast to scrape a living for as long as he can remember. The area, which still has a few small clusters of the trees left, is now only a shadow of its former beauty.
“We live off those trees; we don’t have anything else to do, we just make charcoal to sell,” Drehamel said. “That’s the only thing we have to live by.”