For nearly three decades, Ericq Pierre lovingly grew the majestic mahogany and cedar trees, creating a lush canopy in his childhood hamlet, the place where his parents eked out a living from the earth.
But then Hurricane Matthew tore through the rare patch of green in this heavily deforested nation, wiping out as much as 70 percent of Pierre’s forest with 140-mph winds.
“This is destruction, pure destruction,” an emotional Pierre, 71, said standing atop a rocky cliff, surveying the desiccated limbs and exposed roots littering the ground. “When you have 25-year-old mahogany trees, it is not something that can be built back in a year.”
The now-toppled trees were supposed to help Pierre, a retired agriculture specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank, fulfill a vision to give back to his homeland. The part-time Aventura resident and respected Haitian technocrat began nursing plants in Saincrit, located between the villages of Sassier and Duranton on the outskirts of Jérémie, as his way of saving Haiti.
This storm has not only sped up deforestation, it has set us back significantly.
Haiti Environment Minister Simon Desras
Now, he joins the tens of thousands of farmers, homeowners, investors and other dreamers who fell victim to Matthew’s wrath. In this remote southwestern corner of Haiti, no one was spared. Gone are the agricultural fields that provided a livelihood for small farmers in the still inaccessible remote inlands. Gone, too, is the terracotta-red covering of the centuries-old Cathédrale Saint-Louis Roi de France in Jérémie, where many of the properties are held by members of the Haitian diaspora like Pierre.
“Can you imagine one day visiting Central Park and there are no trees? Can you imagine the disappearance of the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C?” asked Simon Desras, Haiti’s current environment minister. “This storm has not only sped up deforestation, it has set us back significantly.”
Nearly three weeks since Matthew knocked out 80 percent of the electrical network in Haiti’s southern peninsula and destroyed or damaged 90 percent of the homes in the South and Grand’ Anse regions, humanitarian aid workers are still struggling to access many hard-to-reach spots.
Few residents of Jérémie, the capital of the Grand’ Anse, have received aid even as convoys roll into town. It’s become survival of the fittest as residents use influence and clout to get rations of rice and vegetable oil. Ongoing rain has only added to the misery.
In poverty-stricken Haiti, where land is everything, the people of the Grand’ Anse lived off their trees. Even as deforestation encroached with charcoal barons tapping the surrounding mountains for fuel and revenue, this isolated western region remained a rare reservoir of lush vegetation and rich forests.
“I loved the trees. My daughters will tell you, ‘Dad is always with his trees,’” said Pierre, the father of four girls. “Now I don’t know what I’ll do.”
While Jérémie is often cited as the city of poets by intellectuals, the Grand’ Anse Department is le grenier — the breadbasket — of a starving nation. The region produces corn, coffee, cocoa and breadfruit. It also is where farmers harvest trees for food, trade and timber using tree- and crop-planting techniques.
The techniques had helped create 17 percent tree cover in Haiti, with almost half of it in Grand’ Anse, said environmentalist Jean Vilmond Hilaire, who recently carried out a study on the storm’s ecological impact on behalf of the Haiti Audubon Society.
The storm, he said, destroyed between 8 and 10 percent of the trees in Grand’ Anse.
This is a department with a lot of potential. Agriculture can flourish again.
Agronomist Ericq Pierre
Pierre, a trained agronomist, knows all too well about Haiti’s losing battle with deforestation. He also believes that hurricanes are linked to climate change and will likely become more frequent. Fewer trees mean more erosion and landslides.
The Grand’ Anse needs a development plan, he said. “This is a department with a lot of potential. Agriculture can flourish again.”
Pierre’s forest sits on 15 acres that his father, Benoit Pierre, worked as a farmer, transforming sugar cane to alcohol.
“He used it for the education of his kids,” Pierre, one of seven children, said proudly. “The trees were everything.”
Mother Nature has taken more from Pierre than his trees in recent years. His sister, Madeleine Pierre, was killed in Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake when her home in the capital city of Port-au-Prince collapsed, killing her and her 25-year-old son.
Pierre planted his first tree, a mahogany, on May 2, 1989, a year after his father died. Over the years, he planted 2,699 more, along with 1,000 cedars, all without using an ounce of fertilizer.
He did so not for the timber, which can fetch as much as $912 for one mahogany tree, but to keep the land in the family and to show the world that Haiti can be green.
“These were precious trees,” he said. “I knew nobody was going to cut them for charcoal and they were long-term.”
Stopping mid-way up the cliff, the sound of dry leaves being crushed under his feet, he pointed out the spot where he was born and then the storm-damaged concrete house in the distance that he had helped his father build.
He wondered what to do next.
“I will not complain. But at my age, I am not inspired to start planting again.”
Pierre spent 33 years at the Inter-American Development Bank, eventually becoming a board member representing Haiti before retiring in 2013. One of Haiti’s most respected political personalities, he was nominated twice for prime minister, falling victim to politics both times. He is known as much for his proud Jérémie roots as his outspokenness on what ails Haiti and how to fix it.
“A lot of people are really thinking of returning, and are buying land to take their retirement here,” Pierre said about Jérémie’s flourishing diaspora in Miami and Boston. “This is a dream, to come back. But the problem of the Grand’ Anse is its isolation.”
Before Matthew, the Grand’ Anse region was struggling to catch up with the rest of Haiti, a country plagued by poverty, a depressed economy and vulnerability to natural disasters exacerbated by human-caused deforestation.
Its main city of Jérémie generally had only six hours of electricity a day. And despite a recent development push, a 57-mile road connecting Jérémie to the port city of Les Cayes in the south remains unfinished after 10 years. Still, proud Jérémiens like Pierre and François Chavenet, a former president of the Chamber of the Commerce and Industry of the Grand’ Anse Department, believed — and invested.
There was a plan to rehabilitate Jérémie’s French-colonial wood-frame homes with their balconies and arched verandas, and the 19th century coffee warehouses. Pressure also had been building to do something about the city’s entrance, now made uglier as missing vegetation revealed hidden shacks and an emerging slum.
“With the aftermath of Matthew, everything is back in the drawers,” said Chavenet, who had been preparing to embark on a new seaside real estate and tourism venture showcasing the region’s environmental potential when the hurricane hit Oct. 4. “Now with the impact of Matthew on the whole environment … everything [we were planning] is like science fiction.”
Just before the storm, newly elected Jérémie Mayor Claude Harry Milord had issued an order to stop the charcoal trucks from coming into the city to chop down trees. The storm put that on hold, he told Pierre after a late-night motorcycle ride to Pierre’s house to plead his frustrations about aid trickling in. He also echoed complaints that the aid was only going to supporters of particular political parties.
And politics continue to influence aid. The presidential elections, postponed from Oct. 9 and reset for Nov. 20, have brought every major presidential candidate to town offering assistance.
“The situation has never been good for Jérémie,” Pierre said. “This is a city with no infrastructure, one that has never had any … and where deforestation is progressing.”
But before Matthew, he said, “there was hope. People like me and others were returning.”
The fallen trees are only part of his hurricane losses.
After the storm, as he stepped through the door of his home, he was at a loss for words. The multi-level white house overlooking the port of Jérémie that he had named Villa Philonise, in honor of his late mother, was a mess. Brothers Jacques and Dominique had downplayed the damage.
“Que vais-je faire avec cette maison?” he said in French, asking himself what to do with the storm-damaged house as he saw the sky through the gaping wooden rafters that had been covered with metal sheeting. The windows were all blown out. Four of eight solar panels had been blown away by Matthew.
“I wanted to modernize things,” he said, proudly.
The home had four bedrooms, four full bathrooms and two half baths. He’d invested more than $300,000 in the property. Like many here, Pierre didn’t have insurance.
“I do not know what I am going to do. I’m a very old man. I’m still thinking.”
As he spoke, it started to rain, flooding his hardwood floors.
He’d started building the house two years ago, pouring his heart and savings into the cornerstone of his dream. On the three-acre property, he had planned to build a bed-and-breakfast so that returning diaspora and visitors could witness the transformation of Jérémie that he hoped to help lead.
“I don’t think I will be pursuing that dream, but at the same time, I don’t want to quit,” he said. “I don’t know yet.”
As he grapples with whether to rebuild, his thoughts also turn to what’s happening outside of his walls. Many Haitians in the area are being forced to fend for themselves and aid agencies that don’t know the area are acting without needed guidance.
He worries that the Grand’ Anse is going backward in time to 1954, the year that Hurricane Hazel hit Haiti, creating a desert in the region, crippling food production.
“My dad always told me that is when misery started to fall on the family, after Hazel,” he said. “And now, over 60 years later, this is the same thing.”