Michael Benge

In his report, Andres Oppenheimer advocates that “Haiti needs a version of the Marshall Plan -- now” (02.05.10). As part of that plan, US leaders should take a lesson from our history during the 1930’s depression when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and apply it to the reconstruction of Haiti. The US should show leadership and advocate for the creation of a multi-nation, multi-donor funded effort similar to the CCC comprised of Haitian youth to be drawn not only from the urban areas, but also from local communities where the Corps would work.

An estimated 70% of Haiti’s population is under 30, and are mainly unemployed. The Youth Corps would be fed, clothed and paid a fair wage by Haitian standards to be used to help their families, put in a savings account or spent as they choose. Uniforms for the Corps should be produced in Haiti, and at first, basic food may at first have to be imported; however, complimentary projects should be created to increase local food production to help feed the Corps. All of this would help stimulate Haiti’s economy.

Members of the Youth Corps, both men and women, could be trained in the basics of first aid, emergency response, public health, basic engineering and manual skills such as carpentry and masonry, and could help build housing, schools, clinics and other necessary infrastructure. They could also play a major role in environmental restoration. An immediate need is to stabilize critical slopes that may have suffered slippage in the Port au Prince area and in other urban areas and the banks of newly constructed roads in order to mitigate further disasters and major damage to transportation routes at the onset of rains. Recent heavy rains triggered deadly mudslides in Cap-Haitian.

Haiti has a great indigenous underutilized resource that if used correctly is the least expensive, fastest and most effective means to control erosion and mitigate flooding – Vetiver grass. Vetiver is known in Haiti for its oil used in perfumes and other scents that is extracted its roots. However, contour hedgerows of Vetiver grass is used throughout the Caribbean and in many other countries around the world for critical slope stabilization and agricultural improvement (see www.vetiver.org). An added value of Vetiver is its rapid growth and production of voluminous amounts of biomass within a short time that can be briquetted to replace charcoal as a much needed cooking fuel.

The cutting of trees to make charcoal has resulted in the destruction of Haiti’s once lush forests; now reduced to less than 2 percent of Haiti’s area that results in reoccurring flooding and loss of life. Although donors and others tout the need to reforest Haiti, few understand the underlying reasons that this is an almost impossible task. Much of the land in the watersheds from which the torrents of floodwater emanate is under the jurisdiction of the Haitian Tax Bureau and the government is incapable of managing it. With vengeance and a machete, Haitians will fiercely protect what grows on the small and fragmented plots of land that they can claim are theirs. However, they will be the first to cut and take the trees and other vegetation – viewed as free commodities – growing on government land and why not, the series of Haitian regimes have done little or nothing for them and that is the tragedy of the commons. Key to reforesting these “common lands” is tenure and this determines who is responsible for planting and care of the trees, and who will reap the benefit of the trees. Thus, in order for reforestation to work, the Haitian government must cede these lands to communities in the watersheds through performance-bond leases.

Trees alone do little to mitigate flooding and erosion unless planted within a sound ecosystem, such as behind contour hedgerows of vetiver, whereby the growth and yield of trees and agricultural crops planted behind them can increase as much as 50% compared to that grown on land with no hedgerows.

Haiti’s past is littered with the good intentions of donors with little to show for their efforts; however, by creating and funding a Haitian Youth Corps, the donors have a unique opportunity to make a significant difference despite Haiti’s latest tragedy.

Michael Benge, Senior Agroforestry Officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development (retired) worked for several years on programs for Haiti and played a major role in initiating its first efforts in reforestation.