Deforestation in Haiti dates back to French colonial times. At the time, the government cleared large areas of forest to make space for plantations. Nowadays, trees are cut down mainly for charcoal, Haiti’s main source of domestic energy. The widespread deforestation has made the country particularly vulnerable to other environmental issues such as landslides. While the government still struggles to protect forests in Haiti, experts suggest that solutions to deforestation must align with the needs of the people.
The State of Forests in Haiti
Home to 11 million people, Haiti is a mountainous country located on the island of Hispaniola with an area of 27,750 sq km. Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere and is also the third-largest country in the Caribbean, behind Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
In the past, Haiti was covered in lush forests. However, a rise in demand for fuelwood and charcoal, the country’s main sources of domestic energy, led to widespread deforestation.
In Haiti, over 80% of energy is generated from burning charcoal, which represents an important source of rural energy production. In turn, the income generated from cutting trees and producing charcoal contributes significantly to the survival of many residents in the country.
“As such, attempting to put limits on forestry practices without providing alternative livelihood support is not going to work,” Caitlyn Eberle, a scientist at the Institute for Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University (UNU-EHS), explained during an exclusive interview with Earth.org.
Around the world, 15 billion trees are cut down every year; and according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), forest loss has robbed the world of approximately 420 million hectares since 1990.
Aside from habitat loss, deforestation is accelerating global warming. Forests play a huge role in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – which is why they are also known as carbon sinks. But when trees are cut down, the carbon they store is released into the atmosphere, mainly as carbon dioxide. This is because “the loss of trees and soil decreases the ecosystem’s ability to store carbon,” Eberle told Earth.org.
Nowadays, due mainly to deforestation, the world’s forests emit an average of 8.1 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
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According to Global Forest Watch, Haiti lost 2.41 kilo hectares of tree cover in 2021, which is equivalent to 1.15 megatonnes (Mt) of CO2 emissions; and between 2002 and 2021, the country’s total area of humid primary forest decreased by 35%.
Generally, forests help to buffer the impacts of extreme events such as landslides, storms, floods, and droughts. But given the rapidly rising rate of tree loss for charcoal in Haiti, the country is now exposed to other environmental problems such as landslides and floods. Indeed, forests act as sponges that soak up rainfall brought by tropical storms. When heavy rainfall occurs but there are not sufficient trees to absorb the water and anchor the soil, flooding is more likely to occur. Both soil erosion and flooding heavily compromise agricultural productivity and food security across the continent.
An aerial view of the border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right) provides a dramatic illustration of the extent of soil degradation in Haiti.
The 2021/2022 Interconnected Disaster Risks report published by scientists from the UNU-EHS identified deforestation also as one of the drivers of the risk of earthquakes in Haiti. During events such as earthquakes, loss of soil reinforcement to help stabilise weak soils and water extraction by tree roots increases the chances of landslides, which, in turn, increases the devastating effect of earthquakes. On August 14, 2021, for instance, Haiti was hit by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake, which killed over 2,200 people and injured more than 12,000 people.
“Deforestation was definitely a driver of risk during the Haiti earthquake disaster since it contributed to the increased risk of hazards in the form of landslides, but also to the vulnerability of people affected by the earthquake,” Eberle, lead author of the report, said. “Landslides not only destroyed roads and blocked rivers, but also whole crop yields, disrupting livelihoods and food production systems.”
“A more hidden aspect of deforestation as a driver of earthquake risk is that it increases the vulnerability of people, increasing the risk that they will suffer from a hazard such as an earthquake.”
Deforestation in Haiti is also threatening biodiversity. Haiti has nearly 500 known species of amphibians, mammals, and reptiles, 16.2% of which are endemic, meaning they exist only in the country. Of all species in the country, 15.6% are classified as threatened, with 12 species of birds, 28 species of plants, 46 species of amphibians, 15 species of fish, and 10 species of reptiles and mammals at risk of extinction.
According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Haiti is among the most deforested countries in the world and would eventually lose all of its primary forest in the next two decades.
Solutions to Deforestation in Haiti
To fight deforestation in Haiti, experts advocate for solutions that will align with the needs of local communities. So far, local and international efforts have focused on reforestation projects, which are considered the best solution to fight deforestation around the world. But in Haiti, where people generate income from cutting trees and producing charcoal, attention should focus more on charcoal manufacturers.
Featured image by: waterdotorg (Flickr)
If you want to learn more about the solutions to deforestation in Haiti, check out this article next: The Importance of Local Communities in Fighting Deforestation in Haiti: An Interview With Caitlyn Eberle