Three years ago, the world looked to one man for insight into the fatal earthquake that devastated Haiti. At the time, Haitian ambassador to the U.S. Raymond Joseph was the most accessible Haitian official and became the face of the response effort.
Based in Washington, DC, Haiti’s top diplomat pounded the pavement, opened the doors of the Embassy of Haiti to thousands of volunteers and those who wanted to drop off donations, and negotiated during meetings with U.S. and Haitian officials to address the immediate crisis and develop a plan of action for long term recovery.
“Some have wondered, where is he? I have been in Haiti. I have been watching with much sadness how my Haiti is becoming a desert,” Joseph said during a recent press conference at the National Press Club in DC to coincide with the anniversary of the quake. During the forum, he formally launched a new initiative – A Dollar A Tree For Haiti – to accelerate reforestation efforts in his homeland. It is estimated that only about two percent of the country is still covered by trees. And the cost of deforestation is about 30 million trees annually, according to a 1997 study by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Is deforestation an immediate priority given the many dire needs that still exists in the small country just a few short years after the devastation that claimed over 300,000 lives, left over a million homeless, and wiped out entire communities? Joseph emphasized that the issue is one that has implications for Haiti’s economic recovery, particularly if you consider the decline of local agriculture production.
The former ambassador and supporters add that this effort is about the future – most notably, the energy future. One of the goals is to replant trees and identify alternative fuel to address some of the factors that lead to deforestation. Haitian families rely on the nation’s precious wood for cooking and heating. The new organization plans to work with partners to launch a public information campaign to advance the transition to solar cookers and bakeries, as well as, teach Haitians how to plant trees.
“When I was young, the principal of my school taught me how to plant a tree and today I am teaching the youth in my community the same way my principal taught me,” said Andre Gustave Louis, a local Haitian elected official from Kenscoff, during the press conference. It was his aggressive drive to plant 20,000 trees in his area that inspired Joseph to launch A Dollar A Tree For Haiti.
Joseph is casting a wide net to build momentum. Haitian president Michel Martelly, who is also passionate about this issue, has assigned Diaspora Liaison Director Bernice Fidelia, who heads the government’s Keep Haiti Green & Beautiful initiative, to work with the former Ambassador.
The non-profit organization is harnessing global support from many established environmental, agricultural, and educational groups. They will collaborate to plant all types of trees, such as coffee, grapefruit, peaches, maple, and pine. This may help slow the pace of soil erosion, which makes it difficult for farmers to grow food. About 15,000 acres of topsoil is washed away every year, A Dollar A Tree For Haiti notes. Their website, www.replanthaiti.org, outlines ways to support the national effort.
Joseph acknowledges that there have been attempts to find solutions that have not yielded the results needed to reverse the trend. He insists that his non-profit will learn from the mistakes of the past and will work with botanists, agronomists, and other experts to study the issue and map out a comprehensive and strategic plan for success. Joseph has already met with the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to discuss their work in Israel, a formerly barren country where all forests have been hand-planted. Today, Israel is one of only two countries in the world that entered the 21st century with a net gain in its number of trees, boasts JNF.
Joseph maintains the depletion of Haiti’s green space dates back to 1825 when trees were chopped down at high rates and shipped to France after the young nation led a successful revolution against them to claim its independence – a very high punitive price for freedom. Others point to recent natural disasters, like Hurricane Hazel in 1954, that took down a significant number of the remaining trees.
Can this effort truly make a difference? A Press Club official in attendance noted that when the earthquake hit in 2010, Joseph was the “right man at the right time to be the voice and face of the response.” She added that she is betting on Joseph to address the deforestation crisis and believes that A Dollar A Tree For Haiti will meet its goals because of Joseph.