With a prayer and a speech, Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s former ambassador to the United States, has officially launched “A Dollar A Tree for Haiti Inc.”
Joseph’s ambitious goal: to restore his denuded Caribbean country to the lush green state it was in back in 1804, the year Haiti declared its independence from France.
Joseph unveiled the nonprofit organization from the pulpit of Greater Mount Nebo AME Church of Bowie, Md., and he did so on Jan. 12 — the third anniversary of the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince. At his side was Mount Nebo’s pastor, Rev. Jonathan L. Weaver, who called Joseph “an absolutely wonderful man of God, one who epitomizes integrity.”
Joseph, 81, represented Haiti in Washington from 2005 to 2010, resigning that year to run for president of his quake-ravaged country. No longer in politics, the former ambassador — accompanied by his wife Lola — has vowed to devote the rest of his life to Haitian reforestation efforts.
“Since August 2010, Lola and I have been living in Haiti, watching with sadness how the country is becoming a desert. Tree cover now stands at just 2 percent,” Joseph told about 50 parishioners at Mt. Nebo. “But this is the same country Christopher Columbus exclaimed was a beautiful place full of trees when he visited our shores in 1492.”
Actually, Haiti’s tree cover is even less — more like 1.2 percent, according to Franz Stuppard, a Haitian-American advisor to Trees for the Future.
Stuppard’s organization, headquartered in Silver Spring, will work hand-in-hand with Joseph’s. And that makes perfect sense, since the two men go back a long way.
“The ambassador knew my father even before I was born,” Stuppard said. “When we met, he recognized my name. And now, he wants this to become his legacy. What he’s proposing to do is find funding, and we do the work. He doesn’t really plan to reinvent the wheel, just modify it.”
A Dollar A Tree for Haiti seeks to raise up to $500,000 a year to plant trees, with Trees for the Future doing the actual planting. Exactly how many trees and what kind remains to be seen; Stuppard said long-term, it could be in the millions.
“That sounds like a lot, but Haiti is exactly the same size as Maryland,” he pointed out. “If you drive along I-70 west going towards West Virginia, you will see mountains covered with trees. And population density doesn’t matter. New Jersey is smaller than Haiti and has many more people, yet there are a lot of trees in New Jersey.”
Unlike some other Haiti-related charities that surfaced after the earthquake and were later exposed as scams, turning off donors, “this is going to be a transparent, accountable organization,” said Joseph. “The website will show whatever we get and how we spend it. People will be able to work with us, because it’ll be interactive.”
The former diplomat warned that Haiti — already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere — could suffer social unrest in the wake of continued food shortages caused by natural disasters.
“Whenever a hurricane comes to the Caribbean, Haiti bears the brunt of it because it has no tree protection. The United Nations said that because of Hurricane Sandy, we can expect famine later this year, since 60 percent of all the crops were destroyed. And when the people don’t eat, they rise up. Governments have fallen because of that.”
Joseph said he was inspired by a local politician, André Gustave Louis, who spearheaded an initiative to plant 20,000 trees in Kenscoff, a suburb in the mountains above Port-au-Prince.
“We want to plant one million trees in two years — all sorts of trees. Mango trees, avocado trees, citrus trees. We will employ botanists and agronomists to study which ones,” said the former ambassador. A Dollar A Tree for Haiti will also launch a public information campaign to promote the use of solar cookers and bakeries, decreasing the need for Haitians to cut trees down for firewood.
As Joseph explains it, the deforestation of Haiti began almost immediately following independence in 1804, at which time the struggling new country was home to only 400,000 people.
“We got independence by beating the French on the battlefield. Former slaves rose up and beat their masters. It was the first time a slave revolt had been successful,” he said. “But by 1825, the French had organized an embargo against Haiti, together with other powers including the United States. We had to pay reparations to France in wood, and soon, lots of mahogany trees began finding their way to European homes and cathedrals. That’s how the deforestation of Haiti began in earnest.”
Within 100 years, Haiti’s forest cover had declined to 60 percent, and its population began taking off.
“In 1954, Hurricane Hazel tore down a lot of forest in Haiti. People started to do logging, and charcoal became big business,” he said. “That caused the trouble we have in Haiti today — a deforested country of 10 million inhabitants which will continue getting worse unless we do something.”
A U.S. Agency for International Development study in 1997 found that deforestation costs Haiti about 30 million trees annually. Furthermore, about 15,000 acres of topsoil are washed away every year, making it more difficult for farmers to grow food.
That’s why Trees for the Future, active in Haiti since 2002, has focused on planting trees to reforest degraded hillsides and produce sustainable sources of fuel, construction materials, food and biodiesel.
In the last four years, the NGO has reforested large portions of the Arcadine coast north of Port-au-Prince — particularly in the Chaines de Mattheux between Cabaret and St. Marc. In late 2010, despite the devastation left by the massive earthquake that had struck in January, the program was expanded to communities further north toward Gonaïves, in partnership with the Yélé Foundation.
“Our staffers are former Peace Corps volunteers, people from the States who have lived overseas,” Stuppard said. “They know forestry, and that certain types of trees are ‘pioneer trees’ that will survive in any environment. The land is so degraded that you need to plant those pioneer trees first. They will rejuvenate the soil. As they grow, the leaves fall off and the soil comes back to life. The roots go down deep so that when it rains, the soil doesn’t run off. After six months to a year, when those trees are growing well, then you can introduce fruit trees.”
In 2011 alone, Trees for the Future worked with more than 1,000 farmers in 17 communities to plant one million trees; this includes a program in Medor in partnership with Our Lady Queen of Peace, a Catholic church in Arlington, Va. The organization is also active in Central America, Africa and Asia — planting coffee, maple, pine and cedar trees in dozens of countries worldwide.
Joseph said his group is targeting the Haitian diaspora, which is four million strong and scattered throughout the world, but mainly in the United States, Canada, France and the Dominican Republic.
“In the U.S. alone, there are two million Haitians, and we’re trying to appeal to them,” Joseph said. “I believe that when they see an organization that is very transparent and accountable, they’ll come through.”
Bernice Fidelia, the liaison for diaspora affairs in the government of Haitian President Michel Martelly, said A Dollar A Tree for Haiti is exactly the kind of program Haiti needs at this time.
“This program, combined with our Keep Haiti Green and Beautiful, is a great endeavor,” she said by phone from Miami. “I will do all that is necessary to support this program because this is a project that is very dear to the president.”
For more information, visit the organization’s website.
Larry Luxner is a freelance writer with The Washington Diplomat and former editor of CubaNews. Born and raised in Miami and now based in Israel, Larry has reported from every country in the Western Hemisphere. His specialty is Latin America and the Middle East, and he’s written more than 2,000 articles for publications ranging from National Journal to Saudi Aramco World. Larry also runs an Internet-based stock photo agency at www.luxner.com.