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Stefan Jones is Worldchanging


In the juvenile SF classic Farmer in the Sky, Heinlein depicts a farmboy turning the barren plains of Ganymede into fertile soil with a rock-pulverizing plow and a sack of soil-generating fungi and bacteria. The plow and the protagonist's home are powered by broadcast power. In other SF novels, lifeless wastes are turned fertile with crashing comets and nanotechnology and genetically tailored black moss.

Man, SF characters sure have it easy.

I've been thinking about scenarios like these lately, after reading about the damage done to Haiti by Tropical Storm Jeanne. The city of Gonaives was particularly hard hit; the death toll there alone is expected to top 2,000.

The connection? The deaths in Haiti were largely due to flooding linked to massive deforestation. What might have been a minor disaster became a catastrophe thanks to prior environmental damage: An eco-catastrophe that is caused by, and the cause, of entrenched poverty. Barren mountain vallys -- "a moonscape of bedrock ravaged by ravines" -- acted as funnels, sluicing water directly into inhabited areas.

Haiti's forests began disappearing  in colonial times, before the French were kicked out by a slave rebellion. But the real damage didn't start until late in the last century, when Haitians pressed for work and cheap fuel began stripping Hispaniola's rugged mountains of trees to make charcoal. In fifty years, the nation's forest cover was reduced from 25% to 1.4%. Without root systems to hold down the soil, rain scoured the hillsides, washing topsoil into the sea.

One article cited below mentions "small scale" replanting efforts and pilot alternative energy projects, but I suspect it is going to take a lot more than that. In addition to being an environmental basket case, Haiti is in serious political and economic straights as well. If it was on the brink of being a failed state before Jeanne, it is one now. Relief efforts are being hampered by a virtual absence of government authority, a moribund public health system, and armed gangs bent on stealing emergency supplies.

Where the hell do you start when things are this badly messed up? I am honestly mystified.

Well, actually, there is an obvious thing that needs fixing before anything else could be done beyond emergency relief: Get Haiti a new government and an effective legal system. Putting an end to decades of rule by thugs and kleptocrats is an obvious first step. It is perhaps not polite or politically correct to bring up property rights issues when talking about impoverished people in dire straits, but the fact remains that the Dominican Republic, which shares the same island as Haiti, remains a green land and got through Jeanne's passage virtually unscathed at least in part because its forested hills are private lands protected from casual pillage.

Lets skip over that formidable hurdle, and the equally daunting task of convincing the nations of the world to cough up more money for a land that could be the poster child for compassion fatigue, and think what specific techniques might be employed to make Haiti green again . . . and keep the cycle of destruction from recurring.

For starters: How do you go about convincing a large, impoverished, and illiterate populace to give up their charcoal cookstoves? There are plenty of alternatives, ranging from solar cookers to gas stoves run on methane from sewer works, but are there a million units in stock and ready to go?

How do you go about stabilizing steep mountain slopes? What trees do you plant? Do you choose native species, or something faster growing that might be a cash crop? Or perhaps some tree that is totally useless economically, because planting something valuable is just setting things up for another round of plunder?

Should we stop at alternative energy souces and environmental remediation and dabble in social fixes? I'm loathe to suggest that sort of thing -- one century's worth of social engineering projects gone horribly wrong was enough -- but we should not ignore the fact that Haiti's deforestation was grass-roots movement. Poverty can breed unsustainable ways of earning a living, ranging from poaching great apes to gold mining with mercury, that desperate people are loathe to give up. Charcoal-making, while unsustainable, is a job, a precious thing in a massively impoverished land. Replacing stoves and fuel might be a cinch compared to replacing the jobs they make obsolete. For that matter, how do you employ the young men of Haiti's teeming and volatile slums who never had a job to begin with? Is something like the American CCC workable?

How would you fix Haiti?

Associated Press:  Deforestation Exacerbates Haiti Floods

OneWorld.Net: Haiti - a flood of injustice

SciDev.Net: Haiti's lessons for managing the global environment

Christian Science Monitor: In Jeanne's wake, new efforts to prevent 'natural' disasters

Science Magazine: Globalization, Migration, and Latin American Ecosystems

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Must be 20 years of so ago that I attended a slide show session with a couple of people from Auroville near Pondicherry, India. They had started building their religious community at least 20 years before that and one of their main foci was reforestration. They developed a method of tracking erosion gullies to their sources and using pebbles and rocks to divert water. They also planted a LOT of trees with water cath basins downslope to slow erosion and provide water for the trees. They said that they'd already changed the local climate, 20 years ago. I wonder what they are doing now.

As for Haiti, Amy Smith of the Edgerton Center at MIT is working on alternatives to charcoal and other solutions for Haiti. Enersol has been doing local solar electricity in the Dominican Republic, Haiti's neighbor on the same island, since 1984. I don't believe that they've been able to make a dent in Haiti although they've expanded to other countries in Central America.

I'd also look at the examples of local restoration work in Costa Rica like ANAI, an off-shoot of the old New Alchemy Institute. And I wonder if there might not be a way to instill an ecological ethic through Voudun.

Posted by: gmoke on 7 Oct 04

Good stuff, thanks.

I think it's neat that the Nobel Peace Prize winner is a reforestation wonk.

I considered suggesting employing Voudon, but the idea is too . . . I dunno, condecending in a Star Trek kind of way. (I can picture Picard ordering Jordi to make up a bunch of holo-transmitters to project angry god images to help save a civilization while skirting the Prime Directive.)

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 9 Oct 04



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