The state of Haiti's tree-cover: A new picture is emerging

Written by Rob Bailis

Monday, 29 January 2018 23:31

SEI 2018 Blog Haititrees350A boy stands watch as charcoal producers begin constructing an earth-mound charcoal kiln northeast of Port-au-Prince. Photo credit: Joel Geertsma/Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

For decades, Haiti has been upheld as an archetypal case of environmental mismanagement. Demand for fuelwood and charcoal has long been blamed for severe deforestation, with international agencies reporting that the percentage of forest cover is in the single digits.

We are now realizing that the full picture is far less dire. Recent research suggests that forest cover may actually be as much as 30% – and that degradation may be tempered by the everyday actions of Haitians who manage their land in productive ways.,

However, experts still concede that Haiti’s forests are severely degraded. Moreover, 90% of Haitian families continue to cook with either wood or charcoal. The country’s cities – where residents prefer charcoal (which requires more wood per meal than fuelwood) – also continue to grow.

So what’s in store for the future? What are the implications for Haiti’s already degraded landscape if this business-as-usual scenario plays out? And what is the scale of intervention needed to have a noticeable impact on future degradation?

A few colleagues and I set out to address these questions by developing a dynamic spatial model on an open-source platform called Modeling Fuelwood Sustainability Scenarios (MoFuss). Our model simulates the relationship between wood harvesting and regrowth in order to provide a peek into Haiti’s future landscape. It was developed through a research partnership between scientists at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and the Stockholm Environment Institute – with financial support from the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves – and has been used to analyze woodfuel impacts in a dozen countries.

The bottom line for Haiti: under a business-as-usual scenario, the landscape will likely degrade further. However, with aggressive interventions, Haiti can avoid the worst effects of degradation and even restore some of the landscape.

We detail the results in a recent paper in Environmental Research Letters. Specifically, we found that Haiti’s stocks of trees could decline by about 4% between 2017 and 2027. This is an annual loss of about 300 kilotons of wood, resulting in emissions equivalent to that of small a U.S town like Schenectady, NY. If demand for fuelwood and charcoal reduces moderately, the results are largely the same.

But a sharp decline in demand would have substantial impact. For example, if 90% of urban Haitians completely transitioned over the next decade from fuelwood and charcoal to an alternative fuel like cooking gas, then annual demand for wood energy would decline 44% by 2027. This would effectively reverse the degradation forecast under a business-as-usual scenario and allow some recovery to occur.

SEI 2018 Blog Haiti hill350
A plot of land witin a charcoal-managed woodlot in southern Haiti, cleared for temporary agricultural production. Photo credit: Andrew Tarter.

To what extent do the assumptions and hypothetical scenarios explored in our model reflect the lived reality in Haiti? Andrew Tarter, an anthropologist and co-author of our publication, has studied charcoal production in Haiti for the past decade. When he first visited Haiti, Tarter noted areas characterized by rolling, tree-covered hills, extending as far as the eye could see. Upon his return a few years later, he noted many of the same hills had been cleared for charcoal production.

Five years later, however, many of those same plots had recovered. In his doctoral dissertation, Tarter documents how farmers in many areas of Haiti shape and manage small woodlots in order to sustain tree-harvesting and regrowth in climate and market-resilient agroforestry systems. His observations support the assumptions used in our model that landscapes can recover after charcoal production. However, it is not clear whether these systems can support the additional demand for charcoal that population growth and urbanization may create.

Our analysis shows that aggressive effort can avoid future degradation and lead to some degree of landscape restoration. However, our study has several limitations, which we hope to address with future work. First, many of the model’s key inputs are characterized by large uncertainties, which are carried through the analysis and make it difficult to estimate the actual impact of specific interventions. This would be important when comparing the cost-effectiveness of different policies and programs.

Second, the actual interventions are untested in Haiti. Elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean basin, there has been widespread uptake of clean cooking options like efficient woodstoves and LPG, which reduce demand for woodfuels and ease pressure on forest resources; however, past attempts to reduce woodfuel demand in Haiti have had limited success. This raises questions about which, if any of the interventions modeled in the analysis are feasible and scalable.

To address both of these limitations, we hope to extend this work in mid-2018 with a more detailed study involving a coalition of researchers. The effort would include collection of field data on woody biomass supply and woodfuel demand.

Read the related paper in Environmental Research Letters


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