PARC NATIONAL LA VISITE, Haiti – In the mountains south of Port-au-Prince, there is little evidence of the earthquake that devastated the capital city last year. The mountains suffer from a different kind of damage: decades of deforestation.
Haitian schoolchildren participating in a USAID project recently hiked into Parc National La Visite on a dual-purpose mission. About 40 kids, who live in quake-devastated neighborhoods, trekked into one of the country’s last natural habitats to fight deforestation while also commemorating those killed.
USAID is partnering with a non-governmental organization, Fondation Seguin, to plant 300,000 pine and cedar seedlings in the national park.
“This tree-planting project gives the students an opportunity to pay tribute to the more than 300,000 killed in the earthquake while also focusing on the future of Haiti and improving the environment for all,” said Nicole Widdersheim of USAID’S Office of Transition Initiatives, which implemented the project with its partner Chemonics.
The excited students clamored up the dusty mountain road, leaving some of us less-fit adults struggling to reach our destination before rain poured from the clouds which rolled down the hillsides.
The hike ended at a nearly 6,000-foot altitude in La Visite, a crucial watershed for the Cul de Sac and Port-au-Prince areas. Its towering trees were a welcome sight from the barren hillsides that were our vista for the five-hour hike. Haiti’s once-extensive forests have been destroyed by human encroachment, including the cutting down of trees to use as cooking fuel.
Student Esaie Joseph, 15, is dismayed that forests cover less than 2 percent of Haiti.
“I have always noticed that there are no trees around us,” Joseph said. “Therefore I have decided to … support this project because I believe that this is a personal choice one has to make.”
Over the weekend, the students camped out near a mountain lodge. Many were enamored with the lodge’s two dogs, while others screeched as the good-natured mastiffs lumbered up. The kids earnestly discussed reforestation, explored the woods and played games, relishing an escape from the dusty, traffic-clogged city.
Joseph, who has lived in a tent with his mother and siblings since the earthquake destroyed their home, delighted in the mountain air.
“Before sleeping, my friends and I were talking about this place which feels like paradise, because when you live the way we do, a place like this is paradise even though we know that paradise is more beautiful,” he said. “We couldn’t wait for the next morning to plant trees for those who died.”
The children rose early, singing as they carried seedlings to a ceremony in the forest. A large crowd attended, including the Ministry of the Environment, Haitian National Police, U.S. government representatives, some of the 350 workers temporarily employed for the project, and Fondation Seguin, which has a mission to protect the forest.
The non-governmental organization’s ongoing program, Ecole Verte (“Green School”), brings disadvantaged kids into the park to learn about the environment. This was USAID’s first time supporting their initiative.
Richard Cantave, the foundation’s co-founder, emphasized the significance of the 6,000-hectare park, which provides water for about 3 million people.
“We are taking about a lot of importance as a watershed is involved, besides all the biodiversity and all the rare birds and rare plants that exist only here,” he said.
The project includes protective fencing to surround the new trees. In addition, USAID’s WINNER program is funding forest wardens and providing equipment to the Ministry of the Environment to deter arsons and illegal logging.
Joseph, who threw his arms up in victory as he planted his seedlings, hopes others find similar ways to help the environment.
“There are so many other places that could also benefit from this type of activity so that one day Haiti could be filled with trees.”