The poorest nation in the Western hemisphere and one that seems permanently mired in poverty, despair, and having to deal with one catastrophe after another, Haiti is a country whose many woes could be addressed with an ancient plant: Bamboo. Haiti has always been plagued by its location directly in the paths of one tropical storm after another but, regrettably, most of its problems are self-made. Overpopulation, corruption, political instability, environmental degradation, deforestation and subsequent soil erosion, are all among a litany of woes which have caused other nations to provide year after year of financial assistance to no avail.
In Haiti, even a modest rainstorm can trigger huge rock and mudslides which barrel down the steep mountain slopes and bury entire villages because there are few trees left to hold the soil in place. Once heavily forested with millions of trees gracing its mountains, experts from the United Nations estimate that only 1.5 percent of Haiti’s once lush forests remain. Most of Haiti’s trees are not cut down for cropland but for charcoal to fuel cooking fires. And after years of ignoring the problems only to see them worsen, Haiti’s political leaders have a new sense of urgency about addressing the problem. Mud and rockslides from tropical storms last August and September buried two of Haiti’s larger towns, Cabaret and Gonaïves killing hundreds and turning tens of thousands into refugees.
Haiti’s new Prime Minister, Michèle Pierre-Louis, recently elected in August, warned that the fate of Gonaïves could happen to the entire country unless something is done. ‘The whole country is facing an ecological disaster,’ he said. ‘We cannot keep going on like this. We are going to disappear one day. There will not be 400, 500 or 1,000 deaths. There are going to be a million deaths.’
In the 1950s, a structural engineer named Wynne could foresee that Haiti’s rapid deforestation was going to lead to environmental disaster. He imported dozens of species of bamboo to the island nation and implored officials to halt the degradation but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Today, his daughter is an environmentalist living in Haiti and she has renewed her father’s efforts to halt deforestation and is urging the government to plant bamboo to prevent further soil erosion. ‘We’ve been warning of this disaster for years,’ she said. ‘We could see what was coming. In 1956, my father said bamboo could save that country.
Bamboo grows incredibly quickly and is one of the best renewable resources on the planet. Not only is it very effective at preventing soil erosion, it can also be used for food, fuel, building materials, manufacturing, and may be Haiti’s best hope for addressing yet another problem: unemployment.
Time will tell if Haiti’s new government will be able to plant bamboo and make progressive strides to cure the catastrophic environmental degradation which has made it especially susceptible to calamity and loss of life. But one thing remains very clear. Unless Haiti takes action now to preserve what little forest it has left and rethinks its failed land management policies, the huge problems it is experiencing today will seem tame compared to the catastrophes which loom on the horizon.