12 Months and 475,000 Trees Later: There is, in Fact, Hope in Haiti

As we near the end of 2010 we face the plethora of impending “year in review” news stories and there’s no doubt that the January 12 earthquake, the October cholera outbreak and November failed presidential elections in Haiti will be focal points of those reports. As they should be. But my fear is that those reports will be frosted with the negative aspects of the condition of Haiti as a developing country in a world of hurt that is hopeless and full of hopelessness. I pray my fear isn’t realized because there exist many examples of progress and hope and success in helping to build back Haiti and those need to be shared and reported. And, while January 12 is a month away and that date in and of itself will spawn many earthquake anniversary stories, there’s no reason to wait until then to share the story of Yéle Vert, an incredible success story in the making in Gonaives, Haiti.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the launch of the Yéle Vert project in Gonaives, Haiti. Yéle Vert is collaboration between Timberland, the Yéle Haiti Foundation and Trees for the Future. There are six nurseries that make up Yéle Vert in Gonaives – one central nursery on the outskirts of the city and five smaller nurseries in nearby farming communities. At the central nursery there is a training center that has recently been completed – and in this simple building, farmers gather to discuss the ongoing operation of the Yéle Vert program and receive training to improve their techniques so that they can, in turn, increase crop yields.

Farmers taking part in the Yéle Vert program gather in the newly completed Training Center.

In December 2009, Timberland, Yéle Haiti and Trees for the Future started to break ground on the first of the six nurseries in Gonaives with the goal of having all of the nurseries up and running at full capacity by May 2010. One month after beginning work on the first nursery, the earthquake hit and we were immediately faced with some very difficult decisions. Do we cancel plans to build out Yéle Vert in Gonaives and focus solely on earthquake recovery? Do we move Yéle Vert from Gonaives, an area that wasn’t immediately impacted by the actual quake but an area in need of support nonetheless, to an area closer to Port au Prince in an effort to support a long term recovery effort there? Or, do we carry on as planned with Yéle Vert and also do as much as we can to support earthquake relief and recovery?

Within a week of the quake striking we had made the decision with Yéle Haiti and Trees for the Future to carry on with our work in Gonaives because the work there, we knew, was far too important to walk away from or delay. Also, we figured if we could build a successful model in Gonaives, we could expand Yéle Vert to other areas throughout Haiti. To stay in Gonaives meant we could likely build success and derive key learnings much faster than if we established the program in an area hit hard by the quake.

Haiti’s status as the more environmentally degraded and poorest country in the Western Hemisphere has been widely documented. Less than 2% of the country’s original forests remain due to a long history of unsustainable land-use practices and a continuing dependence on trees for fuel wood and charcoal for cooking and heating.

Just as well documented is the reluctant and cautious nature of the Haitian people to accept help from NGOs and private sector companies. As we started to build the six nurseries, each in a different village, we learned straight away the importance of engaging the local farmers and other citizens in the villages in a dialogue about what is important to them when it comes to planting trees on and around their land.  Thanks to Timote George, a native of Gonaives and the Yéle Vert project manager and country manager for Trees for the Future, the message of Yéle Vert was delivered to the local farming community in a very diplomatic and engaging manner. While skepticism among the locals was evident, they were willing to give Yéle Vert a try by volunteering to help run the local nurseries. In return they would receive agroforestry training, non genetically-modified seeds for their crops, and trees planted on their lands that would help increase crop yield by restoring essential nutrients to the soil and helping to bring back natural habitats for insects, birds and other animals crucial to productive agriculture.

Yéle Vert administration building nearing completion,
with Trees for the Future’s Timote George on the right.

In May 2010, within four months of breaking ground on the first three nurseries, the farmers were planting seedlings from the nurseries in to their land and on adjacent deforested hillsides. In June and July, more than 100,000 trees were planted and the final three nurseries were constructed.

Trees at the Yéle Vert central nursery ready to be transplanted by farmers to their fields.

Looking back is important … but a true retrospect needs to acknowledge the good that’s been achieved, along with all the hardships and challenges Haiti and its people have suffered.  Stay tuned for a follow-up post on the current state of the Yéle Vert project, how our farmers are coping with the widespread cholera outbreak, and what our vision is for this program and partnership in the future.

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