MOUNTAIN vs VALLEY FARMING
In the low-lying fertile region of the Artibonite farmers have three seasons. In the rainy season they plant rice. The land is sectioned off into plots to retain water and rice thrives in the pools of water. As the season changes and the water begins to dry and the rice is harvested the soil is then prepared for planting beans. Black beans, white beans and red beans are the three primary legumes planted in the region. Once the beans are harvested the land has largely dried up, the complex systems of canals that tap into the region’s river that shares its name, the Artibonite River, fuel the land for as long as it can. By the time the canals provide little more than a trickle it is time for the valley farmers to plant corn. Corn in Haiti survives on little nutrients and little water. By the time the corn is ready to harvest the rainy season arrives again and farmers prepare the land for rice once more.
Conversely in the mountains, the reach of the river is just not great enough. Farmers depend on what little water the rainy season can provide. Largely the lack of rich soil, water, and the over abundance of bright hot sun makes it nearly impossible to grow anything. Only in the rainy season can farmers plant corn. In some higher elevation small valleys, water is a little more abundant and farmers can manage planting peanuts, and vegetables such as eggplants, squash, and tomatoes along with the corn.
However, the bounty of rain in the rainy season, also presents significant challenges; the summer tropical rains are often torrential, flooding the fields, washing away the fragile soils, and creating landslides, which tear out the life-sustaining corn, beans and vegetables. The collected water and debris rush down the steep hillsides, creating landslides and swollen rivers, which endanger inhabited communities in the valley as well.
From observing these harsh conditions and facing these ecological realities the concept of Haiti Timber Reintroduction Program (HTRIP) was born. The program is a reaction and a solution to the harsh mountain farming and living conditions in the Artibonite.
The HTRIP model has proven to be remarkably successful; having more than 5,000 graduates of the agroforestry classes shows how well the program has been accepted by the farmers in the upland regions of the Chene de Matheux watershed. The community-directed monitoring program provides data on tree growth and survival, as well as relevant factors such as spacing and proximity to the growth of the trees.
The active participation by community members in group programs such as kombits for soil conservation and preparation of tree plots reflects their commitment to the program and their willingness to make an investment in the program, recognizing that they will benefit directly from its success.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
of a Haitian Mountain Farmer
In the barren hills above the Artibonite Valley floor, farmers struggle to eke a living from subsistence farming. Steep, long-denuded hillsides, devastating summer rains and hurricanes, combine to prevent the development of agricultural production, which can sustain the farmers and their families.
As a result, the incidence of severe acute malnutrition and infectious diseases plague the young children, particularly as they are weaned from their mother’s meager breast milk.
Able-bodied men, unable to make a living in the mountains, search out seasonal labor opportunities in the relatively fertile valley, leaving the responsibilities for food production to women and older adults.
The minimum wage in the country is $4.50/day, which translates into around an annual income of $1,200. For families that live in the mountains around the Artibonite it isn’t uncommon that one member of the household travels to the lower valley to work on the large farms, returning home for weekends.
Households subsidize what they can earn from farming their land with this income. The typical farmer in the mountain region grows corn on their land in the rainy season (May-September). The harsh mountain landscapes makes growing much else challenging.
For most, water is not easily accessible. Most homes do not have running water or electricity. Homes are made typically from a combination of stones, cement, and mud.
Many homes use thatched roofs, called Kai Pai, and some with a slightly higher income might use “toll” or aluminum sheeting for their roof. Getting water for cooking and cleaning often means a long walk 1-3 miles with a 5-gallon bucket to a natural water source. For many families this daily chore is the responsibility for young children walking down to a spring and returning with the bucket on their head.
With such limited access to water farms rely solely on the rain to feed their crops. Additionally, the lack of trees has allowed the rain to erode the topsoil making it extremely challenging to grow other higher valued crops.
Corn is the primary cash crop for farmers in the mountains. Years that do not yield much rain can have devastating economic realities for families. In October farmers typically harvest their corn. Many turn it into a grain like corn meal, which is used for a popular Haitian dish Mais Moulen.
Farmers then bring down their harvest a few times a week to markets in lower elevation towns. For many this journey can be as far as 20 miles round trip on a harsh terrain, often done on foot or on donkey. What they can sell at market can buy them other necessities such as beans, rice, vegetables, fruits, and occasionally meats.
The farmers in the mountains of Haiti have inherited some of the harshest living conditions on the planet. In spite of it all, many continue to survive and live through the severe poverty and manage to find love, happiness, and family. After all a joke and a smile doesn’t cost a thing.
Proactive work to improve the health and welfare of the mountain communities will treat the root causes of the problem, not just the symptoms. It was from this idea HTRIP was born.
The Artibonite Valley receives around 1000 millimeters (40 inches) of rain per year in its lower elevations, with a dry period from November to March. Temperatures usually range between 24° and 28° C (75-82° F), but can reach as high as 38° C (100° F). On hillsides, water availability is limited by fast run-off. Trees that are used for reforestation must be able to survive in water-limiting conditions.
Conservation in the developing world is a complex problem that requires innovative solutions, and agroforestry in formerly forested landscapes is a promising strategy. Haiti provides an opportunity, out of necessity, to develop habitat management practices that address the needs of local people.
The environmental problems in Haiti now have a direct, negative impact on the people’s economic status, and the health and quality of life of the Haitian people. Haiti has frequently been noted as the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and certainly the mountains in the Artibonite provide some of the harshest and poorest living conditions in the country.
Furthermore, members of mountain communities, which are isolated by elevation, lack of transportation, and the poor condition of roads, suffer most acutely from the impacts of environmental degradation.
HTRIP provides high-quality seed stock for reforestation of locally known indigenous species. At this time, the most common tree varieties planted by HTRIP farmers include spanish cedar, honduras mahogany, royal poinciana, flame trees, and horseflesh mahogany. Mango, corosol, coconut, grenadia, avocado, and almond trees are all indigenous food baring trees THRIP plans as well.