By Reem Abu-Libdeh


Burning wood to create charcoal contributes to the deforestation problem in Haiti.

From solar panels to composting latrines, PIH's partner organization in Haiti is working to combat hundreds of years of environmental degradation with several new projects.

Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., hasan ambitious plan, outlined in his recently introduced Haiti Reforestation Act of 2009 (Bill S.1183): to end deforestation of Haiti within 5 years and replace, within 30 years, the “extent of tropical forest cover in existence in Haiti in 1990.” This is no small task. Haiti, a country covered in rich rainforest 500 years ago, before the Spanish and French looted the land for valuable wood and cleared forests for plantations, is almost completely without tree cover. The country is 98 percent deforested. The ramifications—soil erosion, unarable land, and an energy crisis—are especially devastating in this hurricane-prone country, where more than 80 percent of people live under the poverty line. But in the past several months Partners In Health, and its partner organization in Haiti, Zanmi Lasante (ZL), has been teaming up with other organizations to help combat Haiti’s environmental degradation on multiple fronts.


Charcoal press developed by MIT students.


Charcoal briquette

The most common household cooking fuel in Haiti is charbon—charcoal made by cutting down trees and carbonizing their wood. In efforts to provide an alternate energy source, ZL worked with a group of MIT students and professors to develop charcoal presses that can compact carbonized organic waste, including bagasse (the waste product that remains after sugar is extracted from the cane) and corn cobs, into charcoal briquettes. The group worked with the Zanmi Agrikol team in Corporant to make and distribute about fifty presses, and to teach families how to make the charcoal from organic farm waste. The briquettes serve a dual purpose—they stop the cutting down of trees for wood charcoal, and they generate income for families who make and sell the briquettes. 

Also on the energy front, ZL, working with SELF, the Solar Electric Light Fund, is installing solar panels in two clinics that currently use fuel-powered generators. When the price of fuel spikes, or when hurricane devastation makes the transport of fuel difficult, the clinics suffer. The panels will either wholly or partially offset energy used by the generator; ZL’s plan is for both clinics to eventually run completely on solar energy.

Deforestation’s most serious effects, especially for sustenance farmers and others living in poverty, include soil erosion and land degradation. ZL is using everything from dry latrines to fruit tree saplings to help stem the tide.

Much of the nutrient-rich top soil in Haiti has been flushed into the ocean during floods (a direct result of bare mountains that cannot hold on to the soil), and in some places, the earth has been eroded down to bedrock. Zanmi Lasante, partnering with SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods), a nonprofit committed to preserving soil resources, is fighting the problem with, at first glance, an unlikely resource: human waste.

ZL has constructed 75 dry latrines, also known as composting toilets, in the past year in Cange and Boucan Carre. The latrines, enclosed concrete structures shared by multiple families, have a fiberglass molded plate designed to facilitate the separation of liquids from solids. The urine, collected in a large plastic bucket, can be used to water crops when mixed with the correct amount of rain or river water. The solid waste has a more complicated future.

Two chambers collect the waste. For six months, one side of the latrine is used; the other is covered by a concrete slab. Six months later, ash and sand are added to the chamber filled with solid waste, the chamber is covered with a concrete slab, and the other chamber is used. After six more months, the solid waste mixed with ash and sand can be used to fertilize crops. Then the cycle starts anew.


Mango saplings grown by ZL's agricultural partner organization, Zanmi Agrikol.

Finally, to fight deforestation directly with reforestation, ZL distributed more than 20,000 soil conservation and fruit tree saplings in the last year. In 2007, ZL began educating communities about deforestation and distributed tens of thousands of conservation and fruit tree saplings. The fruit tree saplings prove especially useful since the fruit can be sold or consumed.

While reversing hundreds of years of environmental problems cannot be quickly remedied, ZL’s projects, and others, are helping to prevent further destruction, as well as supply jobs and food to the communities served by ZL. The medical clinics at ZL know that environmental degradation contributes to the cycle of poverty and disease; these projects help to weaken those links.



[posted July 2009]