Haiti: In Search of Hope

Planting fast-​growing trees could help a nation where 80 percent of its population lives in abject poverty
Photos by Keerthi Suresh Haiti: In Search of Hope
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Deschapelles, Haiti – From the window of a small, private plane, the island of Hispaniola came into view in the middle of the vast, blue Caribbean. Haiti and its neighbor on the island, the Dominican Republic, looked like two countries on a globe in a library, set apart by two different colors.

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The Dominican Republic was a lush green and mountainous Haiti, a rumpled blanket of brown. The six travelers were guests of fellow Pittsburgher Chris Snavely, the chairman of Snavely Forest Products, who had packed 1,000 saplings in the cargo hold. At 81, Snavely was taking on a new project: to see if he could find a species of tree that might begin to reforest Haiti.

We set foot on the sweltering tarmac and pushed our belongings on a cart to customs. After ignoring the State Department warning to stay away, we wondered what lay ahead. When the papers were finished, our armed private security team hustled us outside where three white SUVs awaited. Off we went, cutting a brief path into the main flow, honking, lurching and merging into the teeming, dusty artery of cars and motorbikes, lined by people, dogs, goats and pigs. Adjacent to the airport stood the United Nations compound, barricaded by piles of tires, fencing and concertina wire and punctuated by towers with UN soldiers in light blue helmets gripping machine guns.

Kidnapping of foreigners was becoming common in Port-​Au-​Prince, and our priority was getting out of there fast. In some places, high walls lined the city roads. Mainly, though, flimsy, makeshift commercial huts formed the berm, along with women balancing baskets on their heads, men pushing wheelbarrows and discarded tires and cars. Doors locked as we swung through a slow, sharp turn where the road narrowed. Carjackers often waited there, as professionals from the city — people rich enough to have a car — headed out of town for the weekend.

The main highway led north through walls of garbage into a hilly country area, where skinny cows ranged free and dead horses occasionally lay by the road side. Drivers generally stay on the right, but there are no lanes, no signs and no rules. On a patch of good road, the driver stepped on it, only to brake hard and nearly stop before descending into axle-​breaking potholes. Village followed village with Haitians in shanties selling food or charcoal. We never saw a farm, just the occasional subsistence plot with banana or mango trees. In one small city, cars, wheelbarrows and footfalls raised a constant cloud of dust. And the people, though the deepest African black, were covered in dust, all a ghostly white.

A singular history

Since the first European set foot on it, Haiti has been a land of promise and cataclysm, of fable and frustration, of beauty and desperation. Christopher Columbus was the first European to make landfall on the island, in December of 1492. It took the Spanish about 25 years to exterminate the native Arawak Indians. The Spanish, however, soon lost interest in Haiti, moving on for gold elsewhere. It was then that the French came on the scene, originally as solitary hunters who lived by their weapons, gathering meat and curing it in stoves called buccans to supply meat for ships returning to Europe. The Spanish attacked the French interlopers, forcing them to band together and set to sea. Desperate, they attacked a Spanish ship and found the take to be so lucrative that they made a new trade of it. And they got a new name: buccaneers.

The French took control of Haiti in 1697, logging nearly the entire mahogany stock and sending it back to Europe for furniture. They cleared more to create sugar cane plantations, bringing hundreds of thousands of African slaves to work the land. More logging fueled the mills. Haiti’s prosperity earned it the name “The Pearl of the Antilles,” and the position of being France’s most prized colony. Soon it became a black pearl, the world’s first black republic, when in 1804 the slaves revolted and finally defeated Napoleon’s forces. As part of the peace, however, Haiti agreed to pay France reparations for the war, which included further deforestation of mahogany. What pride and promise the revolution held has never translated to prosperity. It may have been that the powers of the world weren’t eager to help a slave revolt succeed. Industrialization never took hold, and the economic model that made Haiti prosperous couldn’t work without slave labor. The governments have been a succession of failures, with 30 coups in 200 years.

Now, more than 8 million people live in an area just larger than Maryland. Unemployment, to the extent that it can be counted, exceeds 70 percent, and illiteracy tops 90 percent. There are no exports to speak of. Per capita income is just over $200 a year. And a trip to a local market confirms that Haiti is not only the poorest country in the western hemisphere and perhaps the world, it is also the end of the consumption chain. Aside from hog’s heads lying in the dirt, bubbling caldrons of red broth and well-​used fabrics, the market offers half-​full tubes of tooth paste, used shoes and single pieces of chewing gum.

The Mellon compound

We reached the Artibonite Valley and turned off at Deschapelles, slowly climbing a hill, past a gate and into the grounds of our destination, the home built by Dr. Larimer Mellon and his wife, Gwen Grant Mellon. June marks the 50th anniversary of the hospital the Mellons built in Haiti. From afar, the story is among the most remarkable of all Pittsburgh-​related undertakings. Only from up close, though, do you realize what an utter leap into the breach they took. An unfulfilled Larry Mellon, son of the founder of Gulf Oil, enrolled in the rigors of medical school in his late thirties. After conversations with Albert Schweitzer, Dr. Mellon decided to use his life and his fortune to build a hospital in a place where it was most needed. Haiti fit the bill. The Mellons purchased a former headquarters compound from the Standard Fruit Company, and the odyssey began.

Ian Rawson can see the situation in his mind like a re-​run, the day his family arrived in Haiti to check it as a possible site for the hospital. Half a century later, Ian is Chairman of the Grant Foundation, which oversees Hopital Albert Schweitzer. Rawson is working to carry on the vision of his mother and stepfather, and that vision was as broad as the Mellon pockets were deep. Over the years, the hospital’s mission grew to include not just treatment of disease but also the causes of disease, namely poverty. The Mellons worked on irrigation, water purification, furniture making and many other services to try and make the valley more prosperous.

Now, after the founders’ death and half a decade of tepid stock market returns, retrenchment is the order of the day. Patient revenue has never been much, though everyone has to pay something. But that revenue plus donations and income from endowment simply can’t keep up with a $5 million budget. Rawson, an administrator at Allegheny General Hospital for 15 years knows what’s necessary: trimming staff and reducing treatment to just the service area. The population of the service area has grown from 125,000 in 1956 to 300,000, but patients now come from all over central Haiti. Doctors come from all over the world to work there, but particularly from Pittsburgh and Switzerland. It’s the kind of place where doctors come to remember why they became doctors, to help people, ease suffering and save lives.

The story of trees

When times get tough in Haiti, trees bear the brunt. Branch by branch on dusty hillsides, they’re hacked down and turned into charcoal, the country’s main source of fuel.

International efforts have battled the relentless deforestation, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has planted roughly 60 million trees. That agency estimates that Haitians chop down between 10 and 20 million trees a year. In 1950, about 25 percent of Haiti was covered with forest. In 1987, it was 10 percent. By 1994, it was down to 4 percent. Now, between 1 and 2 percent of Haiti’s land is forested.

A devastating logic accompanies the loss of trees. Without trees, nothing holds the topsoil, which either blows or is washed away. The U.N. estimates Haiti loses 36 million tons of topsoil a year. Less topsoil, in turn, means fewer trees. And without trees, which breathe vapor into the atmosphere, there’s less rainfall. When rain does come, the earth can’t absorb it, so heavy rains become floods that kill thousands. In short, Haiti is a haunting, apocalyptic vision of ecological collapse.

Against that backdrop, Snavely, Rawson and three others climbed the hill behind the Mellon house, pausing briefly in the shade by the Mellons’ simple grave, before continuing to the compound’s garden. In the garden, dripping with sweat, the group squatted and knelt to plant the first Paulownia trees. At hand were eight-​inch-​tall, miniature Lawn Boy-​like bags half full of dirt. The process was simple: fill the bottom part with water, then fill the rest of the bag with dirt. The trees were just little twigs with roots. Before planting them, the group snipped the tops to shock the roots into growth. “Is it a bitter tree when you taste it?” one of the locals asked Snavely. “I don’t know, I’ve never eaten it,” he replied. The other man continued, “If it is bitter, maybe the goats and termites won’t eat it.”

Snavely brought 1,000 black acacia, eucalyptus and Paulownia trees, but he has the highest hope for the Paulownia. Native to China, its wood is light-​colored and fairly lightweight with straight grain. It can be used in furniture, some construction and plywood. But that isn’t what made Snavely think the Paulownia might be the perfect tree for Haiti. It is also known as the Jack and the Beanstalk tree because it is one of the most rapidly growing trees in the world, with growth of 12 to 15 feet in the first year not being unusual. The joke is that it grows so fast that it keeps people awake at night with the crackling it makes as it grows. Beyond being a fast grower, though, the Paulownia grows back from the same stump once it’s been harvested. And finally, its leaves are rich with nitrogen and are a good addition to the soil.

On our last day, we visited the local Catholic Church. It happened to be a children’s service, and the large, bright building was filled with young people dressed in their Sunday best, dark pants and skirts and white shirts. The pastor spoke, and the children sang song after song, their high, sweet voices providing the only harmony we would find in Haiti. Near the end of the service, one of the Haitians who’d helped plant the Paulownias took the podium and began a rousing speech in Creole. He gestured to Rawson and Snavely to come to the front. As he spoke and his voice rose, the entire church broke into applause, loud and long. Afterwards, on the steps of the church outside, the young churchgoers surrounded Snavely, eager to be near the man from America who had brought the trees.

The aftermath

In the 12 months since our visit, kidnappings and murders in Port-​Au-​Prince escalated as the national election was postponed until February when a new government was formed. Violence in the capital has abated, and Deschapelles continues on in its peaceful poverty. The tree planting program has gathered steam. Ian and Lucy Rawson hired Starry Sprenkle, a U.C. of Santa Cruz grad, whose senior thesis was on reforestation in Costa Rica. She’s been to Haiti twice and has organized a consortium of Haitians who are planting 1,000 trees. The idea is to educate local farmers on the care of a portfolio of five species in several demonstration plots. If it catches on, it will help reforest the Artibonite Valley and produce a cash crop to for the farmers.

It’s only a seven-​year process with Paulownias, and they can visualize that,” Rawson said. “Everything has to come from the farmers who will benefit. They have to see the evidence. Why is the hospital interested? A household that grows trees and harvests lumber has income. And the diseases we treat are primarily tied to poverty.”

Snavely has asked friends to chip into the effort. “The optimistic thought is that the farmers will propagate their own trees, to the point that within 15 years, they’d have some real forest down there. Then they could be harvesting trees. It can be done. It’s a damned shame. The people there are beautiful. And God knows, they deserve more than what they get. It’s a crime that that country is right in our back yard. And year after year, century after century, nothing gets better. Only worse.

The hospital is certainly the nucleus to start from, and if the Paulownia seems to be the answer, then the next step is to plant many thousands of trees,” Snavely said, then added with a laugh, “The thing I like about it is that, with a seven-​year maturity cycle, I’ll still be around for three cycles.” Of the Paulownias that Snavely planted, the largest is 14 feet tall.

Douglas Heuck

A journalistic innovator, Heuck has been writing about Pittsburgh for 25 years, as an investigative reporter and business editor at The Pittsburgh Press and Post-​Gazette and as the founder of Pittsburgh Quarterly. His newspaper projects ranged from living on the streets disguised as a homeless man to penning the only comprehensive profile in the latter years of polio pioneer Dr. Jonas Salk to creating a statistical means of judging regional progress that has led to similar projects across the country. Heuck’s work has won numerous national, state and local writing awards. His work has been cited in the landmark media law case “Food Lion vs. ABC news.”

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