Tropical Storm Isaac assaulted Haiti on its way north to the US Gulf Coast last week. Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Haiti, located in the Artibonite Valley and sheltered by two large mountain ranges, is rarely affected by hurricanes, which do greater damage to coastal communities. Our immediate assessment of Isaac in the valley indicated little damage, but when we sent vehicles up to the southern mountains above the hospital, the drivers came back with stories of severe damages in the steep hillside communities.
The storm hit the tops of the ridge and created flooding down the hills, taking with it more than 40 houses and many of the crops. This is a big loss to these families, because of the lack of water in that region, they depend on the rainy season to plant all of their family’s food.
One of the hospital’s major strategies to protect the fragile ecology of the mountain community is the Haiti Timber Reintroduction Project (HTRIP), through which community groups are assisted in developing soil conservation techniques and and tree plots. “One of the goals of the project to create zones in which the tree farms stabilize the soil, and food crops can be grown between the trees, and are sheltered frm the torrential rains.” says Ross Bernet, the HTRIP manager. We were in Sous Piyant with a farmer, who was showing us his corn field, where most of the stalks were bent or broken. “I planted the corn here in this ravine because water drains down and the plants have a better chance of growing,” the farmer says, pointing at the effect of too much rain on his fragile plants.
Later, we visited houses where walls were knocked down by rain and wind; the only building materials are rocks, which are stacked together with teef, a chalky rock which binds the rocks together. The walls will be rebuilt soon, but many of the families’ belongings were destroyed.
Further up the hillside, Ross and Mathurin, one of the HTRIP technicians, checked on a concrete catch dam which had been built several years ago. “You can see the water which has collected behind the wall,” Mathurin points out. “That keeps the crops which have been planted below it from flooding, and also saves water for irrigation during the dry season.”
We walk over a short ridge to an HTRIP plot which was planted five years ago. Decius, the community leader for Sous Dupon, shows us how thick and tall the trees have become, and and also how much soil has collected behind the terrace walls. “The trees are now too tall for us to plant beans and corn”, explains Decius, “So we look for crops which can grow in the shade. This year we have had a good crop of yams.”
The large trees and the yams were not affected by the strong rains and wind, and the project’s cash crops were protected.
“We are now working in more than 50 communites” says Ross. “Here we can see the benefit of this model to these farmers. But so far we have only been able to improve the lives of a small number of these farmers. We would like to see the project expanded to cover most of these risk-prone farms on the mountainsides.”