Published: Sep 28, 2008 12:30 AM
Jay Price, Staff Writer
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FOND DE BOUDIN, HAITI - One reason the Caribbean's frequent tropical storms damage Haiti worse and more often than other countries is that it has been stripped almost bare of trees.
With few sources of income and a huge market for cheap cooking fuel, the trees that once nearly covered the island have been cut for charcoal, leaving less than 2 percent of the nation forested by 2006. With nothing to hold the topsoil in place, it is washed downstream, leaving little to absorb rain. Downpours from storms wash quickly into rivers that then rage past their banks, destroying homes and crops and killing people and livestock.
Since the early 1990s, a group started by Jack Hanna, a former Westinghouse executive who lived in New Bern, has been fighting the problem with a reforestation program, now in three mountain watersheds in the southern part of the country. In the past two years alone, the Comprehensive Development Project has planted about 2 million trees in the once-barren mountains, said one of the program's two field directors, Rick Land, who wore a Durham Bulls cap as he rode through the mountains on the back of a flatbed truck.
The program gets contributions from all over the United States, but mainly the Southeast. Churches in Cary, Durham, Wake Forest, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, New Bern, Tarboro, Winterville and Fayetteville are among those that have helped.
Pointing downstream, Land said that just a few years ago the town of Leogane -- where another North Carolina-based group, coincidentally, is planning a new hospital -- would have flooded badly during the heavy rain from a hurricane such as Ike. This time, though, flooding was minimal.
CODEP is about far more than planting trees. The program employees 600 local people part-time, giving them a personal stake in the work and offering a second source of income in a country where one is rare enough. The idea is to improve the farmland, reduce flooding and keep the nation's badly needed farmers from fleeing to the cities. The program also rewards participating farmers with things such as cisterns for their homes after they plant a certain number of trees. It supports several schools in the area and includes fish farming and a health program and offers micro-lending, among other things. A basic goal is to provide sustainable livelihoods in the mountains.
The program has been around the community of Fond de Boudin long enough for the effects to be obvious to locals.
"It's wonderful work they do," said farmer Vilnor Santo, 41, who was walking toward one of his yam patches, a machete dangling from his hip. "It gives people work and direction, and we're not suffering like we used to suffer."
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