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Haiti's Few Trees At Risk as Survivors Flee to Rural Areas
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, January 26, 2010 (ENS) - The number of people leaving Haiti's earthquake-ravaged cities for rural areas could reach one million, putting pressure on already vulnerable communities in those areas, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization warned Monday. The NGO Trees for the Future says these internally displaced people need help to keep them from cutting Haiti's few remaining trees for fuel and shelter.

Earthquake survivors leave Port-au-Prince for the countryside. (Photo courtesy UN)

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has released figures showing that an increasing number of people are leaving Port-au-Prince. More than 130,000 people had taken advantage of the government's offer of free transportation to cities in the north and southwest.

The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that devastated the Haitian capital and other cities claimed more than 150,000 lives, according to the latest figures released Monday by Ambassador Louis Lucke, U.S. Special Coordinator for Relief and Reconstruction

"Many Haitians have felt the need to leave the Port-au-Prince, area with government encouragement in some cases," he said. "Some of the folks will be returning to their home villages. Some are fleeing the area."

"We estimate, and it's just an estimate, that there's approximately 800,000 homeless in Port-au-Prince. Some of these folks are flowing out of the city to spontaneous camps, if you will. They're settling in open areas, and we're scrambling to be able to provide them essential services - food, water and so forth. Medical care," Lucke told reporters on a conference call Monday.

Earthquake survivors leave Port-au-Prince by boat. (Photo by Rosie Summers)

"Along with the international community and along with local and international NGOs," he said, "the whole UN system is scrambling and we're all coordinating with each other on that to come up with plans and programs to divide the universe and do that."

The U.S.-based NGO Trees for the Future warns that any progress made over the last few decades with forest reconstruction and protection in Haiti is at major risk in view of the recent earthquake.

"Given the earthquake's devastation, there is now a mass exodus of people to rural areas, but these areas cannot even support the current population much less the hundreds of thousands of people migrating there," said Ethan Budiansky, Africa and Caribbean programs officer for Trees for the Future, who regularly travels to Haiti to work on agroforestry initiatives.

"Land will become even more impoverished and the few remaining trees will be cut down unless strict measures are put into place," Budiansky said.

Timote Georges, Trees for the Future program coordinator in Haiti, says "massive numbers of people" are leaving Port-au-Prince by bus and car to the countryside.

Degraded mountains at Gonaives, north of Port-au-Prince (Photo courtesy Trees for the Future)

Becasue relief services are very concerned about the overcrowding of people in the urban areas leading to much higher rates of disease, Georges says the UN, military and relief organizations are relocating "huge numbers of people" to the rural areas, although an accurate headcount is impossible.

The current situation adds a new sense of urgency and Trees for the Future hopes to continue expanding its work with farmers throughout the Arcadine coast. It recently teamed up with the Yele Foundation to develop its program up north into Gonaives focusing on agriculture and food security.

In 1925, Haiti was lush, with 60 percent of its original forest covering the lands and mountainous regions. Since then, the people have cut down an estimated 98 percent of its original forest cover for use as fuel for cookstoves, and in the process have destroyed fertile farmland soils, contributing to desertification, floods and erosion.

"Only two to three percent of the forests remain, and they are quickly disappearing," Budiansky says.

Most of the remaining trees in Haiti are in three locations: La Visite Park and the nearby Pine Forest Reserve in the La Selle mountain range south of Port-au-Prince, and a third location at park Pic Macaya which is in the mountains in the southwest, Budiansky says.

Haitian student plants a mahogany seedling at Cariyes. (Photo courtesy Trees for the Future)

Combined, the three locations account for an estimated 90,000 forested acres. Protected forests account for only 0.7% (21,000 hectares) of all Haiti's land.

Since 2002, Trees for the Future has been in Haiti working with local farmers and groups in tree-planting initiatives throughout the country to reforest degraded hillsides, produce sustainable charcoal and fuel wood, produce biodiesel, and establish intensive hillside farming practices.

In 2008, the NGO began working in Leogane, the epicenter of the recent quake, to plant over 250,000 fruit and multi-purpose, fast-growing trees.

Further, Trees for the Future recently helped farmers in 13 communities along the Arcadine coast plant over one million trees near Cabaret, Arcahaie and St. Marc and established an agroforestry training and resource center in Arcahaie to serve Haitian farmers.

Trees for the Future will now reassess its programs in Haiti for 2010 to expand tree-planting activities in rural communities hardest hit in the earthquake aftermath.

School children and community members replant a deforested hillside in Thomas, Arcahaie, Haiti. (Photo courtesy Trees for the Future)

"There is an even more desperate need to develop long-term, sustainable agriculture practices that will not only serve as adequate food sources, but also help protect the areas being reconstructed in Haiti that promise a brighter future," says Budiansky. "Unless there are measures to protect and improve arable land, things could get much worse before they get better."

Jacques Diouf, director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, said Thursday that the aid effort should urgently support food production, agricultural rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Haitian farmers must be given immediate support before the spring planting season begins in March, said Diouf. Haiti's consumption of cereals is estimated at around one million tonnes, of which about 63 percent were imported even before the earthquake struck.

"The priority is to supply them with seeds, fertilisers, livestock feed and animal vaccines as well as agricultural tools," he said.

It is of vital importance to boost local production programs of quality seeds, prepare fertilizers suitable for Haiti's various production zones and crops.

"It is urgent that we do this in the light of thousands of people fleeing the devastated capital Port-au-Prince for the rural areas and food prices rising," said Diouf. "These people will need to be provided with the necessary means to survive and be provided with an income generating activity."

An estimated 53 percent of Haiti's population live in rural areas and 47 percent are urban.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.



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