Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Forest in Gros Morne

Erosion along the banks of Riviere Marcelle in Gros Morne.

The Forest in Gros Morne

Haitian painting is rich in brilliant colors, whimsical scenes, and

joyous tones. The richness is particularly manifest in the abundant paintings of jungle scenes. With their majestic trees clothed in thick foliage, tigers, lions, and giraffes, these images could have come straight out of Brazil or Kenya. The scenes raise a conundrum; almost no Haitian has seen a rain forest or jungle animals. Haiti is the most deforested country in the Western hemisphere; most of its mountains are brown and denuded. And except for a few rare specimens, Haitian wildlife has been reduced to rats, bugs and birds,” wrote Beverly Bell, in her book, Walking on Fire.

Since Ms. Bell wrote her book, many of the birds have disappeared. I recall talking to an older man in our clinic who told me that when he was a boy, Haiti was full of the most brilliantly colored birds, exotic parakeets, and parrots. One morning he woke to a deafening roar coming from his back yard and found a whole flock of parrots in a mango tree. The birds were hawking wildly and chowing down on the green fruit. I was lucky enough to spot a rare Hispaniola Amazon parrot in a tree outside of Gros Morne. The bird was over a foot tall, had a white forehead with a hooked yellow beak, emerald green feathers covering iridescent blue primary feathers, and a belly splashed with blood-red blotches. This beautiful animal is now an endangered species.

Wildlife has almost disappeared from Haiti because the trees are gone. Seventy-five percent of Haiti was once covered in virgin forests. At present, only 4% of the land is forested, with millions of trees continuing to be lost each year. The extreme poverty has forced people in the countryside to cut down the forests to sell the wood for charcoal, the main fuel for cooking in Haiti. During the torrential rainy season, the denuded hills and mountains cause mudslides and flash floods, washing away fertile top soil. Floods lead to more land degradation and erosion, and in the process carry away many peoples’ dwellings.

If you take the dirt road north out of Gros Morne and travel along the Riviere Marcelle, you will see the devastating effects of erosion. Wide cliffs have cut into the river bank; if fact, part of the town has dropped off the edge into the river (see photo). But further upriver, you come upon an incredible sight: a small mountain (Tet Mon) dense with trees.

Hiking up Tet Mon

“It’s not technically a forest yet, but it will be shortly. We have acquired a number of acres on the far side of the mountain, and will expand planting soon. Then, it will be a real forest,” says Sr. Pat Dillon, who with her determined Haitian colleagues developed this reforestation project. The program began in 1999, with the development of a nursery to grow seedlings, and when they were robust enough, they were planted strategically on the mountainside. The program was supported by Haiti Reborn, a non-profit based in Washington, DC, and by other donor partners.

Tet Mon now has more than 250,000 pine, eucalyptus, mahogany, and indigenous trees covering the mountain. In fact, the forest can be seen in photos from Google earth. The nursery has also expanded to grow hundreds of thousands of seedlings each year which are distributed to the neighboring communities to control erosion along the entire watershed. The program (named the Jean Marie Vincent Education Center) from the nursery, to soil preparation, to nurturing of planted saplings has been a great success, and a source of pride in the community, which has participated at every step. Townspeople are very protective of the mountain. They walk through the forest, but would not think of removing a tree; this wooded area may save th

eir town. – M.Viola

Sister Pat Dillon at the rest area on top of Tet Mon