January’s earthquake in Haiti forced many Port-au-Prince residents to relocate to surrounding rural areas, most of which lack the ability to sustain them. According to Ethan Budiansky of Trees for the Future, a nonprofit which plants trees for the benefit of communities worldwide, the Moringa, or Miracle Tree, might be part of the long-term solution for these devastated communities. We spoke to Budiansky about Trees for the Future’s work in Haiti and the potential impact of the Moringa tree on the nation’s recovery.
Q: What kind of work was Trees for the Future doing in Haiti before the earthquake?
A: We started working in Haiti in 2002, working with rural farmers to develop sustainable agriculture and forest practices to bring the land back to life and protect against further erosion and flooding caused by hurricanes. Less than 2 percent of the forests remain in Haiti. If you take look at Haiti right now, you see bald mountains, degraded hillsides, and land and soil that’s completely vulnerable to water, wind, earthquakes. There is nothing holding the soil in place.
A lot of our planting takes place along these degraded hillsides. A lot of the trees which are planted provide a sustainable source of fuel wood, timber trees, fruit trees, and food. The trees we plant are specific to the local community’s needs and the environment. Last year was incredible. We worked with 13 communities to plant more than 1 million trees.
Q: How has the direction of your work there changed since January?
A: We are gearing our work more toward communities that have been affected by the earthquake. There has been a mass exodus of people to the rural areas but there is a complete lack of resources in these areas. We are targeting communities that are hardest hit. The number of communities that need our help far exceed the help we can give.
Q: How do you think the Moringa tree might provide relief to these communities? What are the tree’s benefits?
A: The Moringa is one of many trees that are incorporated in our project since 2002. In 2009, the Moringa accounted for 200,000 of our 1 million trees, and in 2010 it will make up 300,000. It’s very hardy, fast-growing, and resistant to drought and flooding.
It’s a multi-use tree. The leaves are rich in iron, beta carotene, potassium. They are also delicious. In Haiti, since we started teaching people about the tree, they’ve been frying up the leaves for traditional dishes or using them like spinach in a salad. It is actually extremely beneficial to children and pregnant women. The communities can also bring in money by using as leaves as powder or cooking oil. I love eating it; I’ll eat it right off the tree.
Within a few months of planting the tree, you can see all the benefits, because you can start harvesting the leaves within three months. It’s a sustainable source of very nutritious leaves, which in a country where malnutrition is such a concern, especially following the earthquake, can only bring added benefits.
Q: What are your goals for this project? How can people help?
A: We obviously want people engaged in the immediate relief effort in Haiti, because that’s most important. In addition to that, our goal is to educate people, to inform people about the need to think about the long-term, about what happens after the relief effort. Haiti is so environmentally degraded and economically devastated. When we have 80 percent of the population dependent on agriculture and the rural areas can't provide enough food for them, that’s a serious problem.
Our goal is to bring Haiti back to productivity to support the people who are working on the land. There is a lot more need in the country than we can currently provide. We are limited not by motivation or demand but by resources, so we are asking people to support our ability to expand our program in other areas in Haiti. We have found that when given the knowledge, the seeds, and maybe a shovel, Haitian farmers want to and will plant trees to improve their lives and their local environment. They are motivated to do it; they just don’t have the know-how or the resources to do it.
--interview by Jessi Phillips