Sewanee: Zanmi ak Ayiti (“Friends with Haiti”)

Haiti meeting

Carbon sequestration—the process of capturing and storing carbon by living systems, most notably woody biomass and soil—is a major buzzword in the area of sustainability. As carbon dioxide reduction becomes an increasingly important goal for sustainability, carbon sequestration also grows in importance.

Sewanee is blessed atop the plateau to have hardwood forests that not only provide us with clean air but also sequester thousands of tons of CO2 released by both the institution and local factories and power plants. Preliminary estimates seem to show that Sewanee’s carbon emissions are indeed largely offset by the 13,000 acres of forest on the Domain.

Our healthy forests are in stark contrast to the ecosystems of Haiti. Exhaustive agriculture for three centuries has left the soil there in ruins, and agricultural yields have declined significantly. The only source of income for already impoverished farmers is the harvesting of remaining trees on the mountainous slopes, converting wood into increasingly valuable charcoal. The overharvest of timber has led to massive erosion, mudslides, and the highest rate of malnutrition in the Western Hemisphere. Already 98% of Haiti’s tropical rainforest has been destroyed.

Associate professor of biology Deb McGrath is working toward a potential solution to this problem: payment for ecosystem services, or PES. PES is a system whereby incentives are offered to land owners to manage their land for ecosystem services such as watershed protection, reduced erosion, and carbon sequestration. McGrath, recent graduate Keri Bryan (C’12) and a handful of current students are doing extensive work with Zanmi Agrikol (Haitian Creole for “Partners in Agriculture,” a sister organization to Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health) to make PES a reality for the struggling farmers of the Haitian Central Plateau.

McGrath (on the right in photo, left) began work on the project in 2006 and since that time has created a map showing the locations of all the farmers on the Haitian Central Plateau who are currently receiving assistance and seedlings from Zanmi Agrikol. The map is now nearly complete, and McGrath and the team are poised to begin PES projects with these families. Although millions of seedlings have been distributed by various NGOs, Haiti’s hillsides remain deforested because it is more economically worthwhile to sell charcoal than to allow trees to grow. It is hoped that PES will alter household economies, making reforesting a viable alternative for farmers.

The project to reforest Haiti will both offset a percentage of Sewanee’s carbon emissions and enhance the powerful and meaningful bond between Haiti and Sewanee. One goal is to establish an internship program in which Sewanee students will spend the summer living in Cange, Haiti, and with a partner Haitian student will help to measure the ecosystem services for which farmers will be paid. A long-term goal is for Haitian students come to America to study and work. With such a partnership, Sewanee and Haitian students will participate in joint learning of ecology and other environmental topics.

Perhaps most important, this project will help provide a steady income to Haiti’s subsistence farmers. Only when poor Haitians have a steady source of income will they be able to provide for their families, improving both education and health. The reforestation of Haiti is crucial to addressing financial means and nutritional needs.

- Daniel Church, C'11, Office of Sustainability

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