Green From the Ground Up: Atlas Workshops with Episcopal High School Students in Haiti
We landed in Port-au-Prince to the thick mugginess of a tropical airport. The flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince was filled with would-be revelers coming in for Carnival. Our group wove past them, boarded our bus, and headed south—out of the bustling capital and into hills. We were here to learn about environmental leadership and sustainability.Episcopal High School had run a service trip to Haiti before, but this trip was different. Haiti has many unfortunate taglines: the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; an environmental disaster with less than 2% of its forests remaining. We were going to learn about Haiti’s environment by first studying and then collaborating with the Haitian organizations that are fighting to reforest the country, and in the process create an environmental ethos in the population.
We were there to study—and contribute to—home grown, Haitian strengths. In the process, we learned an inordinate amount about Haiti’s environment, and why the loss of trees in Haiti can reverberate as far away as Alexandria, or Boston.
The Road to Seguin: Climbing Into the Clouds
We arrived at our first destination, le Rustik, a delightful eco-lodge in the mountains near Furcy (south of Kenscoff) built entirely of repurposed and recycled materials, just as the clouds rolled in, cutting off our view of the steeply terraced hillsides and the mountains stretching beyond the horizon. We also arrived just as the Haitian wedding reception (surprise!) that the Rustik was hosting began to heat up. We checked into our rooms, wandering through a packed dance floor—an opportunity to check out the latest fashions, hear the latest popular dance songs, (unfortunately) overhear some terrible open-mic karaoke, and practice the flexibility and humor so necessary when traveling.
The morning brought rain—unseasonable and heavy. Though this was the dry season, the clouds did not lift. We would learn about how deforestation and ecological instability have contributed to the unpredictability of weather systems in Haiti, but first we had a climb ahead of us. The road to Seguin is not passable for vehicles, though intrepid motorcycles shuttle passengers from one steep section to the next. We loaded our bags on a train of donkeys that kept pace with us, and began the climb. The clouds hugged the trail, keeping us cool but hiding the dramatic views. We climbed toward Parc National La Visite, one of Haiti’s only national parks, and the mountaintop village of Seguin. Because it was Sunday, the trail was quiet—we passed just a few other travelers, farmers carrying green onions to market, other trains of donkeys picking their way carefully downhill, and wound our way through small clusters of houses where children excitedly followed our group.
To Re-Build a Country, Start With the Trees
The morning was clear, and we could see the hillsides all around. We joined Fondation Seguin, a Haitian run organization that has been fiercely protecting and reforesting this land for the past ten years, for a day of service and dialogue. Our students worked together with a large, multi-age group of workers, community members, and volunteers (including the directors’ kids) to mix soil, plant seedlings, and construct open-air trays/tables for the seedlings to develop their roots before being planted. Because most of the workforce at Fondation Seguin was on leave for Carnival, we were able to accomplish several days’ worth of work in just a few hours and keep them on track to plant several thousand more trees in the area.
It takes 40 years for a tree to grow enough to be really useful for firewood, charcoal, or to be used as a building material. However, even as Fondation Seguin plants new trees in the area (they have 98% success rate with their seedlings within the park, so their methods are working), they find the raw stumps of young trees that have been cut down. The national forest has no rangers, no government force to protect this important sanctuary for birds and watershed for the entire region. As we worked alongside the team from Fondation Seguin, we learned how interrelated the problem of deforestation is with poverty and government corruption. Fondation Seguin is working simultaneously to lobby for resources to protect Haiti’s environment, and transform local attitudes towards the trees. Their payment for ecosystem services program pays local farmers for the trees on their land—putting a value on preservation. They are also looking to ecotourism as a way to bring in much needed resources, and world attention, to the area.
We hiked down from Seguin basking in Haiti’s sunshine. All around us we saw hillsides that were being farmed to death, with the stark evidence of landslides and erosion like dark scars on the faces of the hills. The trail was packed with a steady stream of farmers bringing their crops to markets below.
Toward A Coordinated Response in the Artibonite Valley
The Central Plateau is the bread basket of Haiti—one of the most cultivated areas of the country. Our bus carefully navigated the winding road into Mirebalais. We spent three days in the bustling town of Mirebalais learning about how other organizations are working to protect the environment. We visited the impressive University Hospital of Mirebalais, built and operated by Partners in Health, which is entirely operated by solar energy. We visited Zanmi Agrikol, the agricultural arm of Partners in Health, where we toured their production factory for a fortified peanut butter called Nourimanba that is prescribed for malnourished children. We met with two agronomists to learn about how the organization is working with farmers in the area to make their farms more ecologically sound and productive. Improving the agricultural yield of small farmers does more to protect the land than anything else, because people cut down trees for charcoal only out of great necessity.
As we learned about the complexity of environmental destruction—and the correspondingly complex response needed to address it, and pervasive poverty, our students grappled with big questions about Haiti’s environment, and the role of nongovernmental organizations, the Haitian government, foreigners and outside volunteers, and local communities in tackling this challenge.
Growing a Green Ethic at St. Thomas School
Episcopal High School has built and supports a small elementary school in the hills outside of Mirebalais, not far from the sacred waterfalls at Saut d’Eau. The demand in the area for a school was such that as soon as construction was finished on St. Thomas Elementary School, in the rural community of Palto, every desk was full and every classroom stretched to capacity with students. We spent the final day of our trip at the school. Our students had prepared lesson plans for the Palto students, to teach them what we had learned from Fondation Seguin about the importance of the forests for the overall sustainability of the country. We painted a mural that showed a greener Haiti—the land begins covered in seedlings, which grow to be a towering forest—and each child at the school contributed a leaf handprint.
The Episcopal High School students and the older St. Thomas School students worked together to plant ten mango trees—a hard task in the relentless sun and hard, stony earth—with the hope that in the years to come they will provide both shade and fruit to the school—and that as the students care for their trees, they will learn to think of themselves as tied to the earth.
Our work has just begun. The Episcopal High School students are working on a documentary of their research and experience in Haiti. The St. Thomas students have ten baby trees to care for on their land. Having opened this dialogue on the importance of forest ecosystems to the health of the community, we all have a continued part to play in building a world that is truly green from the ground up.
A huge thank you to Fondation Seguin, as well as our friends at Partners in Health and Zanmi Agrikol who were so kind to host our group! Also, the success of this trip was in large part due to the efforts, wonderful service, and flawless logistical coordination from Cyril Pressoir of Tour Haiti. Thank you!
* We will post more photos from our trip on Facebook – check it out here!