Students plan ecological mission of 500 trees in Haiti

James Eliscar and Daniel Jean-Philip are among the many college students nationwide who’ll soon be in sunny destinations for their spring break – but life won’t be a beach for these two.
Instead, they will be planting 500 trees in Haiti, in the city of Hinche, during the week of March 14-22. The mayor of Hinche will be on hand to welcome them, and the town’s high school students will help them plant the trees.
The two de facto arborists are part of a group of students of the Haitian American Society, an organization of the University of Massachusetts Boston, whose projects are usually cultural activities related to their common heritage. But for spring break, the students wanted to do something different – and worthy of greater public attention – in their beloved Haiti.
Poverty and HIV/AIDS fit the “worthy of greater public attention” criterion – but the two causes were already “taken.”
Hollywood actor Matt Damon and world-renowned singer Wyclef Jean have visited Haiti and brought attention to the rampant poverty there. Similarly, global health giants such as Jim Yong Kim and Partners in Health’s Paul Farmer have put HIV/AIDS on the world stage.
So Eliscar, Jean-Philip and their fellow students decided to take on another critical issue: deforestation in Haiti.
Hinche became their focal point because of its relative anonymity compared to cities such as Gonaives, which Damon and Jean visited, and Port-au-Prince, the capital.
“Haiti was once one of the [most heavily-forested] countries in the Caribbean,” said Jean-Philip, who was raised in Haiti and has lived in the US for the past three years.
Now less than twp percent of Haiti is tree-covered, according to estimates attributed to the Agency for International Development and the Organization of American States, and the consequences are disastrous.
The deforestation un-anchors the soil, causing widespread erosion, mudslides and mud-filled valleys, explained Eliscar, a graduate student in international relations.
Hurricanes worsen the deforested areas – indeed, the Central Plateau region, where Hinche is located, took a huge hit after four hurricanes devastated the area in 2008. An estimated 4,000 people died and tens of thousands of residents were displaced after Hurricanes and storms Faye, Gustav, Hanna and Ike struck the region, said Eliscar.
But the main cause of deforestation is manmade. Impoverished Haitians chop down trees to sell the wood, called charcoal, for fuel. The charcoal sales may be the only income for families faced with starvation and inadequate housing.
Jean-Philip and Eliscar have no illusions about being able to reverse deforestation in Haiti – which isn’t their goal, at least not in the short term. Instead, they say, they are on an “ecological mission.” T
hey want to raise awareness of Haiti’s deforestation problem and foster ecological awareness in Hinche, the capital city of Plateau Central, starting with the region’s high school students.
The hope is that this teen generation will continue the ecology campaign by educating others and planting more trees, long after the students from Boston are gone.
But if Eliscar and Jean-Philip have their way, their first ecological mission to Haiti won’t be their last.Already the Ministry of Environment is on board with the Boston students’ mission, having agreed to donate the 500 trees for free if they can’t pay the full cost – which may well be the case.
Only four other students will accompany Eliscar and Jean-Philip, in part because of the out-of-pocket expenses that each one must pay.
The airfare alone for one person “is about $600” said Jean-Philip, an accounting major. Add to that the costs of hotel accommodations, ground transportation, living expenses and advisors for the weeklong trip.
The students hope to raise $11,000 to cover their costs. In addition, Jean-Philip wants to create an environment sub-committee for the Haitian American Society (HAS), to “increase awareness and initiatives” regarding Haiti’s deforestation problem.But first, they have 500 trees to get through. That’s a lot of planting.
“It’s not work. It’ll be fun,” said Jean-Philip.
To make a donation towards the $11,000 fundraising goal of the Haitian American Society, send a check to the University of Massachusetts Boston, 100 Morrissey Blvd., Boston, MA 02125. Checks should be made payable to UMass-Boston, but the notation should state “HAS – volunteer spring break.”