Earlier this week explorers announced that they had located the wreckage of Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, off the northern coast of Haiti. For more than 500 years the ship has been sitting beneath the Caribbean Sea mostly ignored by researchers. It was only after retracing Columbus’ steps from his original encampment in Haiti that anyone realized the identity of the vessel.
When I read about the Santa Maria, I began thinking about what Christopher Columbus found when he and his ships landed there in December of 1492. As someone committed to the Quixote Center’s Haiti Reborn program, my mind wandered to the vast native forests that once dominated the Haitian landscape, covering mountains and valleys alike. What a different place it must have been with those ancient organisms everywhere!
Now, after hundreds of years of exploitation, the native forests are almost entirely gone. Wiped out in the name of commerce and fueled by European demand for high quality lumber, the island can no longer sustain the demand for wood charcoal used for cooking fuel. Cacti grow in the coastal areas now, and the inland regions have been stripped of the nutrient rich soil that small farmers rely on to feed themselves and their neighbors. Haiti cannot thrive without her farmers, and global climate change is only making their future more uncertain.
For the past fifteen years, the Quixote Center has worked with the Jean Marie Vincent Formation Center to replenish Haiti’s forests one seedling at a time. Each year the JMV nursery technicians produce and distribute more than 60,000 seedlings to families and organizations who wish to plant them. The seedlings provide shade, prevent erosion, and in many cases can provide food. All without straining the scarce resources of rural Haitians. The Center’s nursery is also the engine that drives our model forest on Tet Mon. The forest began on a rocky hillside, and has grown to cover the entire mountain and more. Recently, we realized that maps would be needed to navigate the forest. Success!
In nearby Gran Plenn, a coalition of educators has found inspiration in the model forest on Tet Mon. They have come together to form the Green Schools Network. Their dream is a coalition of schools throughout the north that instill the values of environmental stewardship and preservation in students. They plan to do this by developing their own tree nurseries and model forests connected to each school. We began a partnership with them last year to do just that.
This year we began a new partnership with Project Lorax in Fond Verrettes, near the border with the Dominican Republic. Just south of town is one of Haiti’s last remaining old growth forests. The forest is made up primarily of Pino Criollo, a spindly and unique pine tree native to the island. I had the opportunity to tour the pine forest with Rodrigue, the founder and director of Project Lorax. Rodrigue’s dream is to spread the pine throughout Haiti once again. This spring our technicians at the JMV Center are experimenting with seedlings carried north from Fond Verrettes. We are hopeful they can grow in Gros Morne.
There is no going back to what was when the Santa Maria ran aground off the north coast, but new trees and forests are the cornerstone of a restored ecology in Haiti. With the proper support and care, a few seedlings on a barren hillside can grow into a community forest that serves as both an example and inspiration.