Reforesting Haiti and the tree currency

 By Andrew Burger

There has been more deforestation in Haiti than in any other country in the world. The Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) is helping remedy that, applying an innovative model that combines reforestation with sustainable agriculture and socioeconomic development in partnership with local farmers, communities, leading multinational corporations and non-profit organizations…

Deforestation has contributed significantly to perpetuating a cycle of poverty and environmental-resources degradation in rural communities across Haiti. Denuding the landscape has resulted in the loss of ages-old ecosystems, flora and fauna; high rates of soil erosion; greater, more frequent and more intense flooding; degradation of water resources; and reduced agricultural productivity.
SFA calls its sustainable agroforestry and rural community-development model “tree currency”. Essentially, it’s based on the old-time notion of “sweat equity”, a concept that played a pivotal role in westward and industrial expansion in the U.S. but that has lost currency since. By applying it in the field, SFA and Haitian smallholder farmers have increased crop yields an average 40 percent and household incomes an average of between 50 and 100 percent, according to SFA president and co-founder Hugh Locke.

Satellite image showing deforestation in Haiti, Haiti-Centre. This image depicts the border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right) (NASA, Wikimedia)

SFA’s “tree currency” model of development

SFA’s tree currency development model focuses on providing smallholder farmers and communities with the knowledge, tools and incentives needed to create local, sustainable economies that can plug into much broader-based national and global markets. Smallholder farmers receive seeds, tools and training in return for their sweat equity — planting trees and adopting sustainable agricultural methods. Farmers work with SFA to create nurseries and community-services facilities, such as schools and clinics, as well as local agricultural co-operatives that leverage collective purchasing power to acquire the tools, equipment and supporting services they require.
SFA’s work is also reviving dormant, traditional Haitian smallholder-farmer community practices and socioeconomic structures. That includes reviving a traditional model of cooperative, community agriculture known as Kombit, depicted in a documentary film, “KOMBIT: The Cooperative”.
A strategic partnership with U.S.-based Timberland, the multinational retail-clothing giant, gave SFA the opportunity to prove its innovative approach and model in the field. Launched in 2009, in just five years SFA’s agroforestry and community-development efforts had resulted in the planting and cultivation of a sustainable, robust and resilient mix of crops and trees that are helping restore the health and vitality of Haitian ecosystems, natural resources, agriculture and rural communities.
By 2015, smallholder farmers’ agricultural output had increased by some 50 percent as a result. Farm input costs had been reduced, and smallholder farmers’ net incomes had increased substantially. In addition, reforestation was occurring at a rate of more than 1 million trees planted per year.

Building on success

SFA and Timberland are expanding on this success with the launch of a program to reintroduce cotton farming and export in Haiti. The partners are also working to replicate SFA’s model among other smallholder farmers internationally, such as those that harvest natural latex for rubber. Significantly, in terms of economic sustainability, Timberland buys large quantities of both cotton and rubber to manufacture its brand-name clothing, footwear and accessories.

Farmers near Gonaives, Haiti, planting cotton seeds are joined by Hugh Locke (middle front) and Timote Georges (right) of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (Thomas Noreille,

Founded by Locke and Haitian native Timoté George, SFA is receiving global recognition. Locke recently discussed the non-profit’s plan to revive cotton farming and export in Haiti while addressing members of the international development community at Oxford University in the UK.
In addition, SFA recently announced that U.S. branches of the Rotary Foundation will help fund an SFA project that will start with creation of a tree nursery in the area around the northern Haiti rural town of Gonaives.
That is to be the first phase of a project that will see local farmers grow, transplant and tend to the trees in return for seed, tools and agricultural training that will help them improve their crop yields and livelihoods, Locke explains in a blog post. SFA and the Rotary Foundation are working to expand their partnership by developing an international grant program in which Rotary Foundation chapters worldwide can participate.

Reviving cotton farming and export in Haiti

Cotton was once Haiti’s fourth-largest agricultural export, SFA points out. Smallholder farmers near Gonaives recently joined SFA to begin planting the first commercial cotton crop in the country since 1987. In addition to cultivating organic cotton for export, the farm is to serve as a demonstration and training site where other smallholder farmers will be trained in cotton cultivation and export.
Timberland is a key, strategic partner in the project. Vans and Patagonia have pledged to buy organic cotton grown in Haiti—subject to price and quality—as well. SFA members and farmers wore cotton shirts manufactured by Timberland when they gave a tutorial on cotton export. They explained to other local farmers and community members that the cotton they raised would be used by Timberland to manufacture shirts such as those they were wearing, as well as a variety of other outdoor clothing.
As with earlier SFA-Timberland tree-currency programs, smallholder farmers plant trees in order to earn the seeds, tools and agricultural training they need to raise cotton crops. As a result, every field of cotton results in up to 50 trees being planted for food, timber, living fences or farmer-led reforestation projects, SFA says. Farmers are also able to exchange tree-planting credits for services that include acquiring livestock, obtaining micro-loans for women farmers, acquiring basic business training and participating in local seed banks.

Haitian smallholder Nerlande Dautarn holds a basket of cotton she and other farmers harvested at the SFA cotton field trial site near Gonaives, Haiti (Thomas Noreille,

Data systems and digital tools

SFA is designing a new data-management system in association with the cotton-farming demonstration and training project. Graduate students from Columbia University’s Capstone Project recently signed a second year-long agreement to help design the new data system. Beginning with cotton, the system “is designed to track each export crop in order to precisely measure how it impacts smallholder income, women’s empowerment, climate change and food security”, SFA explains.
Of particular note, the SFA program’s rules of governance are designed to ensure that raising organic cotton for export doesn’t threaten food security; no farmer in the program can grow cotton on more than half their land. In addition, the tree credits they earn can not only be applied to their cotton crops, but can be used for any valid farm-improvement purpose.
All things considered, farmers new to the SFA project have been experiencing yield increases of 40 percent at minimum. SFA attributes that to a combination of better quality seed, good hand tools and basic agricultural training. Furthermore, the results, if replicated, will directly offset the portion of the land smallholder farmers dedicate to growing cotton. SFA is also working closely with the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture to carry out the sustainable organic-cotton project and with the Ministry of Environment to implement and manage the tree-planting aspects of the program.
In addition, SFA credits DHL Express as being instrumental in launching the project. DHL shipped 2,500 pounds (5,500 kilograms) of cotton seed from Texas to Haiti, donating the international air-freight service as a contribution to improving the country’s agricultural outlook.

READ MORE: Britain’s reforestation project by Amanda Saint

about the author
Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger has been reporting on energy, technology, political economy, climate and the environment for a variety of online media properties for over five years.