Volunteers work to bring food safety to a broken ecosystem
When Sadhana Forest first established its base camp on the outskirts of Anse-a-Pitre, a tiny Haitian town on the southern end of the Haiti-Dominican Republic border, a dry, hollow air pervaded the landscape.
Less than a kilometre in from the ocean, the lush green foliage and peat soil expected from a tropical climate gives way to the near-desert conditions found at the camp. Cacti dominate the hillsides, and finding soil deeper than a few inches is a rare occurrence. Anemic shrubs crawl around prehistoric bedrock, their roots winding through cracks and splaying over the hot stone.
Rather than avoiding these inhospitable conditions when they first arrived two years ago, the original volunteers sought it out. Theirs was a reforestation mission — after all, the point is to go where you’re needed. The impact of this non-profit, Indian-born permaculture community is matched only by its ambition. Last summer, the group imported over 100,000 Maya nut seeds from Mexico, and after splitting them with another, separate project farther north, they are attempting to re-introduce the long-lost species to the country.
Counting sixty thousand in total, the seeds are closely confined in four two-by-nine metre nurseries, sprouting diligently and awaiting transfer to the families that need them. After three months, the seeds are ready for this handover, and the volunteers who have come from all over the Americas and Europe begin the long process of engaging the community, and sharing the growing seeds with those who need them.
“Distribution was trial and error at first, but now we have a successful model,” says Jamey Ellis, one of the first and main volunteers who recently returned to the camp from his home in the United States. He has seen how Sadhana Forest has gradually ingrained itself in the community. “Our presence is getting to be known and understood.”
The presence is clearly needed. In Anse-a-Pitre, as with the rest of Haiti, resource-scarcity is a fact of life. Nikison Casseus, one of several young locals who help Sadhana Forest and its foreign volunteers, says the cause of this hardship is purely pragmatic. “The men who are in poverty, who can’t afford school for their children, destroy all the trees to make fuel,” he says.
“You can just tell by walking around that people don’t have access to the same building material that we have in the west,” says Elizabeth Pierre, a Canadian volunteer who took environment and resource studies at the University of Waterloo. She has family in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and understands the disparity between the two countries. “We have great potential to do work here because the environment is so poor,” she says.
Upon entering Anse-a-Pitre through the Dominican border crossing, a square, high-walled compound dominates the scene. Complete with guarded parapets and barbed wire, the building is in stark contrast to the open soccer field opposite the road, funded by local non-governmental organizations, or NGOs.
With its walls layered in the same combination of sun-bleached political posters and mostly-illegible graffiti found throughout this and many other towns, the compound is home to a section of Haiti’s United Nations outpost, and is the first of several NGO headquarters seen around town. While these organizations are very useful — community engagement and employment is paramount to many, if not all of the groups operations — Sadhana Forest is the first to attempt a species transplant in this area of the country, as well as the first to see any degree of success.
Sadhana has recently taken on several paid workers from the town. Casseus, the project’s first employee, also acts as secretary for another local organization, Gwoupman Popile pou Lavni Ansapit, which played a massive role in helping Sadhana bring the seeds farther out into Haiti. As the community opens up to Sadhana Forest, it seems this mission has a place in Anse-a-Pitre.
These sentiments of reforestation, while undoubtedly valuable, are still relatively new to this country. When so much attention was paid to the humanitarian situation in the months following the 2009 earthquake, it seemed easy to forget the centuries of hardship Haiti has dragged itself through, even without natural disasters.
A casual look at the nation’s history spells out exactly what Sadhana Forest is getting into. As a wantonly destructive and nearly unending train of dictators left their mark on the country, the once robust ecology of the tropical nation was heavily exploited. Any concept of sustainability was forgotten as populations were left with nothing but plant matter to burn as fuel. The topsoil disappeared and famine became common.
This is what makes the Maya nut such a good choice. Throughout a tree’s life, it can produce up to 800 kilos of high-protein foliage, even in the six-month dry season. A tree can reach 45 metres in height, and its leaves and stems contain 20 to 30 per cent crude protein, allowing a crop to pump out massive amounts of compost and ground cover for the parched soil. The nut itself (though it’s technically a seed) is rich in potassium, fibre, calcium, zinc, iron and vitamins A, B, C and E, making it comparable only to quinoa (another South American seed) in terms of nutrition, and a tree can produce fruit within three years. If left to its own devices, a Maya nut tree can remain productive for 125 years.
Over the years, Haiti has been ravaged by disasters — both natural and man-made, and one abstract concept has been lost to much of the population; dependability. More than anything, what Sadhana Forest’s project is trying to give back to the country is an understanding of dependability and a sense of trust in the environment. More than just another foodstuff, the Maya nut represents a greater hope for this community, and for the country at large.
Editor’s note: Calgary Journal reporter Connor Bell volunteered at the Sadhana Forest Haiti camp over the summer. Most interviews were recorded then, along with continued contact via Skype during the plant distribution in the past few weeks.