Improving seedling production and access to environmental knowledge in Haiti

By Christina St John, Sabine Deristin, Jeremiah R. Pinto, and Anthony S. Davis

Haiti, often featured in news around the world for ongoing humanitarian crises, boasts a rich natural history that is both intertwined with, and threatened by, those crises. This mountainous country has suffered from continuous landscape degradation for over 200 years. Long-term exploitation of natural resources, whether for export or to support charcoal production for household energy needs has resulted in widespread deforestation. Lack of government infrastructure coupled with uncoordinated efforts by NGOs has led to this becoming a persistent condition. The loss of forests has led to severe soil erosion on Haiti’s mountain slopes, reducing agricultural productivity and creating massive flooding and landslides. Despite the magnitude of challenges, many Haitians are organizing to improve landscape conditions through grassroots rehabilitation and restoration efforts. Hope for a better future builds as community-based projects work toward reforesting Haiti’s slopes and building more sustainable ecosystems and communities.

Figure 1. Sabine Deristin works among the seedlings in the Pépinière Bryan S. Turner, located in Kenscoff, Haiti. (Photo: J. Pinto)

Figure 1. Sabine Deristin works among the seedlings in the Pépinière Bryan S. Turner, located in Kenscoff, Haiti. (Photo: J. Pinto)

In many cases, successful tree planting programs have been implemented within an agricultural framework and often use non-native species. While this can benefit agricultural production, land tenure, and foster an agroeconomy, it does not contribute to preserving valuable remnant native forest habitat and the beneficial ecosystem services it provides. There are some Haitians, however, who are working to shift the focus to native reforestation. Since 2011, Sabine Deristin, an environmentally-minded resident of the mountain community of Kenscoff, has been working with Dr. Anthony S. Davis and his colleagues to advance the propagation of native tree species in her region for reforestation.

A series of workshops hosted by Dr. Davis and Dr. Jeremiah R. Pinto (US Forest Service) were designed to introduce native plant production techniques and concepts to local farmers and conservationists. As an offshoot of these workshops, a native tree seedling nursery was established in Kenscoff and named, Pépinière Bryan S. Turner. The nursery focuses on growing native trees that are adapted to the landscape and provide critical habitat for native species and potential economic opportunities for local communities. The nursery has two goals, to serve as both an educational facility and to be a model for seedling production techniques suitable for reforestation in the region. Specifically, this nursery serves as a base for providing technical training, showcasing the resources needed to grow high-quality seedlings. Additionally, it serves as an educational center for local community members, especially women, to learn about forestry, ecological stewardship, and water and soil conservation.

To further support seedling production in Haiti, the US Forest Service and Oregon State University have collaborated with the Dominican Republic Ministry of Environmental and Natural Resources. This collaboration was very fitting because the Dominican Republic and Haiti share many ecosystems, and the Dominican Republic has a more advanced national reforestation program. As a part of the collaboration, a seedling production workshop was held in the Dominican Republic. Hosted by Banco de Semillas Nativas y Endémicas, Boca de Nigua National Seed Bank, the workshop brought together Haitian and Dominican Republic nursery professionals, botanists, and ecologists to learn about seed collection and storage, propagation, and best nursery practices from US nursery specialists. This workshop served as the starting place for an increased sharing of knowledge and collaboration in ecosystem management between seedling professionals in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Figure 2. A once forested hillside has been cleared for agriculture in Haiti. The loss of forests has led to severe soil erosion on Haiti’s mountain slopes, reducing agricultural productivity and creating massive flooding and landslides. (Photo: J. Pinto

Figure 2. A once forested hillside has been cleared for agriculture in Haiti. The loss of forests has led to severe soil erosion on Haiti’s mountain slopes, reducing agricultural productivity and creating massive flooding and landslides. (Photo: J. Pinto

In addition to providing training and materials, Drs. Davis and Pinto have been mentoring graduate students like Kyrstan Hubbel (University of Idaho) and Christina St. John (Oregon State University) to help inform nursery cultural practices. Very little information is available on how to grow native Haitian plant species, which adds to the difficulty of growing healthy plants in a timely manner with the limited resources available. In partnership with Pépinière Bryan S. Turner, this team aims to develop and share propagation protocols for locally important species. Currently research is focused on Hispaniolan pine (Pinus occidentalis), an endangered pine endemic to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This naturally long-living species should be an important component of mid-to-high elevation forest restoration programs as it provides habitat for other species, some of which are also endangered, and has the potential to provide economic opportunities to rural areas through sustainable harvesting. With relatively little and highly unverified information on how to effectively and efficiently germinate and grow this pine in nurseries, this collaboration will help improve seed-to-seedling ratios for this important species.

Specific present research topics are focused on seed treatments that maximize germination while minimizing fungal issues as well as understanding how different irrigation regimes affect the development of the species. This work is conducted in further collaboration with Oxbow Farm and Conservation Center (Oxbow.org), a non-profit organic farm and education center in Carnation, WA, that promotes research that integrates sustainable farming with environmental education and habitat conservation and restoration. The knowledge gained through this partnership provides the staff at Pépinière Bryan S. Turner with science-based propagation protocols, furthering the goal of creating an economically viable nursery that grows healthy native plants. From there, groups like A Dollar a Tree for Haiti (https://www.replanthaiti.org) are able to learn from this local nursery and apply these techniques to an expanding range of nurseries.

As higher-quality seedlings become more readily available, it provides an opportunity to increase seedling survival and the restoration success of sites post-planting. This provides an opportunity to apply the guide that Hubbel and her colleagues produced in 2015, Tree Planting in Haiti: How to plant and care for nursery grown seedlings (translated and distributed in Creole), as a next-step in the continued development of educational programs around native forest restoration. The ecological and economic challenges facing Haiti are great, but community-based efforts supplemented by sharing experience and expertise can help transform Haiti, one tree at a time.

For more information, contact Anthony S. Davis (anthony.davis@oregonstate.edu) or Jeremiah R. Pinto (jpinto@fs.fed.us).