Rebuilding Haiti must start from the ground up, with agricultural education
In July 2010, Greg Cronin and Dan O'Toole traveled to Port-au-Prince as volunteers with J/P HRO, who administers an IDP camp of 50,000+ in the area of Petionville (former golf course/ country club). With such a large population density in so small a space, the grounds had become mostly devegetated except for some trees, and the soil retained little to no humus with mostly exposed clay on the surface. Within this IDP camp, relatively steep slopes lead down to a medium-sized stream, creating a high risk of soil erosion in the case of a hurricane or tropical storm.
The idea was to use Vetiver grass (Chrysopogon zizanioides), an extremely hardy, transplantable, and accessible plant, to anchor the soil in places where it was likely to erode and potentially cause damage to people and their shelters. Vetiver was introduced to Haiti in the 1940s and has since been a major export, extract from its roots being used in nearly all western perfumes. Whereas many grasses send their roots horizontally along the upper layer of topsoil, Vetiver has an extensive network of roots that extend vertically, upwards of 3 meters below ground surface, making it quite ideal as a soil stabilizer. It is also non-invasive and far more commonly propagated by means of transplants than by seed, which was essential to the timetable of this project. It's a very handsome plant as well, making this project as much a community beautification effort as a disaster relief effort.
We found a big patch of the stuff less than a kilometer from camp, on the same property as the man who owns Petionville country club, where the IDP camp is located. After some negotiations, the project was a go. It started out just the two of us, but not for long. We were soon joined by a very knowledgeable Haitian named Petit Jacques, who instructed us in the best way to prepare the transplants. The mature plant has to be wrested from the soil by some strong blows with a pickax. Only the initial root mass is necessary, so you really don't have to dig too deep. Once out of the ground, each mature plant can be subdivided with strong, sharp blows from the pickax into upwards of 20 transplants. The blades of grass can then be cut down to only about 6 inches or 1 foot from the root mass in order to stimulate root growth once transplanted; this also cuts down on the weight of what you need to transport.
Once subdivided into individual transplants, we soaked the roots in buckets of water (which may or may not have been necessary) and hiked them into camp as well as the hill overlooking camp. We welcomed involvement from any Haitians interested in helping, and soon had a workforce of about 30, which was more than enough to carry out this project quickly. In the course of 3 or 4 days, we had transplanted upwards of 200-300 plants into and around the camp. We loosened the soil around each transplant with some strong blows from a pickax, used the water from the buckets to water the plants, and encouraged everyone involved to continue watering the plants in the coming weeks and months.
Greg and I self-financed the initial phase of this project and we tried to give each worker a dollar a day for a couple hours of hard manual labor. In the short-term, this was a very successful cash-for-work program that people really seemed to welcome. Haitians know the economic potential of Vetiver, and most seemed pleased to have it around camp.
Six Months Later
Greg and I returned six months later to check up on the plants themselves and to speak to the people involved about their impression of the project on a whole. Despite the poor condition of the soil and a tropical storm in the interim, I would say more than 50% of the plants survived and thrived. Most of those that did not survive were removed by U.N. troops in order to expand car and truck traffic to a military station that was erected after we left. The project, as successful as it was in the short term, was continued under J/P for a short time after we left, but with no funding provided for this additional phase of work, social conflicts prohibited its success. There were some pockmarks still present at the original harvest site, though the original patch of Vetiver was not largely impacted at all, despite our removing upwards of 20 or 30 mature plants.
This line of Vetiver on a hill overlooking camp should catch any soil run-off from continued hurricanes or tropical storms. In an agricultural setting, this technique would be ideal for creating garden terraces, particularly if combined with plantings of edible nitrogen-fixing trees, such as Leucaena.
Many plants survived even in the close confines of camp, which gets tons of foot traffic. These plants are now mature only half a year later, and could potentially be harvested, subdivided, and transplanted again without having to go back to the original harvest site.
Some folks are growing squash to climb up mature Vetiver plants. Other folks used mature plants for drying clothes. There are a number of other uses as well, including as a biofuel that could potentially help stem deforestation from charcoal production.
In ecological terms, the project was a success. In social terms, the project was a success in the short term, but required better cooperation and communication between administrators and laborers to have continued in the long term. All in all, it is a reproducible work project that can prevent soil erosion in IDP camps in Port-au-Prince, and create agricultural terraces outside of the city. Feel free to contact me with questions or comments at email@example.com.