US-funded trees ‘not likely to survive’ in Haiti when project ends

A report commissioned by USAID found that the environmental and social benefits of a $39m five-year programme were unlikely to continue beyond this month

Haiti's tree cover has declined due to charcoal, livestock and a 2016 hurricane (Photo credit: BDX/WikiCommons)


Trees planted in Haiti under a $39 million USAID programme are “not likely to survive or be cared for” after the five-year project ends this month, a USAID-commissioned report has found.

The programme aimed to reverse deforestation by paying Haitians to plant trees and by teaching them skills like beekeeping to diversify their income so they are less pressured to chop down trees to make charcoal, which is used for cooking.

Haiti lost 9% of its tree cover in the last 20 years with trees destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and chopped down to be turned into charcoal or to create space for farming.

As well as worsening climate change, this deforestation makes Haitians more vulnerable to the floods and landslides which global heating has made more frequent. Trees suck up rain water and hold the soil together.

To try and reverse this, USAID launched a reforestation programme in 2017, aiming to plant four million trees. The US aid agency outsourced the project to a company called Chemonics, which is headquartered near the White House and is known in the development industry as a ‘Bingo’ or big international non-governmental organisation.

On its website, Chemonics talks about the project in glowing terms. It says it “takes a holistic, community-based approach” and “will cultivate trained and empowered local communities and authorities”.

But a May 2021 report authored by consultants from Social Impact Inc found a host of problems, including that the project’s environmental and social benefits are unlikely to continue when the funding runs out.

The report found that trees planted on private property which contribute to people’s income, like fruit trees, “are likely to be protected”. But “trees planted on public land where animals roam freely are not likely to survive”.

Jean Wiener, a Haitian environmentalist who planted trees for the USAID-funded programme, told Climate Home News that wild, feral or grazing cows and goats “are going around and pretty much mowing the country”.

Wiener said Haiti has laws that state animals should be fenced in but these are not enforced. Instead, farmers let their animals roam to graze which is easier than fencing them in and bringing them food. Theft is discouraged by violent vigilante reprisals, he said. The USAID programme aimed to enable farmers to produce hay for their livestock to stop them roaming.

But the audit report found that “most resilience activities are not likely to be sustainable, given the short project timeline, lack of resources among farmers, and many project delays”. “Pursuing new and unproven techniques is a lot to expect from people who are already food insecure and cannot take the risk of a potential lost harvest, even if there is the possibility of increased income using new techniques,” it added.

Wiener said that international donors needed to provide “longer term commitments” than five years so that organisations can “build their capacities and grow their results over the long term”. But, he said, “I know that there are political cycles and that is a major hindrance.”

The project created several management plans for different areas with committees made up of local community members to oversee them. The report found these plans “may have some small benefits to the communities” but “the committees are unlikely to continue to function without support”.

Without an entity financing the committees’ activities, organising meetings, and paying travel and per diem costs, “the committee members themselves stated that they would not be able to continue to do anything after the project ends,” the report added.

Asked if the trees will survive, a USAID official speaking on condition of anonymity, told Climate Home: “That’s our hope. We realise that these kinds of programmes where we want to build sustainability into institutions take a long time and we do have to be realistic about what is the capacity of the Haitian government.”

A “lesson learned” is to include local government, NGOs and the private sector early on in the programme’s design, they said.

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One key issue was that USAID paid local tree-planting groups only when they had achieved a certain milestone. The report said this “may not be a feasible approach in a resource-poor place like these targeted regions of Haiti”.

Despite becoming more common, Wiener said the practice “can be a serious issue” for organisations that don’t have a lot of resources to invest upfront.

The USAID official agreed paying on part-delivery “isn’t appropriate in all cases”. “Perhaps, in a project like this, where we are giving grants to very small local-based organisations, it might not be the best method,” they said.

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Other shortcomings identified in the report include a perception that it was “too long and difficult” for Haitian NGOs to obtain grants, equipment was delivered late or not at all, private companies didn’t engage with the scheme and not enough trees had been planted.

Wiener’s organisation, the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Biodiversity (FoProBim), has worked on similar projects before but USAID, he explained, “does have very strict and very strong processes in place for approving grants”.  In contrast, the Haitian grantees lacked the structures to provide the necessary information required in the accounting processes.

Delays with delivery of material were so common, it suggested a “systemic issue with project procurement procedures,” the report found.

The USAID official accepted this “was a problem” and told Climate Home the report had been useful for “course corrections”.

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The official added that during the project Haiti had experienced a string of difficult situations including Covid-19, currency fluctuations, insecurity, fuel shortages and the assassination of the president. This all “impacted the programme,” they said. “It was complicated”.

Currency fluctuations scuppered a deal with an exporter of ackee fruit which was going to pay farmers to grow the crop. A cruise company, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, was going to pay farmers for eco-tourism until the pandemic hit their revenues.

The USAID official said that reforestation would continue to be a priority of the agency’s work in Haiti and that the project had achieved “a number of successes” including the planting of 4.5m trees – 500,000 above target.

Building the capacity of civil society would become a priority, they said, and USAID will focus on “smaller rather than bigger” both in terms of the amount of money the agency gives out per grant and on the geographical area it covers.

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