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AbdelSomething too often missing from coverage of Haitian development challenges are Haitian perspectives. One of the most pressing concerns remains how to halt and reverse the ongoing environmental degradation. We kick off the "Ask a Haitian" series by interviewing Abdel Abellard, a Ouanminthe based expert in Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology, in order to find out what has and has not been working in Haiti.

1) Can you tell us a little bit about Ouanaminthe?

The town of Ouanaminthe is located in the North Eastern part of Haiti, right in the border with the Dominican Republic (DR), with Dajabon as the closest Dominican city. It is one of the most important economic towns in Haiti in terms of custom transactions with the DR. Over the last 15 years, the town has known a very important economic development associated with a bad urbanization (over 100,000 inhabitants now). Lands with good agricultural potential are being converted into areas for urban activities and the environment is being managed very badly.

The state infrastructures are almost totally absent, health care, education, drinkable water, electricity and roads in order to access to other services cannot be provided to the population. Most of the people, after High School, send their children to study in the Capital (Port-au-Prince) or in the Dominican Republic where they could have access to Universities.

Nowadays, people of Ouanaminthe are giving a very good example to the country. It is about what one can call: “Participatory Community Development”, where communities lead their development. People in Ouanaminthe are engaged in fundraising in order to build 12 kms of roads in the town. People interested can find all the discussion about the fundraising in the online Ouanaminthe Forum.

2) Why did you choose to study agriculture and the environment? What schools have you attended?

As a child, I went to school at the “Freres de l’Instruction Chretienne (FIC) de Ouanaminthe”. From there, I think I found the ethic of conserving nature because in fact, these educators made every student involve in all activities related to protection of life and nature such as reforestation, protecting water and springs. Taking in account the ongoing degradation in Haiti and also the decrease of peasants’ economy all over the country, it was an obligation from me to try to help mitigating the drama.

I study Agricultural Sciences at the “Faculty of Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine FAMV” of the State University of Haiti (UEH), which is among the best schools countrywide. From there and also after graduating, I interned and worked for several NGOs such as Mennonite Association for Economic Development (MEDA), Federation de Associations Cafeieres Natives (FACN), United Nations Development program (UNDP) and so forth. Finally, I chose to go deeper in conservation aspects and went to the US under a Fulbright Scholarship and study in two great Universities, Indiana University at Bloomington (IU) for a diploma of ESL and University of Maryland, College Park (UMD) for a Master degree in Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology.

I would like to add that I have almost all my education (From Elementary School to now) through scholarships so I have a moral obligation to give back to society what they was given to me. We often hear stories of environmental degradation in Haiti. In fact, both Jared Diamond and Al Gore profile the various environmental policies that lead to deforestation in Collapse and An Inconvenient Truth, respectively. They compare the policies of Haiti with those of the Dominican Republic.

As a person who is familiar with both countries, I think that my view might not be different from many others. Two summers ago, I interned for The Nature Conservancy on a Post Fire Recovery Assessment in Cordillera Central (The Dominican Republic) and also recently, I worked with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies in two national parks in the DR. The later institution has a long term experience in conservation in both countries; it has been working for over 15 years in monitoring migratory birds and in other projects as well. We worked in Loma La Canela and Sierra de Bahoruco and next year; such experience will be held in the Haitian side.

I think that there are more engagements and determination in the DR side because it’s been a long time ago that the forest and protected areas were under the control of the Army. Nowadays, the areas under legal protection are not totally protected but better that the scenario here in Haiti and still, the Dominican technicians are more open about help from scientists coming from abroad so are increasing the number of protected areas almost on a yearly basis.

From us in the Haitian side, we are not even sure of which state institution should take the leadership of managing our environment and natural resources. We have two Ministries on the front line, The Ministry of Agriculture (MARNDR) and the Ministry of Environment (MDE). Both of them are not only defining policies for managing our natural resources but also working in the field with different approaches. This problem is also coupled with a lack of coordination with several NGOs and other organization working in the field. From here comce the basic problem of managing our resources.

Nowadays, the office of the Prime Minister (La Primature) is trying to put pressure on them in order to find a symbiosis with what they called “Table Sectorielle Bassins Versant” so that all projects related to environment, watershed and Natural Resources should be leading by the committee that will take place after.

3) Why do you think environmental degradation is so extensive in Haiti? It seems like there is a growing awareness of the impact humans have on the environment throughout the world. Do Haitians understand their impact?

This is a very difficult question that everybody tries to give an answer depending on their field of expertise. In Haiti, we have a very special situation where most of people living in the hills are very poor with access to nothing in terms of social advantages so no need to add that they are not educated and are trying to have a livelihood from the only resources they could have access to.

Beside all this comes a lack of political will from the government. There is not any plan or policy to protect natural resources and also law enforcement in Haiti is at its lower level so there is not any policy of “Carrot and stick” in order to improve the situation. I think that, from a long terms culture of projects to protect natural resources in Haiti, over 50 years of projects, and also, from bad experiences and impacts from Hurricane Jeanne in Gonaives and Fond Verrettes in 2004, people are aware of the problem. The simple equation would be to not only offer alternatives to them (the carrot) but also organize the state leadership. What I mean by the latter is not only give the leadership to one or a group of Ministries but also organize at the community level in the purpose of enforcing law in the country.

4) What will it take to address environmental degradation in Haiti? What are the roles of Haiti's government, the Haitian people, non-profits, foreign governments, and the Diaspora?

In order to address environmental degradation in Haiti, the basic step is to create alternatives for people. Then will come this aspect of environmental education coupled with law enforcement. My recommendations would be as follows. Economic alternatives should be given to people in order for them to have a livelihood. Alternative forms of crops and/or alternative perennial crops should replace annual crops in the hillsides, jobs should be created all over the country in order for people to reduce pressure on natural resources coupled with alternatives sources of energy.

The Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture through its department of natural resources, the Ministry of Planning through the “Centre National d’Informations Geospatiales (CNIGS)”, the United Nations Development Program through its Low Income Countries Under Stress (LICUS) program financed by the World Bank, The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and several other NGSs should get together in order to manage adaptively ongoing projects and also implement recommendations from the research in future projects (lessons learned). For example, such recommendations might go directly to environmental education by helping promoting “Bird Watching” and get citizens involve in science. Political stability and governance are key components for long term projects and results. Education (capacity building and public awareness) through schools, radio stations, church, TV.

The creation of new environmental laws from the Haitian Parliament, and also a review of the “Haitian Rural Code” are necessary in order to protect biodiversity. Such laws should be enforced mainly by the Police Forces backed up by the Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Haiti (MINUSTAH). Because of ongoing police corruption in Haiti regarding the issues of charcoal and firewood mainly from national forests, special sanctions and penalties should given to police officers and judges involving in such actions and also for big consumers of firewood and charcoal such as dry cleaning comapnies, bakeries responsible for the majority of consumption (most important consumers) in the cities. Also, more infrastructures for the judiciary system should be built. A Police Corps focused on preserving forests is necessary in order to put more emphasis on the issue.

An educational program should be implemented at all levels in the country. The program should start from Elementary School and continue through High School with the inclusion of Environmental Education in the Curriculum at the National level in order to help develop an environmental ethic among the younger generation (Florence Sergile’s book, “A la découverte de oiseaux d’Haiti”, would be a very good start). Students at the University should also participate in the education of the youngest. The program should focus on understanding threats and human impacts on biodiversity, importance of reforestation and an overall respect for nature.

5) What are some organizations working on environmental preservation in Haiti? Are they having a positive effect?

Ouffff, there are many NGOs and other organizations working on protection of the environment in Haiti. The Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) has long time experience working on protecting watersheds, The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) did an excellent job in the Marmelade watershed (Northern part of the country), FACN worked on bamboo network, the Projet d’Intensification Agricole (PIA) is working on La Quinte watershed, the one that surround the city of Gonaives and so forth. I think the problem is not a matter of NGOs - it is instead a matter of approaches in the field.

Nowadays, DEED, a USAID funded project executed by Development Alternatives Inc (DAI) is working on two main watersheds in Haiti, Montrouis and Limbe. It is the biggest AID project in Haiti and it is in these two remote watersheds. DEED means Developpement Economique pour un Environnement Durable (DEED) and is a new approach of conservation in Haiti where they are protecting natural resources by not only giving an economic alternative to people but also by trying to do capacity building in transforming every single smallholder into a producer or many of them into producer groups. They are also working on raising awareness at the same time working with local authorities so that they could be aware of the problem and take their responsibilities. DEED’s approaches are also to decrease pressures on natural resources in the hillsides by creating opportunities in lowlands and have formal contacts with producers for such.

6) What do you see yourself doing when you complete your education?

My main objectives in pursuing the degree in the US were first to take the lead in doing conservation in Haiti. In this country, we have a problem of vision and approach in terms of good conservation practices or let’s say a problem of approaches. The practices of doing conservation are not up to date and should be innovated.

The second objective was to help enhancing researches in Haiti. It has been in its lower level in Haiti and people don’t really do anything to improve the situation couple with a lack of will from the institutions that should take the lead. So I have always been thinking about opening the door to scientists all around the world to come and investigate in Haiti. I think that we can’t archive our goal for development without investing in research.

We have several research institutions as well as national and international contacts and partners from now: The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), The University of Maryland through the Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology program, The Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), The Manomet Center for Conservation Science, Harvard University (I am coordinating a research on diversity of amphibians and lizards with the Harvard Laboratory of Comparative Zoology), Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (CLO), La Sociedad Ornothological de la Hispaniola, La Societe Audubon Haiti (SAH), La Fondation Seguin and so forth.

Finally, as a Community Based Natural Resources Management Specialist for USAID/Haiti-DEED project, I think that I am doing a great job in working with communities. Such experiences allow me to apply what I learn not only from previous projects that I had the opportunity to lead but also by the very pragmatic experiences and methods that I learn from UMD such as a project with The Lower Shore Land Trust (LSLT), one on ethanol production with the Environmental Finance Center (EFC) at the University of Maryland and also Agricultural Resources Economics class.

Community Based Natural Resources Management Specialist