"Right now the weather is nice," says Paul Albert, who farms a hillside plot in rural Haiti, near the border with the Dominican Republic. "But from January to April, it just gets drier and drier, and the rain in the rainy season is getting much more intense. If we had trees, even if it poured with rain, the trees would absorb that intensity. Any rain we get now just inundates us."
When tropical storm Jeanne hit Haiti in September 2004, nearly 3,000 people lost their lives, mainly because of mudslides. The same storm hit Jamaica, but there were very few casualties, as the terrain was much less degraded.
Extreme poverty locks most Haitian farmers into a vicious cycle of environmental damage, making arable land less productive and more vulnerable to mudslides. With 82 per cent of the rural population in Haiti living below the poverty line, few can afford to feed their families by traditional farming alone. So the vast majority cut down trees, produce charcoal and sell it to others for fuel. This provides vital income but is disastrous for the environment.
Now only 2 per cent of forest cover is left. But with the help of an innovative scheme run by a local charity, Veterimed, hundreds of farmers are able to earn enough to feed, clothe and educate their families without having to cut down trees. The project, backed by Christian Aid, The Independent on Sunday's partner in this year's Christmas appeal, is simple yet effective. Poorer farmers in Haiti traditionally looked after cows for their richer compatriots living in the city. In return they were allowed to use the milk for their families and sell it to neighbours. But without a mechanism for preserving, storing and distributing the milk, the income was negligible.
In February 2002, Veterimed set up its first milk processing plant. Now there are 10 factories around Haiti. If the project is to make substantial change both to the environment and the lives of farmers, much more money is needed.
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