Widespread deforestation and erosion have harmed Haiti’s environment, economy and food security.
Better Universe and Citizens, a non-profit group based in Tallahassee, Fla., in 2017 began the Haiti Grass Project to establish “grass nurseries” there and eventually hopes to build hundreds of them. The group has built 18 nurseries and plans to do six more this year.
Many of Haiti’s trees have been cut for charcoal and building materials, said McLean resident Scott Monett, who nine months ago began providing executive help to the organization.
The exposed soil then erodes away, sediment fills streams and dries up rivers, and crops become difficult to grow, resulting in food insecurity, famine and overreliance on foreign aid, he said.
“It’s an environmental and dignity issue,” said Monett, who helps the organization strategic advice, fund-raising and grant writing. “The end game is stability in Haiti. Once people are fed, they can concentrate on other things besides survival.”
Haitians plant grass in cities – including around homes, schools, churches and public buildings – as well as along mountainsides. Group members locate the nurseries in places with good soil and then fertilize the grasses, which were selected for their deep roots, drought tolerance and fire resistance.
Grass grown in the nurseries multiplies quickly, and the group splits grass grown in the nurseries and plants some of it on eroded mountains. The remaining grass at the nursery then continues to grow and multiply.
By growing the grass in the nurseries and transporting it for planting in the mountains, Haitians participating in the project increase their sense of ownership and become more motivated to take care of the grass.
“It’s much easier to give people a fish,” Monett said. “We’re teaching them to fish.”
Florida State University also supports the project.
“The Haiti Grass Project fits our lecture topics well as it perfectly describes the impact of humans on our environment – deforestation, pollution, watersheds, energy, environmental (mis)management – and how we try to find solutions to the manmade issues, said Sven Kranz, an associate professor with FSU’s Department of Earth, Ocean & Atmospheric Science.
• • •
Tawainga Katsvairo, founder and project director of Better Universe and Citizens, described the grass project.
Why did you start the project?
“I worked as a scientist with perennial grasses and published extensively on grasses. When I first saw scenes of mudslides in the media after hurricanes, I had the idea that if we planted grasses on the mountainsides where the mudslides originated, that would hold the soil in place. Trees are mostly cut for charcoal, and grasses would be a game-changer because they would not be harvested as charcoal.”
How have Haitians benefited so far?
“Witnessing barren lands turn green and productive has invigorated Haitians to want to restore even more lands. The project leaders in Haiti have people following them at their homes who want their lands planted with grass. The Haitians harvest the grass for livestock or sell it, creating a revenue source and sustainability. The grass is used for roofing houses.
Haitians have benefitted from reduced permanent loss of valuable rich topsoil and the building up of soil health for the agrarian communities. The grasses are increasing groundwater recharge for communities that rely on groundwater.”
Do you pay those involved?
“We pay the Haitians nominal wages for planting the grass. These communities benefit tremendously from the wages, which they use to pay for school fees for children and basic needs.”
Have you tweaked the program?
“When we started the project, we attempted to plant grass seeds on the rugged and eroded mountain slopes. We faced tremendous setbacks, almost threatening the viability of the project. The seeds would be washed down the slopes or buried down deeper by the eroding soils.
We shifted the approach to establishing the grass in nurseries, then transplanting the grass from nurseries to the eroded mountain slopes. We establish the nurseries in good soils and provide them with intensive management. The grass studs are not washed down the slopes or buried too deep by the eroding soil.”
What roles do women play?
“The majority of people who work in the agriculture-value chain, from planting to selling on the markets, are women. However, women hold fewer management positions in agriculture. We would like women to hold 50 percent of leadership roles on our project.”
What are your long-term goals?
“We have only planted a little over 2,100 acres of grasses. With support from the U.S. donors, we hope to plant millions of acres to grass.
We were pleasantly surprised to see that the locals had gone back on their own and started planting trees in the areas where they had established grass. We followed behind them and established a large tree nursery to serve several communities. We are planting flowering trees and shrubs to provide nectar for bees and butterflies in the areas we planted grasses, restoring biodiversity.
Erosion is a problem in other islands and several countries. We intend to expand the initiative to other countries as the next goals.”
What’s Haiti like?
“Haiti is a beautiful country. Like the other Caribbean countries, Haiti has attractive sights with waterfalls and beaches. Haitian culture is rich and intriguing. The food in Haiti is delicious and full of flavor. Haiti has vibrant art which portrays Haitians’ day-to-day lives. The music in Haiti is fascinating.”
How can people help?
“We would like to partner with organizations with operations in Haiti. The costs of establishing this grass are surprisingly low. At $200, we can plant grass on an acre of land.
The project is entirely funded through donations. We encourage readers to [send] checks payable to Better Universe and Citizens [to] P.O. Box 3711 Tallahassee, Fla. 32315, or through our online portal at https://www.betteruniverseandcitizens.org. We are 501(c)3 and donations are tax-deductible.”