Haiti's Dirty Habit: Can Smarter Stoves Heal Haiti?

A wood and coal stove. Image by Bill Wheeler. Haiti, 2011.

A wood and coal stove. Image by Bill Wheeler. Haiti, 2011.

The green Land Cruiser careens through side streets piled high with rubble, past garbage heaps and tarp cities stitched into the nooks and crannies of Port-au-Prince. Elizabeth Sipple points the driver down a dusty road to what looks like the middle of nowhere, then eases into her seat in the back and, as the urban anarchy recedes behind her, nods out the window. "There's a big drug dealer who lived in this area," she says. "This all used to be his land." Now it's a field filled with white tents—a relocation camp for thousands of the 1.3 million Haitians still homeless nearly a year after 2010's January 12 earthquake. Green, mostly treeless hills rise into the distance.

Until the quake, many Americans knew Haiti mostly as a major hub for drugs headed to Miami. But Sipple, an agronomist who recently took a post as the director of International Lifeline Fund's Haiti program, is working to wean the country off a more lethal addiction: wood and charcoal, which supply the majority of Haiti's energy needs. The main source of revenue in the countryside is cutting trees for firewood and charcoal production—part of a hugely inefficient wood habit that consumes trees much more quickly than they can regenerate. This dependency has cost the country its forests, sapped its fertility, and set the stage for an increasing series of natural disasters, including—by driving migration into the congested, anarchically-constructed capital—the human impact of the earthquake that killed roughly a quarter of a million people.

And here, in a tent city in Port-au-Prince, Sipple is working to halt this cycle. She is part of an experiment to identify and promote a smart, simple technology that could be a critical stopgap while Haiti re-envisions its energy future: Thanks to a grant from the United Nations, the International Lifeline Fund is running a pilot program in the camp, introducing new energy-efficient stoves that require less wood and charcoal, reducing demand on wood fuel. They are also working with other environmental groups, including the United Nations Environmental Programme, to help the government brainstorm a sustainable energy policy that would give forests time to regrow and bring the pilot to scale. It's a sensible approach. But, like many sound ideas here, the effort has to contend with history and the grim, daunting realities of the present.

Lying on the ground in the shade of a tent, propped up on a blanket to support her aching hips, Norisse Dousinette describes her country's transformation. "Now the land is cursed," she says. Dousinette says she was born in the countryside, sometime between 102 and 108 years ago—many older Haitians don't know their exact birth year. There wasn't much work then, but her family grew beans, corn, peanuts, and maize. Then, as the trees disappeared, the best soils were washed away. "It became a desert," she says to Sipple, who is perched attentively on a chair beside her. As the sun leans toward the horizon, a number of camp residents have begun cooking supper on the stoves. The smell of rice and beans wafts through the afternoon's still heat.

When Columbus landed here in 1492, he described an island blanketed by verdant forests. Beginning in the colonial era, however, precious cedar and mahogany trees were plundered and land was cleared for farming. Hispaniola's fertile soils, tilled by African slaves, produced a bounty of sugar cane that made it the New World's most profitable colony. Ships sailed into port bearing slaves; they sailed away loaded with timber. After Haiti won independence in 1804, the great plantations were divided up among the soldiers of the world's only successful slave revolt, fracturing the prospects for a large-scale agricultural export economy. But only in the last 40 years have the consequences of such epic plunder, which came to rank among the highest rates of deforestation on the planet, became an epidemic: a downward spiral of environmental decay and extreme poverty bleeding into the country's political and social upheavals.

Without trees to anchor the hillsides or to slow the torrential rains that course down its barren slopes, storms and hurricanes bring flash floods and landslides that has become, in recent years, the source of most deaths from natural disasters. The Dominican Republic, which has protected its forests, has fared much better (when Hurricane Jeanne struck the Dominican Republic in 2004, the death toll was 18; in Haiti, where it never even made landfall, more than 3,000 people died in the floodwater and mudslides). In the Dominican Republic, which occupies the eastern side of the island, successive dictators have recognized the cost of environmental damage. Whether seeking to protect the watersheds that feed massive hydropower dams or their pocketbooks, or simply to avoid "the curse of Haiti," as the Pulitzer Prize–winning geographer Jared Diamond described Haiti's charcoal addiction, the country's leaders have taken dramatic measures to protect its forests, including military reconnaissance flights and combat operations to shoot or imprison illegal loggers, as well as creating an extensive national park system and subsidizing alternative fuels and stoves. But without a strong government committed to protecting the environment, or the means to launch a nationwide reforestation program with environmental and family planning education, attempts to curb deforestation in Haiti have so far failed to lift the curse.

Faced with their own history, many Haitians have grown skeptical of the prospects for change—especially now, a year after the earthquake, with more than a million people still living in tents or under tarps. In November, a tropical storm broke over the city, lashing Dousinette's tent with wind and rain. With a raging cholera epidemic, riots erupting, and violence in the wake of a presidential election, Dousinette tells me she has no idea what will happen to her country: The future is in God's hands.

It's a common sentiment, and one that irks Sipple. She came to Haiti in 2002 for a college internship, and spent the summer hiking around the countryside. When she returned to school in the fall, she decided to major in agriculture, and after graduation returned to work on reforestation and environmental education programs in the country's rural northwest. She has devoted much of her subsequent years on the island trying to draw attention to these crises. "People have control over such an incredible portion of our environment, our lives," she tells me after saying good-bye to Dousinette. "When I discuss it with people, I say, 'God gave us everything we need to live well on Earth. But there are so many things that we know we can do better.'"

With $9 billion pledged, though not yet delivered, for reconstruction, Haiti is experiencing a gold rush of opportunity for those who think they can do better. There are a host of nonprofits, and tech and design firms proposing sustainable alternatives such as solar-powered streetlights, microgrids, rainwater harvesting, biofuels, even latrines that capture methane for cooking and provide fertilizer for gardens and fishponds. "Maybe in the U.S. you can think of it as a luxury when you're adding green tech to a house," says Greg Kearley, an architect with Relief International, a nonprofit organization that was selected to design a sustainable housing model for an exposition in Haiti cosponsored by the Clinton Foundation. "We're seeing it as a necessity."

In the long run, the Haitian government will need to reconsider its entire energy supply chain, but efficient stoves can help in the meantime, according to Jean Kim Chaix, the founder of the Charcoal Project,which aims to become a clearinghouse on charcoal alternatives and a consultant for green entrepreneurs. He says that a major obstacle in Haiti, as elsewhere, is that stoves have to be "culturally appropriate": In Burkina Faso, people like to cook close to the ground; in Latin America, they like to cook standing up. In Haiti, he mentioned a project that stalled because it used recycled-paper briquettes that wouldn't burn hot enough in local stoves. "A one-size-fits-all approach won't work," he says. "That's the big challenge for cookstove manufacturers and the world."

Sipple acknowledges the importance of finding a stove that meets Haitians' budgets and needs— a step toward alternatives that eliminate the need for wood fuel altogether. But when they examined their options, the models on the market all seemed too expensive or too frail. They settled on a hybrid vv model that burns both charcoal and wood, which camp residents can gather nearby. Made in China, it resembles a green bucket with a mouth cut out from the center of the side where the fuel goes in. The stoves only last half as long as they're supposed to, says Sipple, but the manufacturer is making modifications. Out of the more than 4,000 families to which they've given stoves, surveys show savings on fuel costs of more than 50 cents a day, which she says is an encouraging sign that they'll be well-received.

Sipple takes a seat on the ground beside two young women chatting at the entrance to a tent, and asks how their stove is working out. It's helpful, says 29-year-old Leveus Islande, and it saves money. But the grate that holds the charcoal has cracked after only five months. She has just finished cooking a meal of rice and beans using wood scraps from around the corner, where residents are busy hammering roofs onto a row of new storm-resistant shelters. "We should get liquid-gas stoves, so we don't need wood," she says.

Her friend, Francois Olna, objected that propane stoves could easily ignite one tent and burn the whole camp down. Sipple listens carefully: liquid petroleum gas has been a huge success in the Dominican Republic, which, until recently, subsidized the technology as a means of preserving woodlands.

"Cutting trees causes all of our problems," says Islande. "But everybody's cutting trees to make charcoal." Before the earthquake, Islande was living with her family in a crowded community on a steep hill. When the trees above them were cut down, the soil washed away and the rains brought flash floods and carved deep ravines all around their property. "People need to stop cutting trees and stop building on top of mountains," she says. Without roots to break up the soil, or tree cover to buffer it, water doesn't permeate the ground, and the winds carry away the topsoil—as much as 36 million tons a year, according to U.N. estimates—which puts more pressure on farmers to hack down trees to sell.

"Talk to any old farmer—it's amazing. Talk to them about the decrease in yields, changes in the rainy season," Sipple says. "The fact that environmental degradation is eliminating a healthy rural livelihood causes people to crowd into the cities, and they suffer in the cities."

Given the magnitude of Haiti's present challenges, the environment could easily slide down the list of immediate priorities. "We know that we're addressing [just] one aspect of the problem," says Sipple. A lasting solution, she adds, would require investment not only in alternative fuels, but in jobs programs and a national reforestation strategy. In a country where many people farm land they don't own, that would require rethinking the nature of economic compensation and deep-seated historical problems with land ownership. And it would likely require strong governmental leadership as well as cooperation between NGOs. The lack of both of these has historically plagued development efforts here.

Islande tells me her generation knows that change is needed to restore Haiti's environment. "I would like for Haiti to take its place back," she says. I ask if she believes that change is coming. She thinks for a moment, head slightly cocked, taking in the gravel at her feet and the rows of tents stretched out around us. In a patient voice, she explains, "We don't count on the government. We're leaving it in the hands of God."