Petroleum Greases the Deforestation Process
By Humberto Márquez
High oil prices are driving up charcoal and firewood use in Haiti, where once-extensive forests now cover less than two percent of the territory.
CARACAS, (Tierramérica).- In Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, rising oil prices have forced households and small businesses that used natural gas or kerosene for cooking to instead use charcoal or firewood, a mortal blow to a country that has almost no trees left.
With help from the World Bank, "we developed a program to introduce more and better gas stoves, to alleviate pressure on the forests that provide firewood and charcoal, and to prepare food in a more clean and efficient way," Haiti's environment minister, Yves-André Wainright, explained in a Tierramérica interview.
But with prices hovering around 60 dollars a barrel on the international petroleum market, "it is very difficult for people to believe that gas is more beneficial, and so they return to firewood, and especially charcoal," lamented the minister.
In recent decades, logging to use the trees as a source of firewood and plant-based charcoal has practically converted into a desert this Caribbean country of 28,000 square km, which shares with the Dominican Republic the island of Hispaniola, which is 78,000 square km.
"It is a very acute problem: the forest cover in Haiti is less than two percent of the territory," said Wainright during a break at the forum of Latin American and Caribbean environment ministers held earlier this month in Caracas.
His colleagues from Bolivia, Brazil, Suriname and Venezuela, for example, have the opposite problem of how to obtain financing to protect their enormous areas of tree-covered land. And Costa Rica has doubled its total forested area in 25 years with a successful resource management plan.
In the relatively small Haitian territory are crowded some 8.5 million people who use biomass -- particularly firewood and plant-based charcoal -- as the source of 80 percent of their energy consumption, explained Wainright.
Even so, the country has to import 11,000 barrels of petroleum a day, "which represents less than 15 percent of our overall energy consumption, but we pay for it with between 58 and 60 percent of our income from exports," said the official.
Haiti exports mainly agricultural prodcuts, like coffee and mangos, some manufactured items and oils, for a total of 340 million dollars a year, according to the Trade Department of the United States, where more than 80 percent of those exports are destined. Neighboring Dominican Republic absorbs seven percent, and Canada four percent, of Haiti's foreign sales.
Meanwhile, imports of food, manufactured goods, machinery, fuel and other items surpass the billion-dollar mark annually, while the country receives around 150 million dollars in foreign financial aid.
In this context, "the increase in petroleum prices is a catastrophe for Haiti," says Wainright, "and that is why we are focusing efforts and hopes on developing alternatives, like the production of fuel briquettes made from recycled paper and other waste materials."
Brazil and Cuba have offered Haiti assistance for biodiesel fuel production projects.
In the Brazilian case, biodiesel is part of a broader program of technical support for cooperation in recovery of forested areas, Claudio Langone, executive secretary of that country's environment ministry, told Tierramérica.
A Global Environment Outlook (GEO) for Haiti is written into the assistance programs of United Nations agencies for this Caribbean country, worth 900 million dollars, according to Ricardo Sánchez, regional director for the UN Environment Program (UNEP).
The Dominican Republic has joined Haiti in a program for recuperation and reforestation of the Artibonito River watershed, which the two countries share.
The two countries' environmental technicians are to coordinate their efforts to that end, Dominican environment minister Max Puig said in Caracas.
Oil-rich Venezuela, whose government does not officially recognize the transition government in Haiti, nevertheless sent one of its oil executives to Port-au-Prince this month to evaluate the possibility of including Haiti among the beneficiaries of Petrocaribe.
Under the Petrocaribe initiative, Venezuela supplies fuel to its Caribbean neighbors with very long-term financing for 40 percent of the bill.
Wainright noted that Haiti's environmental agenda is also weighed down by other important problems, including the "intolerable situation of potable water," to which less than 45 percent of the urban population and less than 36 percent of the rural population have access -- "and sanitation, the disposal of sewage, is an even worse situation."
* Humberto Márquez is an IPS correspondent.