Tree of Life

The planting of Jatropha could help build the economy of a Haitian town.

By Kevan Williams

When I meet Robinson Fisher at a coffee shop in downtown Athens, Georgia, on a cold and rainy day, he hands me a bar of soap. Fisher and the soap have just arrived from Haiti: specifically, a village called Terrier Rouge, a community of about 20,000 people in the hot, dry, and very poor northeastern part of the country. I first met Fisher, the father of a childhood friend, years ago, and only later learned he’s a landscape architect. He’s had a long career with his firm, Robinson Fisher Associates, practicing in lush, temperate, and developed northeast Georgia. But for the past decade he’s made a lot of trips to Haiti, spending several months each year learning and working with people there on a variety of agricultural experiments. The soap, wrapped in plain paper and stamped with a simple logo, is the latest product of that work.

Underneath the wrapper is a caramel-colored slab, smaller than your average bar of Dove or Irish Spring, and less refined. There is no logo pressed into the surface, or a specially molded form. It is the product of a simple, locally scaled manufacturing operation in Terrier Rouge, which is evident in its packaging and shape. But it lathers and bubbles just like regular soap. Even more remarkable is what the soap is made of: the oil from the seeds of Jatropha curcas, a scrubby tree that grows abundantly in this arid part of Haiti.

Jatropha is native to Central America and the Caribbean, growing between 20 and 30 feet tall. The semievergreen plant sheds its large leaves during periods of drought, to which it is well adapted. The seemingly worthless and weedy plant is also poisonous. “Nobody eats it: Goats won’t eat it, and bugs won’t eat it much, which allows this plant to survive,” Fisher says.

In the early 2000s, the plant’s profile started rising to global significance, and it has sometimes been touted as a miracle biofuel, thanks to the significant oil content of its seeds—up to 40 percent of the seed in good growing conditions—which can be easily processed into a biodiesel, among other uses. “There’s corporate interest in developing it as jet fuel,” Fisher says. Jatropha has been planted all over the world, both commercially and as a part of international aid and development projects.

But those projects failed as often as they succeeded, and by 2008, the Jatropha bubble burst along with many others during the global recession, with a negative impact on both big investors and small farmers who had bought into the plant. The supposed miracle plant was brought down as well by unrealistic expectations and promises about its performance. But there is some hope: A 2012 National Public Radio report noted that many of the smaller-scale operations in Africa, like Fisher’s project in Haiti, are doing okay. In those places, Jatropha has been incorporated into other local agricultural practices, for instance, used as a hedgerow or planted on steep slopes that are not useful for other agricultural activities. And scientists are interested in domesticating the plant into a more productive crop. “The principal thing that went wrong is that they were top-down Jatropha projects” that were too focused on statistics and unrealistic returns, Fisher says. “There are a thousand reasons why these things fail, and it’s not Jatropha’s fault,” he says.

Like others, Fisher experimented with Jatropha as a fuel source, but it is only one activity among many he’s worked with locals to explore, and only a stepping-stone toward his vision of a stable and sustainable reforested landscape in northeastern Haiti. “Looking at the big landscape, what else can you see but that the Dominican Republic is lush and green, and there’s this hard line,” Fisher says, west of which the land of Haiti is barren.

“Use land wisely, to its ecological potential, and join it up with the natural talents of the people who live there,” he says, describing the approach he and his organization, Partner for People and Place Inc., have pursued over the past decade.

Though the organization’s focus today is intensely rooted in Terrier Rouge, that wasn’t always the case. In 2002, Fisher and his former partner, Josh Koons, a fellow landscape architect who now leads Koons Environmental Design, were searching for a way to give back. “I reached the point in my career where I could see how things go: What needs to be done often is trumped by who pays to have things done,” Fisher says.

“One day Rob walked in and said, ‘Hey, I think I found our project,’” says Koons. Fisher had connected with missionary Pere Bruno, an Episcopal priest from Haiti who was campaigning at churches in the Athens, Georgia, area to raise money to build a school in Terrier Rouge in northeastern Haiti. Koons and Fisher offered to help, traveling to Haiti and developing a master plan for the new K–12 school, called École St. Barthélémy, which today serves more than 900 students.

“We did not have a lot of personal connections to Haiti,” says Fisher. “It was just the notion of serving a broader set of human needs.” The school project was a fairly conventional service project with a clear end point. By 2004, the school and some ancillary guesthouses were open, and Fisher and Koons’s involvement in the project was wrapping up. But the two wanted to remain involved in Terrier Rouge. “I kept looking beyond the school grounds,” says Fisher.

“When we were down there, we recognized certain things,” says Koons. “They were using diesel for electricity, and burning charcoal and things. Are there other ways to meet the basic needs of these people?” he says. Fisher and Koons began investigating some of those needs, but with an eye toward the relationship between the people and the landscape around them. “Why do we have such poverty and such wide expanses of unused land?” Fisher asks.

Haiti, with a population of approximately 10 million people, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, according to the U.S. government’s 2013–2014 World Factbook. The United Nations World Food Programme says that half of Haitians live on less than $1 a day. Poverty in Haiti is a major factor in the country’s deforestation and associated ecological impacts: Around 2 percent of the land is forested, compared with 30 percent in the Dominican Republic. And in Terrier Rouge especially, poverty is a major issue: “Unemployment is about 80 percent in our region,” says Fisher.

As he spent more time in Haiti, Fisher began to understand the relationships between the region’s contemporary social and ecological conditions and its colonial history. Today, the region is an arid, scrub landscape, much of which is little used, but originally the area was much more Mediterranean in character. “It would be sort of savanna-like,” Fisher says. According to Fisher, in the 1920s, the Haitian government clear-cut roughly 100,000 acres of this pine–oak woodland to develop plantations for growing sisal, a species of Agave used for fiber. These agricultural impacts in the lowlands, along with significant deforestation in the mountains above Terrier Rouge, combined to alter the area’s climate and shift the region toward more arid conditions, Fisher explains. That opened up opportunities for other species to move in. “Whereas the rest of Haiti got deforested, Jatropha has grown uninhibited,” Koons says. Mesquite, an invasive plant in the country, has also proliferated. “The extent to which we can reverse deforestation on these mountains and put more growth besides mesquite on the plain, the better we can reinstate that more mesic climate that prevailed for most of this region’s history,” says Fisher.

In 2004, Fisher and Koons founded Partner for People and Place, a nonprofit organization known in Haiti as Jatrofa Projenou (JP), and began using the relationships developed during the school project to begin investigating the region’s agriculture and economics. Since its founding, the organization has primarily relied on small donations, which Fisher considers an advantage over many aid projects. “Our funding enforced an incremental approach, and an incremental approach, I’ve come to understand, is very important when it comes to a set of human relationships,” he says.

One of their earliest efforts was in charcoal production. Charcoal is an important source of fuel for cooking in Haiti. Rather than attempting to change traditional cooking practices, Fisher and Koons aimed to make charcoal production, a major cause of deforestation, more efficient, and to reduce demand for wood. “Charcoal’s around here to stay, so we developed the proposition, could we pyrolyze wood?” says Fisher.

Fisher traveled to Chile to study the kilns and forestry techniques that have supported a more sustainable charcoal production system there. Building on his research, he worked with Tom Adams, an engineering professor at the University of Georgia, and his students to design a prototype kiln. Fisher then traveled back to Haiti and fabricated one there, an awkward box made of plate steel that resembles a Dumpster. After completing it, Fisher challenged traditional charcoal makers to a contest to see whose method was most effective at making charcoal. “The result was, we won,” he says.

But the approach hasn’t yet been widely adopted. “The Dumpster’s still there. It’s a trophy right now,” Fisher says. But it did help to start a dialogue with the people of Terrier Rouge and Haiti. “Key to our process right from the beginning was codiscovery,” says Fisher.

Though low literacy rates and language barriers limited my ability to communicate with people in Terrier Rouge, Fisher did connect me with Arlan Lecorps, an agronomist with Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture who studied at the University of Florida. Lecorps described to me via e-mail the gradual pace of building trust with local residents that Fisher undertook. “The community received [Partner for People and Place] with curiosity. There was some cultural uneasiness as the new technology departed from the usual ways of making charcoal.” Lecorps came to visit Terrier Rouge after hearing about the charcoal experiments and has since become involved with JP. But the approach of incorporating community members into these efforts succeeded in building trust, even if the new kiln method wasn’t immediately adopted. “The fact that Rob would return on a regular basis [allowed him] to build some solid relationships, as the community had the opportunity to put [in] their words and not just be a passive beneficiary of help,” Lecorps told me. The organization’s modest, incremental approach helped it as well. “Flexibility is a definite asset. It is not [a] prisoner of a rigid structure that does not allow [it] to adjust to changing conditions,” says Lecorps.

It was after the charcoal experiment that Fisher began investigating Jatropha. From the beginning, Fisher and Koons involved local residents by offering flashlights in exchange for seeds, gaining a substantial supply of native seed stock, rather than importing seeds from elsewhere.

Fisher challenged local farmers to a contest about how best to grow Jatropha. The Americans used a no-till approach, while the Haitians used a tractor to till the land. “The outcome was our plants were totally stunted and theirs were robust,” says Fisher. “It forced us to ask why.”

JP looked at how to incorporate Jatropha into traditional Haitian farming practices. “They interplant everything. Their gardens look like a weed patch to an American’s eyes,” Fisher says. “What we’re doing is a slightly bigger scale, but it’s the same comingling. We have goats in amongst the Jatropha.” “It’s a great plant, because it grows in such a way that you can grow under it or between it with other crops,” Koons says.

Converting Jatropha seeds into a commodity has meant focusing on the needs of the community first. Though the seed’s potential for fuel is exciting, it isn’t something that is especially beneficial to locals, few of whom have access to vehicles. “Biodiesel is really only going to help people in Port-au-Prince who drive cars,” Koons says. Instead, JP has looked at the ability to use Jatropha for soaps and body oils. Biodiesel is worth about $4 per gallon, but the soaps and oils can generate 10 times that, and they serve an important role in improving public health. “Everybody needs soap,” says Fisher, explaining that almost all of Haiti’s soap is currently imported.

In 2012, JP received a grant of $80,000 from the United States Agency for International Development to develop a processing center, where the Jatropha seeds are pressed and rendered into soap and other products. The facility has a staff of 15 salaried employees, each of whom supports a large family, and is also fostering a growing network of farmers. Fifteen jobs may seem small compared with many aid projects that tout much larger figures, but the jobs are sustainable. “The economic and social impact is taking more time than we have anticipated,” says Lecorps. “The success has to do with mentality changes, and it might not be as obvious as some other projects,” he explains.

Following the signs of success with the Jatropha project, Fisher has begun building relationships in the mountains and returning to the question of charcoal. He’s partnered with three men who own about 50 acres in total in the uplands, where more substantial forests used to grow. “In order to get a sustained tree cover, you need economic value to keep it there,” Fisher says. “Developing that economy is an important part of the conservation of the landscape.” Using approaches he studied in Chile, Fisher is working with the landowners to incorporate coppice forestry practices into charcoal production, furniture making, and timber pole production for construction.

In coppice forestry, suckering branches are cut from trees, but the living root system is retained. In the tropical environment, it will take only a few years before newly planted trees will be ready for their first harvest. “[The farmer] will not be cutting the tree down to the ground and killing it, like he does currently; he’ll just be harvesting,” says Fisher. This shift will help to create an incentive to retain tree cover in the mountains, an important water source for the arid lowlands.

Ten years on, the project is showing progress. The Jatropha processing plant is close to turning a profit and is growing rapidly as more farmers sign on. “We’re having people coming forward, saying ‘I would like to plant Jatropha,’” Fisher says.

A particular point of pride for Fisher and Koons is that local schoolchildren are being given tours of the soap-making facility, seeing the work being done and the agricultural products made in a region where there are few manufacturing jobs. “Children are seeing a different set of possibilities,” says Fisher. “There is a sense of pride that is developing in the region,” says Koons, not least pride that the region is making soap that is used in Port-au-Prince.

Kevan Williams leads Athens-Clarke County, Georgia’s Office of Park Planning.

One thought on “Tree of Life”

Leave a Reply