2012-Competition Winner

A Haitian Tree Battle: Anthropology and the Devastated Forest

by Gerald F. Murray  (Department of Anthropology – Emeritus, University of Florida)



This book is directed in general to a public with an interest in applied anthropology, the human tree dilemma, human rights (particularly the agrarian property rights of the poor), and/or the Republic of Haiti. Though ideally suited for those with an interest in all four, the book will be written in a way to be of use to a reader curious even about one of the four.

The core of the book will concern an unusually lengthy 20 year tree planting program, conceived in anthropological research carried out in the late 1970’s, that resulted in a program which lasted, under evolving modified form, till the late 1990’s. In my role as a cultural anthropologist with a recent dissertation on rural Haitian land tenure, I was invited to carry out the baseline research under contract with USAID. This input was initially requested because of the dismal results of ongoing foreign-financed government-managed “reforestation projects”. Farmers refused to plant the trees produced by government nurseries, and I was asked to find out why. The simple answers , which required Common Sense 101 rather than a Ph.D. in Anthropology, will be discussed in the volume.

But more importantly than clever critiques or post-mortems of failures are alternative program paradigms. I went beyond my assigned “terms of reference” and proposed an alternative paradigm. Controversial in its thrust for reasons also to be discussed in the volume, it was initially laughed out of the mission by senior professionals in USAID, who took my report, shook my hand, and wished me luck back in the States. Younger staff fought for the idea behind the scenes and USAID / Washington approved a four year / four million dollar program based on this anthropologically generated program paradigm.

I was (to my surprise) asked to direct the project. Another cultural anthropologist was hired to be the USAID in-house coordinator of the project. And yet a third anthropologist was hired to succeed me as the second director of the project. It was an unusual period (long since past) when anthropology had a prominent and positive profile in the USAID / Haiti mission, which had recently been invited back to Haiti under the government of Jean Claude Duvalier.

The project was based on the centrality on smallholder rights (particular agrarian property rights and tree tenure rights) and smallholder survival agendas. The major paradigmatic shifts were:

•  from reforestation to agroforestry (more compatible with a landscape filled with smallholders).

•  from protection of natural forests (99% of which had disappeared from Haiti) to the “domestication” of wood – planting, harvesting, and marketing by smallholder families.

•  from focus on the macro-ecological “watershed” concerns of international agencies and overseas conservation constituencies to the microeconomic agendas of Haitian villagers.

•  from entrusting of funds to predatory Duvalierist ministries to project management by NGOs. (It turned out that a “nonprofit NGO” can be as predatory as any governmental ministry.)
These abstract paradigmatic issues were converted into a concrete project to be described in the book. The resulting four year program had an initial goal of one million trees per year. When confronted with the option of a tree program that endowed them with full rights over the trees – ownership rights, harvesting rights, and marketing rights – the farmers that had refused to plant untouchable government trees on their land responded by planting, not four million, but over twenty million trees on 75,000 peasant holdings in the initial four year period.

The project has already been written up in several articles and has appeared as a case study in numerous textbooks in Cultural Anthropology. (It won the Anthropological Praxis award.) But the citations reflect the project only in its earliest years, and no book length monograph has been written that covers the 20 year span of the evolving program. Nor has anything been written on the project that goes beyond description to deal with several important generic issues that the project raises. The current volume, while adhering to the suggested 100 page guideline, will succinctly address that gap.

Chapter Outlines

Chapter 1. Humans and the forest: an evolutionary saga

Chapter 1 will give a brief overview of the purpose of the book, as summarized above. But to go beyond a simple “war story” account of a particular project, and to give some anthropological depth to the volume, I will use this opening a chapter to go back in time and give a diachronic , evolutionary overview of the shifting relationship between humans and trees. There are seven “chapters” in the saga of human / forest interactions, each one characterized by a different mode of relating to the forest. We begin with chapter 1, when the African forests were the womb in which the basic primate outline of the human body were formed. We progress through five other chapters, in which humans escape the forest (Paleolithic), return to hunt and gather in the forest (Mesolithic) and eventually begin destroying the forest. The sixth phase entails the development of some protective measures.

We are currently in chapter 7 of the tree saga, a chapter in which the species has passed from total destruction of the forest to some protective measures. But the hallmark of chapter 7 is a replay in the domain of trees of a transition that occurred 10 millennia ago in the domain of food. The long-term solution to the earlier food crisis was not conservation of dwindling natural sources but domestication of crops and animals. So also forest protection and conservation movements can be seen as merely brief holding actions pending the appearance of a domesticated mode of wood production. Conservation and plantation are not mutually exclusive. In Amazonia conservation is appropriate. In a densely populated country such as Haiti, where 99% of tree cover has been removed and where human communities fill the landscape, the time for protection is gone. Development agencies with ecological budgets and conservation specialists have tried to find the last remaining tree stands in Haiti on which to implement their protectionist measures. But common sense buttressed with even five minutes of anthropological fieldwork show that, in Haiti, it’s too late.

This chapter will be brief, but it has two important intellectual objectives. (1) It will assist readers to view the current tree dilemma in its proper diachronic and anthropological perspective. Before students immerse themselves in the trees of Haiti, I wish them to have a broad evolutionary grasp of the larger question of trees and humans. (2) Above all it will pave the way for understanding the irrelevance (to Haiti) of the imposition of a protectionist / conservationist paradigm in tree planting activites, and the anthropological importance of applying a domestication paradigm, to the tree issue.

Chapter 2: Slavery, trees, and the Republic of Haiti

Why has tree cover disappeared from the once lush hillsides of Western Hispaniola to a destructive degree rarely matched elsewhere? This chapter will discuss the evolution of society and the destruction of tree cover on Western Hispaniola, treating each historical phase succinctly. However this is not “history for the sake of history” . Rather an attempt will be made here to show the relevance of historical knowledge to solid applied anthropology. To relate Haitian history to the project, the chapter will discuss the manner in which anthropological patterns which emerged in each period were identified and had to be incorporated into project design. I will briefly discuss indigenous society, the slave colony, the revolutionary and immediate post-revolutionary period, the formative period of the Haitian peasantry, the population growth and removal of all tree cover, and the appearance of development agencies in Haiti, some of them focused on reforestation.

There is a practical intent in this exploration of the past. For each of these periods I will identify the emergence of specific features of Haitian life that are best taken into account in the design of any anthropologically informed tree planting project. For example: Haitians resisted the efforts of the earliest Haitian rulers to reverse conditions back to colonial times and have them work as indentured laborers on government plantations run by Haitian soldiers. They succeeded in establishing an autonomous free-holding way of life based on a locally evolved system of property rights dependent not on formal deeds but on local community recognition of the de-facto owner of each plot. This system, often dismissed as chaotic by outsiders, is quite functional and in any case must be taken into account in tree program design. In the design of programs, history can matter.

Chapter 3: Anthropological project design: The battle for villager tree rights

This chapter will first describe previous attempts at reforestation in Haiti and the premises on which they were founded. It will them summarize the premises underlying the present program. And it will then discuss organization of the project. I will argue that programs and projects themselves are best treated , not as random collages of discrete practices, but as dynamic, evolving, integrated problem-solving systems. Anthropologist have often dealt with “cultural universals”. I will argue that there are parallel “program universals” that have to be dealt with systemically in any tree planting project:

1. a technical subsystem, which concerns species selection, nursery arrangements, and out-planting .

2. a benefit flow subsystem, which deals with tree ownership rights, harvest rights, and marketing rights

3. an organizational outreach subsystem, which deals with project contact with farmers, educational messages, seedling delivery, and technical support ;

4. a fund management subsystem, which concerns allocation of funds.

Abstract concepts have to be converted into concrete program arrangements. Planning for an agroforestry program should and did cover each of these domains.
Because the protagonists were small farm families, the technology had to emphasize fast-growing species that could be planted on the same holding with crops — i.e. agroforestry rather than reforestation. The key anthropological domain was subsystem 2 (above), benefit flow arrangements that guaranteed that the smallholders were the principal beneficiaries and that they had complete ownership, harvesting, and marketing rights over the seedlings which they planted on their lands. In terms of factors of production, an arrangement was instituted by which the farmers provided the land and the labor; they planted the on their land with their own labor. The project provided the capital in the form of several hundred free tree seedlings for each participant.

This paradigm was a radical departure from earlier programs in which the Haitian government supplied tree seedlings which, once planted, were supposed to be protected. No rational farmer would take up space on his small holdings with government owned trees which (it was feared) could lead eventually to the expropriation of the land itself. Our benefit flow strategy made it clear that the farm families, and they alone, had harvesting and marketing rights over any tree which they planted on their land. This question of explicitly articulated farm-family rights was the benefit-flow backbone of the program.

The fourth subsystem, the use of non-governmental fund-management strategies, was a controversial element, but one which was necessary to protect funds from Duvalierist ministries.

The chapter will also describe the changes that occurred in the program over its 20 year period. Some of these changes were adaptive internally generated changes. Others were imposed by the shifting agendas of the external funding agent, USAID. The most serious intrusion came with a particularly destructive mission director, philosophically opposed to subsidies: “Farmers should pay for their USAID seedlings, damn it! No more free lunch!” With a destructive stroke of his pen, he imposed requirements than shut down three dozen nurseries around the country, producing millions of seedlings a year. This was at a period when the same USAID mission was promoting free contraceptives. Free seedlings were out; free condoms were in. The deleterious impact on tree planting of this bizarre outburst of bureaucratic wisdom will be discussed in the book.

Chapter 4: Profile of peasant tree planters

In this chapter I will focus on the men and women who actually planted the trees on their own land. I will first analyze who planted project wood trees, who did not plant, and why? I will then discuss how rural families used the trees that were planted. This information, which was not available when the earliest writings on the project were published, was gathered over the 20 year span of the project.

Socioeconomic variables and gender are two particularly important elements. With respect to the latter, the project insisted on endowing rural families with exclusive rights over the trees which they planted. But it did not intrude on internal power relationships between men and women within the rural households. Unlike their Spanish speaking counterparts on the other side of the border, the economic control which the rural Haitian women exercise over the market system of Haiti endow them with heavy decision making power in their homes. The manner in which this worked itself out in the domain of tree planting decisions will be discussed in the chapter.

The chapter will also discuss the decisions which households made concerning the timing of the harvest of the wood trees which they planted. Contrary to what skeptics had predicted (“They’ll cut down the trees as soon as they can”) rural families protected their growing trees for years beyond their potential harvest date. When a USAID financed African-swine-flu project killed all the pigs in Haiti, those who had planted trees began using the trees as they had used their pigs: a means of savings for use either as emergency funds or the financing of schooling for their children.

Chapter 5: Reality check: Program dilemmas and the relevance of trees in post-earthquake Haiti

The book is not intended as a simple project description. Even less is it meant to be victory chant for applied anthropology. Despite its achievement of an extraordinarily large flow of income generating green life onto Haitian peasant holdings, the project in retrospect had many flaws.

As indicated earlier, the program as described in its early stage received favorable anthropological attention in the form of an Anthropological Praxis Award, inclusion in readers in Applied Anthropology, and citation as a model case in several introductory textbooks. It has also received a scathing review in a critique of development anthropology, in which the project was criticized among other things for opportunistically inventing the problem of deforestation in Haiti (!!), and (with my emphasis on the income generating potential of trees) of wishing to “commodify” life and lure subsistence peasants into the market and thus expose them to the contaminating impact of money. In the same article I was personally stigmatized as a naïve neo-Malthusian biological determinist – i.e. an ignorant racist. That is, whereas the project has received generally positive treatment in the anthropological community, it has also been graced with the attention of Spitball Anthropology at its most vitriolic.

I will briefly mention, but not dwell on, ivory tower tempests in teapots as regards the project. I will use the pages of this final chapter as a vehicle for discussing some larger theoretical, institutional, and ethical issues that arose. Among the issues are:

1. Villager rights and villager agendas. The main teachers of any lessons are the Haitian peasants themselves. They have proved that when a project is based on an aggressive and explicit recognition of their rights (in this case agrarian property rights and tree tenure and harvest rights) and designed with an explicit focus on their urgent microeconomic agendas rather than the ecological agendas in fashion in the development world, their willingness to fill their own land with green arboreal life is more powerful than any forester or anthropologist could have anticipated.

2. The power of anthropological theory in applied anthropology. The book will also argue that applied anthropology is at its strongest when it harnesses the power of anthropological theory to program design. The counterintuitive notion that impoverished Haitian peasants would plant wood trees was based on an anthropological hunch concerning the transition in the distant past from an extractive to a domesticated mode of food production. Today’s wood crisis was conceptualized as a delayed replay of that ancient food crisis that had occurred some ten millennia ago. The response back then was not protection or conservation of natural resources, but rather their conversion into domesticated crops and livestock.

Before this program, Haitian farmers planted fruit trees but rarely planted wood. Wood was extracted from nature, a “gift of God”, as distinct from the mango and avocado trees which one planted. This shift into “domesticated wood” , when seen in deeper theoretical context, is a replay in the domain of wood of that similar shift that occurred millennia ago in the domain of food. Applied anthropology can tap into deeper theoretical wellsprings.

3. Shifting institutional agendas. But the book will also deal with three other less attractive issues. In the first place, because the program was financed by a development agency, it was under constant pressure from the shifting agendas and fads of that world. In this case the agency (USAID) financed the undertaking, in modified modes, for nearly two decades – an unusual state of affairs. But bureaucratic reality won out. As indicated above, flow of green life that took twenty years to build can be halted by the stroke of one destructive bureaucratic pen. The issue of dysfunctional dependency on institutions with shifting external agendas must be frankly discussed.

With respect to the problem of external dependencies, however, it must be stated clearly that at present there is not a single major infrastructural, agrarian, medical, or educational service being provided by any institution in Haiti which would not barrel to an immediate stop if external funding were cut off. Debilitating dependency is, in other words, a problem of all projects in Haiti, not just the one documented here.

4. The predatory local State. The book will also deal with the phenomenon of the predatory State, in this case the Haitian State. With few exceptional periods, ever since its founding in 1804, the Haitian State has been at odds with the Haitian population. Having extracted as much as it could from its own people in the form of export taxes and internal market taxes, it turned to the new pasture of “development funds” which began blossoming with the arrival of the newly formed U.N. mission in the early 50’s. “Government to government” programs continued to be the norm even in the late 1970’s, when the tree program was designed. Few of these funds reached ordinary Haitians in the form of services.

In my feasibility-study interviews with hundreds of villagers in different regions of Haiti, I asked them how to channel project funds. With a unanimity uncharacteristic of the richly opinionated and articulate villagers of Haiti, they pleaded with me to keep money away from their government. When I recommended a non-governmental mode of operation to USAID, and some younger program officers supported that, a firestorm erupted all the way from Port-au-Prince to Washington, D.C. I was present at the meeting in Washington where, in a reversal of normal procedure, senior mission staff were overruled and the project was programmed to be run through in-country NGOs under the umbrella of a D.C. based NGO.

This creates an anthropological dilemma. A recommendation to channel foreign funds around the Government of Haiti smacked of imperialism or neo-colonialism. Channeling them through the government on the other hand would have been criminal stupidity, as the funds would have largely disappeared in the Duvalier bureaucracy. The anthropological solution was to ignore the government-to-government philosophers and to follow instead the advice of the hundreds of villagers who pleaded for us to keep money away from the government.

5. The predatory NGO. But this has created another dilemma, particularly acute in post-earthquake Haiti of 2012. This project was a pioneer in NGO implementation mode. Its impressive outputs from year 1 led USAID and other organizations to start using NGOs for other activities as well. Quite apart from the dilemma of a country with a non-functioning State, the NGOs themselves can be (and many big ones currently are) as predatory as any government. I was prematurely terminated from my position as field director because I fought tooth-and-nail against the home office of the NGO for whom I worked when they announced – and USAID agreed – that their overhead costs would go from 15% to 40% of the locally expended budget.

NGOs who receive private donations are accountable to nobody in Haiti. NGOs who receive development grants or contracts are more accountable to funders than local government bureaucrats. Services thus do flow out to the population, but often at an outrageously high cost in institutional expenses, including Washington, New York, or Connecticut home office expenses.

The situation in post-earthquake Haiti is particular tragic in that regard. The NGO mode has so proliferated that the country is currently called the Republic of NGOs. If the billions of pledged dollars are given to the currently dysfunctional government of Haiti, as many argue should be done, the chances of it reaching the population in the form of services are as low as ever. Foreigners still labor under the self-serving illusions that they can build governments with infusions of money and advisers.

On the other had there are hordes of NGOs, U.S. universities, and for-profit companies rubbing their hands in anticipation of a “piece of the action” in the “development” of post-earthquake Haiti. Billions of dollars have been pledged into what appears to be a lose-lose situation in which the principle beneficiaries will be the institutions and individuals contracted to manage the money and in which the people of Haiti themselves will see only a small fraction of the funds. If the billions sent to Haiti by the outside world are squandered, it will be a tragedy as great as the earthquake itself.

This dilemma of government implementation vs. NGO implementation was encountered in the tree project itself from its earliest days in the late 1970’s. It is a specter that continues to haunt the Haitian landscape 2012. The book will discuss the dilemma and propose an anthropologically informed hybrid solution.

In short, the proposed book will document the manner in which anthropologically informed input can generate counterintuitive but effective problem-solving models. It will use a specific project to make this point. But in doing this it will deal with generic issues and dilemmas that affect the work of anthropologists far beyond Haiti.

Proposed length, style, and timeline

The book will be written with a view to students, on the one hand, and a non-specialist public on the other. With those readerships in mind the vocabulary will be jargon-free (or at least jargon-soft), the writing style will be of the genre used in this proposal, and documentation will be made in consolidated end-notes in a manner that does not interrupt the flow of reading. I trust that the issues raised will be of interest to the anthropological community as well. Many of the propositions made in the book will elicit legitimate critical response from fellow anthropologists, though I will not use this particular volume for venting specialist arguments that are best reserved for other venues.