March 21 is International Day of Forests, which for most of us conjures up the wonderful feeling we get when we hike or camp beneath leafy green trees.
For people living in the mountains of Haiti, where Food for the Hungry serves thousands living in poverty, they see forests like this only in a dream. At one time trees blanketed the slopes. Now, large tracts of treeless land scar the landscape.
So when storms like October 2016’s Hurricane Matthew blast the hills, surging water erases harvests, kills livestock and robs farmers of what little precious soil they had in the first place. Families can’t feed their children. Wells and springs don’t recharge because the water passes over the ground too quickly. So there’s little water to drink, and even less for bathing and laundry.
Mudslides in this area can turn deadly, too. In one FH community, not many years ago, several people were killed while fetching water at a river when a hillside collapsed on them. Soil erosion can kill.
FH has helped Haitian farmers raise tree seedlings and plant new forests in the region. But that’s just one tool in the fight against erosion.
Two important tools are the grasses vetiverand what the Haitians call “citronelle” — what we call lemongrass. If you’re into either essential oils or Thai cooking, you’ve probably heard of them.
Vetiver grows quickly but most important, its roots are very long – anywhere from two to four meters (6.5 to 13 feet) in length. In the first year alone a new planting of vetiver can reach 3 meters in depth. So it won’t uproot when flooding hits and the root network keeps soil in place. It’s highly drought tolerant, too.
Lemongrass is a double threat in the war against poverty. First, it prevents erosion. Its strong stems stand up to pummeling flood waters. But it can also be made into a tea that is a favorite in Haiti, so families that cultivate it can sell it for extra income. If you cut it to sell for tea, it will grow back again.
Extra income means so much to the families. They can use it to buy staples like rice and cooking oil. They can send their children to school or they can pay for health emergencies.
FH currently works with 150 farmers to learn the planting and cultivation techniques for vetiver and lemongrass.
When Hurricane Matthew struck, the families with erosion control lost fewer crops than those with nothing to stop the water and erosion. Farmers who may have been hesitant to participate are now asking if they can be part of the program.
These types of environmental endeavors run alongside FH programs that help families learn to save money and practice better hygiene. FH also has helped communities in this region install water systems nearer to homes, often with household filtration systems. That means women and children don’t have to travel down dangerous hillsides — like the one that collapsed — to fetch polluted water.
You can help FH expand our programs to other families by sponsoring a child in Haiti. FH’s integrated approach not only helps farmers solve one problem like erosion, but it also helps entire families lift their community out of poverty.