July 16, 2012: Stories from the Field. This guest post is written by Jeannie Whitler, Lincoln Frager, and Mary Dinh – co-founders of the social venture Transforming Rural Environments and Economies (TREE). TREE is developing enterprise solutions to the deforestation challenges facing Haiti as part of the Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise MBA Program at Colorado State University, in partnership with local non-profit Trees, Water & People.
Haiti has a well-documented and widespread deforestation catastrophe, among many other environmental and social concerns. Throughout our research during the academic year, we’ve read and heard about the many challenges in Haiti that would threaten a reforestation project: poor roads, extreme poverty, goats, natural disasters, mountainous landscape, land tenureship issues, and insufficient water supply. In the month that we’ve been in Haiti with our Fort Collins partner Trees, Water & People, we visited 11 communities in Anse Rouge, northwest Haiti, and two existing reforestation projects in other parts of the country. We’ve verified that, indeed, all of these challenges are daily realities for our communities. However, being on the ground has given us the opportunity to identify the “bright spots” – the strengths of the local communities and the systems that are working well. Without spending time on the ground, we would not have been able to identify and assess the communities’ strengths and resources. Since our venture has a goal of promoting sustainable livelihoods, identifying the strengths of the communities is key. Here are three important findings that only on-the-ground research could have provided us:
- Agricultural Potential: We visited 11 communities in Anse Rouge with AMURT, our in-country NGO partner. The land was rockier and harsher than we anticipated, and we were not sure if any crops could be grown productively. We saw varying levels of productivity and planting strategies. The important observation, though, was that there were some surprisingly productive fields on extremely rocky soil, some with trees and most planted without the use of fertilizers or insecticides. This assured us that the soil has the potential to support agroforestry plantations and that local knowledge exists on how to make it happen. During our visits, farmers frequently cited lack of access to agricultural inputs and lack of capital to purchase fertilizer as limitations to productivity. With this insight, we see opportunities to meet the needs of farmers to improve their production and their livelihoods.
- Local Capacity: Perhaps the brightest spot we discovered in Anse Rouge is AMURT’s field staff. In addition to their motivation and natural talents, most of the staff has attended numerous capacity-building workshops on topics varying from organic farming to community mobilization. Working for AMURT has given them the opportunity to exercise and prove their skills. For example, Lucner, AMURT staff member, designed and implemented a pilot program of 50 Self-Help Groups (SHG), centered around savings-and-loans programs, in Anse Rouge over the past year. We attended an SHG meeting and witnessed Lucner’s conscientiousness for building not just financial resilience, but also leadership capacity and empowerment in the most vulnerable communities. Lucner attends the SHG meetings to provide guidance and builds the group’s self-esteem and leadership skills by refraining from participating in the group’s operations. We saw that AMURT’s staff has taken ownership of the social programs in the area, and that a business-based approach to agroforestry plantations and sustainable livelihoods has the potential to facilitate local ownership of the area’s economic development.
- Charcoal Distribution: Communities in Anse Rouge are remote and barely reachable by very poor roads. Reaching them will be a major obstacle. One strategy we learned from case studies of successful last mile distribution is to piggyback on existing infrastructures and networks. So, we’ve kept a keen eye out for infrastructures and networks that work well in the area. We quickly recognized that the charcoal value chain is one infrastructure that reaches every single community we visited. In every community, we saw bags of charcoal on the roadside ready for pickup and often ran into earthmound kilns in some stage of production. Thus, the charcoal value chain provides us with an example of how to get products in and out of the communities and a benchmark for the economic returns required to keep a value chain running.
Like many of the countries to which GSSE MBA teams venture, Haiti is a tough place to travel. However, there is nothing more enlightening and valuable for understanding the realities than being on the ground.