By Ausin Bailey, World Ark senior editor
Photos by Lacey West

Extreme drought and deforestation leave Haitian farmers stuck with parched, unyielding soil. After a rocky start, project participants and Heifer Haiti staff realized access to water has to be the first step.

The new tap in the dust-choked mountain village of Tranquille kicks on only during daylight hours, a quavering stream prone to sputter out with no warning. So Eder Exantus stands ready by the cement basin at the village center, fingernails bared and ready to dig. When water sloshes over the basin’s edge, he channels it into gullies that he scrapes into the dirt with a machete and his bare hands.

Water is precious in Tranquille, so Eder Exantus channels runoff from a tap to irrigate his garden.
Water is precious in Tranquille, so Eder Exantus channels runoff from a tap to irrigate his garden.

This makeshift system is the only irrigation for a V-shaped garden that radiates from the tap across a busy walking path. Passers-by have to slow down and step carefully around the delicate plants, but no one complains about this seeming mirage of eggplants, banana trees and tomatoes. Wasting even a drop of water is a heartbreaker in this depleted, thirsty place.

Tranquille, a small settlement in the Commune of Baie de Henne, sits on the high desert, a chalky moonscape of dust and rocks that clashes with history book accounts of a Haiti blanketed by green when Europeans first showed up 500 years ago. That tropical green and fertile soil disappeared a lifetime ago; only an estimated two percent of the original forest cover remains. Today, farmers do their best to coax life out of a ground scraped bare and scorched by relentless sun.

Heifer International reenergized its Haiti program in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, and Baie de Henne was one of the first stops. “When the people approached us for help, we started like we usually do,” said Hervil Cherubin, country director for Heifer Haiti. “We helped with seeds and livestock, and we trained them. But we didn’t take into account the severe climate change.”

The weather was hotter and the land drier than the Heifer staff anticipated. On land that was already parched and leeched of nutrients, crops quickly withered or seeds failed to sprout altogether. When goats started dying, everyone realized it was time to change course.

“So we came back and had a community meeting under a tree,” Cherubin said. “They had a solution. They said, ‘If you will help us get water, you don’t need to do anything else.’ We said yes, we can do it.”

And with that, the Heifer project in Baie de Henne shifted focus, bringing many other Heifer projects in Haiti with it. “We realized we couldn’t work in these communities without water,” Cherubin explained.

Auguste Augustave uses water that spills from the village cistern to irrigate his garden.
Auguste Augustave uses water that spills from the village cistern to irrigate his garden.

The Miracle Tree

Auguste Augustave was among the first batch of Baie de Henne farmers to receive Heifer’s help. In 2012 he marched 15 newly gifted goats into a shaded pen he’d built himself, with hopes of establishing a successful breeding center. But growing forage for his new animals was hard in the dry heat, and scavenging it on his denuded mountaintop was even harder. The closest water source was a two-mile walk away, and Augustave’s own body grew gaunt as he made trek after trek to the well. Seven goats died in the first year.

“It made me feel awful, but I could do nothing,” Augustave said. “The drought was brutal.”

In 2014, Heifer invested $25,000 for a pump and other infrastructure to bring water to the villages of Tranquille and Terre Blanche from a spring two mountains away. The money covered the hardware, and beneficiaries in Baie de Henne and nearby villages stepped in to provide the labor. Pipes now flow to six fountains in and around Baie de Henne, with three more in the works to other sites. The pipe ends at a health clinic set up to treat patients in the cholera outbreak that came into the country with international relief workers soon after the 2010 earthquake. Transmitted in tainted drinking water, cholera has infected more than 700,000 Haitians.

The school principal in nearby Mapou reports that students are missing school less often since the pump and a 4,000-gallon cistern came on line. The cistern sits on a piece of Augustave’s land that’s at the highest spot in the village, positioned there so gravity will send the water to the taps lower down the mountain. Augustave and his neighbors use the cistern to water tiny sprouts underneath a mat of palm rushes angled to keep out the roasting sun. Papaya, olive, plantain and coffee trees grow in plastic sacks lined up with precision and watered with care. The tree nursery also includes moringa, known as "the miracle tree" for the high protein, calcium and iron content of its leaves and seed pods.

Hard times come, you still need to eat. You have no other choice. The misery makes the people cut the trees.Belisaire Anseinio

The name is apt because of the tree’s ability to grow and thrive in extreme heat and drought. A few feet away from the trees, a tomb-shaped roof of palm rushes shades inch-tall tomato plants. When they’re sturdier, the tomatoes and saplings will be planted around the village, at least one tree at each house.

Goats are surviving and multiplying now that they have water to drink and enough food to eat, Augustave said. He now has 65, even after passing goats on to neighbors and selling a few. Augustave himself put on a few pounds of muscle since he now has the irrigation water to grow carrots, onions and tomatoes, and to incorporate eggs and meat into his family’s diet. He helps his neighbors as much as he can, lending out stud bucks to improve the genetic pool of goats in Baie de Henne and sharing vegetables when he can. 

Still, the poverty of this place is evident in the clothes the children wear: dusty, torn t-shirts, often with nothing but underpants on the bottom. One little girl had only a skirt, settled around her neck like a poncho. Other children wore crisp gingham uniforms, a sign their families were doing well enough to cover school fees. The hope is that the goats will continue to thrive, the trees and vegetables will grow, and soon all families will have enough money to send their children to the school at the bottom of the mountain.

Photos: Dirt Poor in Haiti

Extreme drought and deforestation leave Haitian farmers stuck with parched, unyielding soil. After a rocky start, project participants and Heifer Haiti staf realized access to water is the first step.

A Lake With No Water

Paul Dieulifrance, 64, wears a blazer, creased dress pants and shoes that shine despite the ubiquitous dust. He doesn’t get so dressed up very often, but today he’s celebrating the 11th birthday of the Farmers Association of Cabaret. The group formed after a heavy rain, when mud clogged irrigation ravines and farmers had to work together to clear them. The farmers stuck together, helping each other to farm and eventually pooling money to buy a tractor and pay the fees whenever a member needed medical care. Their anemic reserve fund can’t cover non-emergency costs, though, so Dieulifrance’s wife tarries on blindly after she broke her glasses. There’s no money to replace them.

Paul Dieulifrance welcomes guests to his home in Cabaret, a dusty farming town.
Paul Dieulifrance welcomes guests to his home in Cabaret, a dusty farming town.

Even with cooperating and pooling resources, farmers in Cabaret fail as often as they succeed. Dieulifrance walks an hour each way to get water for his house and crops, and his commute is the norm now that many water sources have long dried up. The trees that used to shade and protect the soil disappeared decades ago, chopped for charcoal. The hard-baked earth that’s left behind doesn’t hold water or nutrients, and crops suffer.

“Sometimes we plant and harvest nothing,” said Wilbert Jean-Louis, a farmer and father of three who dreams of replacing his crooked mud house with one made of cement block. He calculates that he will need to sell 20 to 25 goats to make the $2,200 the new house would cost. After a gift from Heifer and some diligent care and breeding, Jean-Louis’ herd numbers 13, even after passing on five. His progress, however, is due for a minor setback; the donkey he uses to haul water to his parched and near-treeless homestead twice a day is hobbling and gray, in grave need of replacement. And his youngest son suffers from a persistent, wet cough that begs for a doctor’s attention. Factoring in these expenses, Jean-Louis suspects he can start building his new house in four years.

This air of wary optimism threads through the crowd at the 11th anniversary celebration for the Farmers Association of Cabaret, which marks what people hope will be a change of fortune. Heifer started working here two years ago, bringing goats, seeds and training to bolster the work the farmers association was already doing. A few hundred people sit under a pavilion for speeches, singing and dancing that lasts all afternoon, topped off by a Passing on the Gift ceremony where goats tethered with collars made of twigs change hands. One woman hands over a rafter of five turkeys, balanced implausibly in the crook of one arm.

Belisaire Anseinio, 72, remembers when the lake was full and crops grew abundantly here.
Belisaire Anseinio, 72, remembers when the lake was full and crops grew abundantly here.

The animals and seeds exchanged at the pass-on ceremony will need a convenient and reliable source of water to thrive, hence the next phase of Heifer’s work in Cabaret. Belisaire Anseinio, 72, leads a tour of the cracked and desolate dry lakebed that used to be Mare Verger, a 25-acre lake that dried up for good in 2013. Decades ago, the lake was full and the fields around it produced squash and pumpkins year-round, Anseinio said. Today, the lakebed is filled with crackled dust and ringed with only cacti and brush.

The transformation began when dry weather destroyed crops, forcing farmers to chop trees for charcoal they can sell. “Hard times come, you still need to eat,” Anseinio explained. “You have no other choice. The misery makes the people cut the trees.” With the trees gone, topsoil washed away and mud filled the lake to its brim, then dried hard as cement. Anseinio and others are eager to start digging to rebuild Mare Verger. Heifer funds will cover the engineering and construction costs to scoop out a permanent lake with a capacity to irrigate 250 acres of farmland.

Bringing the lake back is the best chance Cabaret has to reinvigorate its agricultural tradition and keep its population fed and healthy, farmer Leger Macksonley said. Until the lake is dug and filled with rain, a process that could take years in this arid place, Macksonley said he will continue to walk long distances to collect water and fodder for his animals. And he knows he will sometimes have to rely on handouts to feed himself and his family.

“We’re doing the best we can, but it’s really rough,” he said. “We realize that organizations that come and give us food every day, that is not the solution.”

As he talks, he watches a man about 200 yards away kneel down and set fire to a pile of brush gleaned from an already near barren landscape. The man is making charcoal, still the best option for farmers here when their crops fail and the immediate need to survive today overshadows worries about what will happen in the future. Macksonley shrugs and shakes his head. “That’s what people do,” he said. “They cut the trees, make charcoal, and live.”

What's the Deal With Charcoal, Anyway?


Charcoal burns hotter and more slowly than wood. It also produces less smoke and is far easier to transport. Most Haitians, both in cities and rural areas, depend on charcoal for cooking. But it’s not the charcoal we’re used to, pressed into pillowy shapes and sold in paper bags. The charcoal in Haiti is almost always handmade from wood, roots and brush.

Charcoal is mostly carbon, made by cooking wood in a low-oxygen environment to burn off water, hydrogen and other elements. With most of its components burned away, the final product weighs only a quarter of the wood’s original weight. Commercial charcoal processers burn in huge steel or concrete silos. In Haiti, most charcoal is made under mounds of dirt.

Charcoal production is a big chunk of Haiti’s economy, employing an estimated 200,000 people. When crops fail and other work can’t be found, many people resort to making and selling charcoal because there’s always a market for it. With only 2 percent of the country’s tree cover remaining, some people are resorting to chopping bushes and digging up roots to make charcoal.

What Works: Rebuilding from the Inside Out

Gary Philoctete, J/P HRO Executive Director
Gary Philoctete, J/P HRO Executive Director

The torrent of international aid that swept into Haiti after the 2010 earthquake brought lots of money and people to help rebuild. The relief groups that swooped in get varying ratings from critics, but one organization, J/P HRO, continues to win a strong chorus of accolades and support.

Formed on the fly in response to the earthquake, J/P HRO ramped up its work quickly. With the organizational acumen of co-founder and philanthropist Sanela Diana Jenkins and the star power of co-founder Sean Penn, J/P HRO mobilized funding and staff to help provide temporary shelter and medical care for displaced families and eventually move them back into permanent homes.

Key to the group’s effectiveness is its staffing: 95 percent of J/P HRO’s employees are Haitian or of Haitian origin. Executive Director Gary Philoctete, also born in Haiti, leads the staff of more than 350 people. 

“Someone coming from the outside, even with the best intentions and competencies, it will take time to learn the realities of the culture and the people,” he said. “With Haitians on staff, we already have a good understanding, so it goes really fast.”

Philoctete worked for larger, more established nonprofits before joining J/P HRO three years ago. “I wanted to join the organization because it’s very young and dynamic,” he said. “We have the flexibility to innovate and be creative.”

J/P HRO initially worked on setting up temporary camps, then fleshed out those camps so occupants could access schools, medical care and sanitation. Now that most families have returned to repaired homes or new ones, J/P HRO is reforesting camp sites and improving the quality of life for people settling into permanent homes.

While the earthquake is six years in the past, great need still exists in Port-au-Prince and the rest of the country. Philoctete said he hopes the international community doesn’t forget about Haiti anytime soon. “Haitian people just need a little push to move forward,” he said. “After this little push, people can move on and continue by themselves.”