Culture Multimedia

September 5, 2013 at 7:00 am

Not Just Planting Trees – Sadhana Forest Haiti and Agroforestry

Joseph Redwood-Martinez is the director of One day, everything will be free, a film about Sadhana Forest Haiti where he lived and worked from May to August 2012. Despite his travels to similar communities internationally, this place remains for him the most significant, dynamic, and complex of any project he’s encountered.

Sadhana Forest started in 2003 as a community-led indigenous reforestation effort in Tamil Nadu, India. In 2010, they came to Haiti to establish a sister community in one of the most environmentally degraded terrains in the world––in an area referred to locally as “the wasteland.” In India, the focus of the community was on planting the non-food producing Tropical Dry Evergreen forest. In Haiti, however, they took up a significantly different approach and decided to align themselves with the ongoing efforts to reintroduce the Maya Nut tree and agroforestry methods to the Haitian side of the island of Hispaniola.

I joined Sadhana Forest Haiti for a period of three months to observe and interact with the community as they departed from their original objectives of planting trees strictly for ecological restoration and shifted instead to planting trees which implicated the consumption habits and livelihood of the surrounding populations.

My first impression was just that Sadhana Forest was transforming from a small-scale reforestation initiative in India to an international community that would have to find a way of translating its philosophy in a new cultural context.

But I eventually discovered that something related but much more significant was going on: in coming to Haiti, Sadhana Forest was no longer just planting trees, they were throwing themselves into the much more complicated politics of linking the translation and acceptance of their objectives in this new context with the introduction of an unfamiliar, food-producing tree.

credit: Aideen McFadden

credit: Aideen McFadden

Prior to extensive deforestation throughout the island, the Maya Nut (Brosimum alicastrum), is said to have existed in Haiti hundreds of years ago. It is one of those almost mythic miracle trees: drought and climate-change resistant, the tree produces a high yield of nuts that can be ground into flour and used to make bread, soups, and sauce; these nuts can also be roasted and used to make a drink that looks like coffee and tastes a bit like chocolate – in Haitian Creole, the tree is referred to as chokogu, or “taste of chocolate.”

The Maya Nut is also amongst a group of what are known as oxalogenic trees – research continues, but it is understood that these trees take CO2 out of the atmosphere and trap it in the soil. Whereas many trees take CO2 out of the atmosphere and store the carbon in their plant tissue, the oxalogenic trees are unique in that they are capable of storing atmospheric carbon permanently in soil such that it is not re-released into the atmosphere if or when the tree is cut down and decays. As such, this tree is of particular interest amongst those working to address climate change through reforestation.

American archaeologist and ecologist Dennis E. Puleston conducted considerable research on the Maya Nut tree throughout the 1960s and 70s and used his findings to challenge the widely held assumption that the slash-and-burn cultivation of maize throughout the tropical jungle constituted the subsistence base for the ancient Maya civilization. By way of contrast, Puleston suggested that archaeologists had been overstating the importance of maize, “perhaps heavily biased by our own agricultural heritage.” The key to the success of the Mayan civilization should be attributed, instead, to the effective utilization of the seed crop produced by a single, high-yield tree species – Brosimum alicastrum.

More recently, the New Agriculturalist has been so enamored with the tree that it has called it a “forgotten treasure” and claimed that “entire villages have survived by eating Maya nut” – the highly nutritious flour from the Maya Nut had been used as an emergency food in Guatemala after Hurricane Stan (October 2005) and in Nicaragua after Hurricane Felix (September 2007). The task now, it seems, was to reintroduce this increasingly endangered tree throughout the regions where its propagation would be ecologically and culturally viable.

When I lived with Sadhana Forest Haiti, I was amongst a cohort who made it appealing to see the Maya Nut additionally as a protagonist in a counter-narrative that sought to go against the grain of the too-familiar environmental consequences of colonialism.

Deforestation, eroded soils, the ubiquity of slash-and-burn agricultural practices, and a crippling dependency on foreign aid had all but eliminated the possibility of long-term planning and self-determination for those dwindling communities that still lived and worked on the land. In light of this scenario, a transition to agroforestry has been emerging for some time now as a proactive response to these constellation of factors stacking up against rural agricultural communities.

credit: Aideen McFadden

credit: Aideen McFadden

As a participant observer living and working with Sadhana Forest Haiti over a period of several months, I engaged with  those both in and outside of the community in order to better understand the potentials and limitations of this experimental model. What was significant about a grassroots community organization such as Sadhana Forest – in contrast to a more typical NGO or development organization – taking on this task of reintroducing a new species of tree and along with it an entirely different approach to agriculture in Haiti?

Was Sadhana Forest still “just a group of people who wanted to live together and plant trees,” or was the community reconstituting itself as an international humanitarian organization? If so, where were these motivations coming from? And in either case, could Sadhana Forest be part of a new story out of the familiar narratives of philanthropic colonialism and the charitable-industrial complex?

Shifting from a community with a commitment to indigenous reforestation to a community demonstrating agroforestry has ushered in a series of critical and timely questions for Sadhana Forest – the implications of which reach far beyond the organization itself.

Taking part in the introduction of a new species of tree that produces food––and thereby engaging not only with ecological service provision but also implicating the surrounding community’s diets, livelihoods, and land-management practices – raised the question of whether Sadhana Forest Haiti was crossing a line with indigenous reforestation or offering a critical actualization of its greater potentials.

What I found at Sadhana Forest Haiti was a way of being in the world that was neither static nor unanimous: it offered up the answers I had been looking for and simultaneously prompted me to change my questions.

All photographs taken by Aideen McFadden, a photographer and 2011 volunteer in Haiti. You can see more vivid photos in her album, Sadhana Forest

-Joseph Redwood Martinez