14 June 2011, Port-au-Prince/Haiti - FAO Goodwill Ambassador and Olympic track legend Carl Lewis ended a two-day visit to Haiti today where he saw for himself reforestation efforts to help the country protect itself against flash floods and mudslides as hurricane season begins.
Lewis's visit was planned to mark the UN's celebration of the International Year of Forests and followed a similar trip to the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Trees at the epicenter
Lewis travelled to Leogane, near the epicenter of the deadly January 2010 quake that killed almost a quarter of a million people. There he saw for himself Haiti's denuded mountains and visited a Fruit Trees for Haiti school project, part of a larger FAO programme to reforest and shore up watersheds in the region.
As well as suffering terrible earthquake damage, Leogane is a frequent victim of Haiti's often deadly hurricane seasons.
The nine-time Olympic Gold Medalist visited a tree nursery in the grounds of a school that was destroyed by the earthquake. As well as providing planting material, and planting trees themselves, children are taught to value trees, by being made responsible for one of their own.
"Starting with educating kids is a very important step in stopping the cycle of environmental degradation which is now one of the most serious problems facing Haiti," said Lewis.
"What FAO is doing is tremendous and it makes me optimistic to see that Haitians are realizing they have take to take care of their land. Trees are at the epicenter of Haiti's renaissance."
222 million trees needed
FAO forestry experts estimate if 22 trees are planted for every Haitian, a total of 222 million trees, then the newly elected President Michel Martelly's goal of reforesting eight percent of Haiti's land surface in his five years in office could be met.
Haiti currently has just two percent forest cover, one of the worst rates in the world, and the main reason for the spate of deadly mudslides and floods that has killed thousands of people over the past eight years. At least 25 people were killed by flash floods and landslides just last week, the first week in this year's hurricane season.
During his trip, Lewis met with the newly-elected Present Michel Martelly where the issue of reforestation, a priority of the new government, was discussed. Lewis accepted Martelly's invitation to return to Haiti later to help the President in his efforts to raise awareness about the importance of forests among the general population.
"Trees not only help to secure the soil and prevent landslides, they are also crucial to the water supply, as a provider of income, from coffee to wood, and are key to restoring the fertility of degraded land," said FAO Representative in Haiti AriToubo Ibrahim.
Haiti is a net importer of rice, high international food prices make it very difficult for poor people here to buy staple food.
Malnutrition rates too high
24 percent of Haitians experience chronic malnutrition — nine percent suffer from acute malnutrition, which means they are sick from hunger. Nearly a quarter of all children suffer stunted growth as a result of not getting enough of the right nutritional food.
"Haitians also need to increase their intake of other staples like sweet potatoes and plantain to improve nutrition," said Ibrahim.
Lewis also visited an FAO vegetable garden project at La Corail camp for homeless victims of last years devastating earthquake and heard how people have learnt to grow their own food safely, to avoid cholera, a disease that has claimed thousands of victims.