Jenny Barker travelled to Haiti, and the island of Ile-a-Vache, to explore the various ways in which the local community is engaging in sustainable solutions to climate change. Here, she reflects on her trip.
Haiti, which means ‘land of the mountains’, is a beautiful country. Looking out of the window throughout the scenic journey down south, admiring the mountainous landscape, seascapes with sunlight filtering through the palm trees – it reminded me of how wonderful it was to be back. There were colourful buses everywhere, children making their way to school, people transporting wheelbarrows of sugarcane and other products to the town markets.
After a stop off at Wynn Ecological farm just outside of Port au Prince to learn about conservation issues unique to Haiti, I made my way down south to head to the islands. Islanders here are at the front lines of extreme weather events and each year are witnessing the devastating effects of climate change.
Leaving the hotel at 5 am to avoid the infamous Port-au-Prince traffic, we reached the Les Cayes wharf late in the afternoon. Young locals wait around here, offering travellers their help for a few dollars. From the choppy waters, my small taxi boat arrived. I jumped on board with my bags and watched, slightly apprehensive, as the cameras and drone equipment perilously bopped up and down with every rise and fall of the boat.
Finally, I arrived at the small island of Ile-a-Vache, which is a few miles off the south coast of Haiti. Ile-a-Vache comprises of five main villages and has a population of about 15,000; it is also extremely vulnerable to the impact of tropical storms and hurricanes. Here, implementing measures for protecting their livelihoods against the ravages of storms and overfishing have become increasingly more urgent for the locals. Organisations such as the Nature Conservancy, Haven and Friends of Ile-a-Vache, are working to help the islanders deal with the challenges of climate change. Some solutions that are already in place are those of fish farms, mangrove restoration/preservation, artificial coral reefs and sustainable agriculture.
My accommodation was a welcoming homestay with Calise and his wife Nadine in the village of Madame Bernard. Nadine, a superb cook, treated me to delicious traditional Haitian meals every evening.
The beauty of these small Caribbean islands is quite stunning. They are a cliché, with their turquoise water and pristine white sand. Still completely undeveloped for tourism, they possess an ‘untouched’ charm.
We first set out to visit Ilet a Brouee, a small sandbank island off the south coast of Haiti measuring just 4000 square meters in size. The island is densely populated, with 500 residents in 83 houses, surrounded by a very narrow band of beach. There are no doctors, nurses, schools or proper sanitation, but the surrounding waters have, up until recently, offered better fishing. At the beginning of every July, in order to avoid the devastation of the hurricane season, the residents leave their homes and relocate to other islands, such as Ile-a-Vache.
Haitians are warm and sociable; once they understood the objective of my project, they were always happy to help and share their experiences. Louis Maxene, the leader of the island, told us about how the severity of the storms has increased and how the fish stocks around much of Haiti have plummeted. Climate change and overfishing have greatly diminished the type and size of fish now available to them.
While here, we needed to find a clearing to set up the drone, which was tricky on such a tiny, densely packed island, while also avoiding sandy areas for take-off and landing. We eventually found a small spot by the only solar light on the island. Everyone gathered around and watched with fascination as the drone took off. It was an extraordinary location to shoot in; the views were spectacular, providing a genuine sense of how unique this place really is.
Belanie was my fixer – a smart young guy with a wealth of local knowledge. Together, we explored the mangroves by foot, boat and with the drone. The Nature Conservancy has been working with the islanders on projects to restore the mangroves. Mangroves provide extensive ecological functions that help coastal communities adapt to climate change, including providing a habitat for fish and protection from hurricanes. He explained the problems of harvesting mangroves for charcoal and the reality of life on Ile-a-Vache with regard to conservation efforts. He explained how even when initiatives are in the best interest of their livelihoods, it can be difficult to change behaviours, particularly with no alternative such as propane (too expensive); but they were getting there. Indeed, Max Atis, the scientist who worked on the project, explained the concept of selective harvesting and how this can help mitigate the damage caused to the mangroves while also raising awareness regarding the importance of their conservation.
Halfway through the trip, I set out to find Wagner – the manager of the fish farm in Kaykok. I had been given directions to find him; “When you get to Kaykok village, he lives about 500 feet from the beach; everyone knows him.” Sure enough, we found him within five minutes of arriving in Kaykok. The fish farm was set up by an organisation called Friends of Ile-a-Vache with the mission to create a renewable protein source. Locals were employed to build two large ponds on a poor wetland area, and several were trained regarding how to raise the fish. There were initial problems with the locals fishing while the fish were too young, disrupting the growing and breeding process; thus, it was necessary to build a security hut to watch over the ponds. Wagner estimated that there were approximately 700 Talapia fish in the ponds. He feeds them every three days, and they fish the big fish every six weeks and sell the produce at a market located on the farm. This is an excellent source of food for the community, with one pound of fish costing 125 gourde.
In addition to mangrove restoration and fish farms, the islanders benefit from climate resilient agriculture, and artificial coral reefs. Working with Haven, a co-op of farmers has been growing citrus fruits that, when mature, will be sold to the hospitality industry. Two clusters of nine artificial coral reefs have been set up around Ile-a-Vache by the Nature Conservancy. The idea is that one is for fishing and the other is for preservation, allowing bigger fish to eventually move on to other areas.
Despite the many challenges they face when trying to live a more sustainable life, the community of Ile-a-Vache, Haiti remains solution-focused and engaged in climate action.