MCC Photo/Josh Steckley

Jides Alcine carries a case of seedlings to be planted on the Desarmes mountainside during Haiti’s National Tree Day.

DESARMES, Haiti – In celebration of Haiti’s National Tree Day on June 24, more than 150 community volunteers joined Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to plant 5,000 trees on a mountainside near the town of Desarmes, 93 miles northeast of the capital of Port-au-Prince.

MCC staff and service workers, local students, community organizations, and municipal government officials took part in the day’s activities intended to raise awareness for the local environment.

Jides Alcine, 17, a student at l’Ecole Jean Jacques Arcoroc in Desarmes, has been participating in the annual event for four years. “Four years ago, this mountain was completely dry and dusty,” he says. “Now, you can see it is green and there are trees taller than me.” Alcine and other students planted between 20 and 30 trees each throughout the morning.

Local councilman Lenaud Vermilus said his decision to take part in the tree planting was simple. “We want to participate in the development of our country, and we’ve already seen the fruits of MCC’s work in the area.”

The 38-acre piece of land is a protected area established in 2008 by a committee of local officials, MCC, land owners, and several community organizations. Since that time, the committee has planted more than 200,000 trees.

Vermilus said that reforestation requires community action because actually planting the trees is only one facet of this action. Another is enforcing existing laws to preserve the land, especially when it comes to slash and burn agriculture, charcoal production and free grazing of animals.

“If someone lets a fire get out of control or lets their goats loose on the land, they’ll appear before the court and we’ll decide collectively what needs to be done,” said Vermilus.

Jean Remy Azor, coordinator of MCC Haiti’s reforestation program, insists that the environment must continue to be a priority for Haiti, even as it attempts to rebuild after the devastating earthquake over two years ago.

“Unfortunately,” says Azor, “there was an ecological emergency far before the earthquake.” He says that all reconstruction – whether it is housing development, agriculture, community health or water – comes down to the environment. “All aspects of Haiti’s development are dependent on the health of our soil.”

Azor was happy for the turnout, but he wasn’t surprised. “There were more people, especially students who wanted to volunteer, but we had to set a limit. We simply can’t organize that many people.”

In addition to the day’s activities, MCC is nearing the end of their annual tree distribution schedule. This year, MCC supported 22 locally managed tree nurseries, producing more than 450,000 seedlings, both fruit and forestry trees, for sale and distribution.

“There was much more demand this year. Normally we sell between 10-15 percent of the trees produced, and give the rest away. This year, some tree nurseries were selling 60 percent of their trees in the community,” Remy said.

He welcomes this development. “It shows that communities can reforest the land in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable way.”

To see an MCC tree nursery, watch this video created by MCC Haiti worker Josh Steckley:

Kristen Chege is an MCC Haiti advocacy worker from Eugene, Oregon. Josh Steckley is an MCC Haiti community development worker from London, Ont.