UN goodwill ambassador promotes reforestation in Haiti

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The legendary track and field athlete and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Carl Lewis today concluded a two-day visit to Haiti to witness reforestation efforts aimed at helping the Caribbean country to protect itself against flash floods and mudslides as the annual hurricane season begins.

The trip to Haiti by Mr. Lewis, a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), was held to mark the UN observance of the International Year of Forests and follows a similar visit to neighbouring Dominican Republic.

Mr. Lewis travelled to the lakeside city of Léogâne, near the epicentre of the deadly January 2010 earthquake that killed almost a quarter of a million people. He saw 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.

Aside from the terrible quake damage that Léogâne suffered, the area around the city is often struck by deadly hurricanes.

Mr. Lewis, a nine-time Olympic gold medallist, visited a tree nursery in the grounds of a school that was destroyed by the quake. Children provide the planting material and plant trees themselves. They are also 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 Mr. Lewis. "What FAO is doing is tremendous and it makes me optimistic to see that Haitians are realizing they have to take care of their land. Trees are at the epicentre of Haiti's renaissance," he added.

FAO forestry experts estimate that if 22 samplings are planted for every Haitian – a total of 222 million trees – the newly-elected President Michel Martelly's goal of reforesting eight per cent of the country's land surface in five years could be met.

Haiti currently has just two per cent forest cover, one of the worst rates in the world, and experts say this is the main reason for the spate of deadly mudslides and floods that have 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, Mr. Lewis met with Mr. Martelly and both men discussed reforestation, a priority of the new Government. Mr. Lewis accepted the President's invitation to return to Haiti at a later date to help with awareness-raising efforts.

"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 AriToubo Ibrahim, FAO's Representative in Haiti.

Haiti is a net importer of rice, the country's staple food. An estimated 24 per cent of Haitians experience chronic malnutrition, while nine per cent of the population suffer from acute malnutrition, which means that they get sick from hunger. Nearly a quarter of all children suffer stunted growth as a result of lack of nutritious food.

Mr. Lewis also visited an FAO vegetable garden project at La Corail camp for homeless survivors of the earthquake and heard accounts of how people have learned to grow their own food safely to avoid cholera, a disease that has claimed thousands of lives in the country in the past year.

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