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The Tampa Tribune: Devastation Throughout Haiti Offers Valuable Lessons Locally

Published: September 10, 2008

Local officials and residents who don't value conservation efforts need only look at the island nation of Haiti for a wakeup call.

Four hurricanes and tropical storms, including Ike, have hit Haiti this summer, killing an estimated 600 people, according to the United Nations and the Haitian government. The primary cause is flooding, a direct result of deforestation. The woodlands that had helped to absorb water and prevent erosion are now largely gone.

Haiti, which has about 10,700 square miles, was more than three-quarters wooded when Europeans landed in 1492. Today, scientists say the island has less than 2 percent of its cover left - an astonishing deforestation rate.

By comparison, the neighboring Dominican Republican still has many forests and, notably, has suffered far fewer deaths during storms the last few years. The correlation between protecting woodlands and saving lives is clear.

In Haiti, where forested areas originally were cut to power sugar mills, the problem has been exacerbated by today's harsh poverty and the need to survive. Residents cut down trees to use as charcoal and other fuel for cooking, washing clothes and to sell for income. The cleared areas also are used to grow vegetables.

It's a sad way of life that's compounded by the risks Haitians take by stripping the island of its ability to withstand a storm.

Another problem is a lack of both government environmental regulations and manpower, especially to prevent the ongoing destruction of the few remaining forested areas in Haiti's state preserves.

There is some hope. Relief organizations have planted millions of trees. Unfortunately, many were chopped down by desperate residents. Still, the worthy effort is continuing (foodforthepoor.org/treesforhaiti), and organizations also are bringing alternative fuel programs to the country.

In Florida, which also is extremely vulnerable to storms, Haiti's destruction underscores the need to follow and strengthen environmental regulations - not undercut them, as some Hillsborough County commissioners tried to do to the county's wetlands' protection program last year.

In Pasco County, there's a similar problem: County officials allow too many developers to pay their way out of following the county's tree-protection ordinance. Instead of replanting trees they cut down for projects - the ordinance's major aim - developers have been allowed to pay into a mitigation fund, which is used for public beautification. It's a poor tradeoff.

The environmental challenges in the Tampa Bay region, of course, are far less severe than in Haiti. But the island provides a reminder of the value of our forests and the need to protect them.

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