More than five years ago, on January 12, 2010, Haiti was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. The disaster had catastrophic effects on both the people of and environment of Haiti. Throughout the nation, people lost their lives and livelihoods in a matter of minutes. While many NGOs rushed to help with short-term recovery efforts, Haiti’s long-term challenges, including food insecurity, loss of soil productivity, rampant deforestation, and persistent environmental neglect, which had plagued the island nation even before the disaster, faded into the background.
Luckily, a few enlightened partners stepped up with an innovative idea to bridge the gap between environmental sustainability and individual livelihoods. Timberland, a company known mostly for high quality outdoor apparel, in partnership with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA), understood that in order to rebuild the nation, increase food security, and create economic opportunities for Haitians, a different kind of aid was necessary. In 2010, Timberland and SFA made a pledge to plant 5 million trees in Haiti within a five-year period using a community-based agroforestry model. The model was designed to increase tree cover, soil quality, and crop yields, all the while offering participants educational training, business skills, and entrepreneurial opportunities for the long-term economic sustainability of the program. Five years after the earthquake and Timberland’s pledge for reforestation, Food Tank spoke with Margaret Morey-Reuner, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Timberland, to discuss the state of the initiative and Haiti’s progress on the path to a more sustainable future.
Food Tank (FT): What was Timberland’s role in the development of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance?
Margaret Morey-Reuner (MMR): Timberland had a desire to plant trees in Haiti as part of an ongoing tree-planting initiative. However, our vision did not involve just a check-writing exercise to an NGO partner. The vision was to create a reforestation model that could be self-financing within a reasonable amount of time and that would generate positive social, environmental, and economic impact. We refer to this as an “exit-based” aid strategy. Enter Hugh Locke and Timote Georges, co-founders of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA), who had the brilliant idea of creating a network of tree nurseries (where the 5 million trees would be grown from seed) that would be managed on a volunteer-basis by local smallholder farmers. In return for their service in the nurseries, the farmers would receive an agricultural service that includes trees, seeds for their crops, tools, and training in agroforestry.
FT: What were some of the challenges in its formation?
MMR: The biggest challenge was to convince Hugh and Timote, who both had NGO backgrounds, that instead of a traditional NGO-based funding model, an exit-based aid strategy was possible in less than five years. But in fairness to the SFA co-founders, they both came from NGOs, so it was natural for them to initially explore a model that relied on annual funding. To their credit, they embraced Timberland’s challenge, and created a thriving, scalable, social business model.
FT: Tell us about the community-based agroforestry model. How does the program turn volunteer foresters into agricultural entrepreneurs?
MMR: Success breeds enthusiasm that results in an appetite to try new things, and that’s certainly been the case with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance. Once the farmers experienced success in the form of increased crop yields that led to increased income, they were able to afford things like school tuition for their children and animals for their farms. Also, the Smallholder Farmers Alliance set up a micro-credit program that grants loans to female farmers that can be used as seed funding for start-up businesses.
FT: Can you explain the connection between agroforestry and agriculture in Haiti? Why do more trees also mean more food production and opportunities beyond agriculture?
MMR: The act of introducing a tree to a farming field, especially one that has been previously denuded like those in Haiti, will restore biodiversity. Insects and birds will return to the area and in combination with the trees, will help to enrich the soil, making it more productive for growing crops. For agriculture to be successful in Haiti, trees have to play a central role. The country only has 1.5% to 2% of its tree cover remaining, and the premise of agroforestry is that the integration of trees to smallholder farm land will help increase agricultural crop outputs.
FT: How does Timberland’s tree planting initiative fit into the greater sustainability goals of Haiti?
MMR: Timberland was committed to using the idea of planting 5 million trees in five years in Haiti as the foundation for a program where we would provide the funding to build the infrastructure of a sustainable agroforestry model. Local volunteer farmers plant tree seedlings in nurseries and tend to the trees until they’re sold or planted in the ground. In return, farmers receive tools, training, non-genetically-modified seeds for their crops, and trees for their farmland.
The model has produced environmental outcomes like restored bio-diversity. The introduction of trees near farm crops delivers shade and enriches the soil, leading to healthier and more bountiful yields. Economic and social outcomes – like increased income, higher crop yields, more kids in school, and adult literacy programs – are critical success points. The program is also helping the members of the SFA expand into related products and services. They’re “diversifying their portfolios,” which will allow for more strategic growth and broader replication of the model, and opportunities to export their products.
FT: In 2010, the goal of the project was to plant five million trees in five years. Are you on track to meet this goal?
MMR: Yes, we are on track to have five million trees from the nurseries planted this year in 2015. The five million tree goal is just one goal of the program. We used that as a conversation starter and a way to engage consumers in this basic premise of the program, because nobody is against the act of planting a tree – especially in Haiti. The ultimate goals of the project were for it to be self-sufficient at the end of the five year period, have strong social, economic, and environmental outcomes, and be replicable outside of Haiti.
FT: What has been the greatest challenge?
MMR: In the first couple of years, due to extenuating circumstances, we were forced to work with different NGO partners, who channeled our funds to the team in Haiti in a timely manner. We worked hard to make sure that these partner transitions didn’t have any impact on what was going on at our tree nurseries.
FT: And your greatest success story?
MMR: This amazing agroforestry model that we’ve created is our greatest success story. It’s inspired us to consider how we can replicate the model in other smallholder farming communities around the world, who farm materials like rubber and cotton.
FT: After such success, what is next for this partnership?
MMR: In addition to continuing to serve the SFA in an advisory capacity, generating awareness for the organization and its programs as an ideal model for a social business built with an exit-aid strategy, we also want to explore opportunities to replicate the program in other regions of the world. We imagine a day where we can source our footwear, apparel, and gear from Smallholder Farmers who subscribe to this amazing community-based collaborative agroforestry model.