The world’s favorite disaster storyBy M.R. O'Connor
October 13, 2016 - news.vice.com
When the geologist Peter Wampler first went to Haiti, in 2007, he didn’t expect to see many trees. He had heard that the country had as little as 2 percent tree cover, a problem that exacerbated drought, flooding and erosion. As a specialist in groundwater issues, Wampler knew that deforestation also contributed to poor water quality; trees help to lock in rich topsoil and act as a purifying filter, especially important in a country where about half of rural people do not have access to clean drinking water.
Haiti is frequently cited by the media, foreign governments and NGOs as one of the worst cases of deforestation in the world. Journalists describe the Caribbean nation’s landscape as “a moonscape,” “ravaged,” “naked,” “stripped” and “a man-made ecological disaster.” Deforestation has been relentlessly linked to Haiti’s entrenched poverty and political instability. David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, once cited Haiti’s lack of trees as proof of a “complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences.” More recently, a Weather Channel meteorologist reporting on the advance of Hurricane Matthew made the absurd claim that Haiti’s deforestation was partly due to children eating the trees.
Few places in the world have as dismal a reputation. And as the recent destruction wrought by Hurricane Matthew shows, Haiti is tragically vulnerable to natural disasters. But as Wampler would discover, Haiti’s reputation as a deforested wasteland is based on myth more than fact — an example of how conservation and environmental agendas, often assumed to be rooted in science, can become entangled with narratives about race and culture that the powerful tell about the third world.
Over the next five years, as Wampler crisscrossed the country for his research, he began to undergo a cognitive dissonance. “I heard that 2 percent number quoted everywhere,” he said. “All the news outlets had this narrative that it’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and has 2 percent forest cover. But I’d been to these mountainous areas and seen forest cover that was more than 2 percent. I could see it with my own eyes.”
He began searching for the original source of the forest-cover statistic. To his surprise, he couldn’t find one. The few citations he discovered in scientific studies couldn’t be substantiated. Some scientific and development literature used a 4 percent estimate that came from the Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations agency. That number also struck him as too low.
Wampler, a professor at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University, uses geographic information systems and satellite imagery frequently in his work, and he decided to employ them to satisfy his curiosity about the trees in Haiti. He enlisted several students and began gathering high-resolution imagery of the island from LandSat, the database operated by the United States Geological Survey. Stitching together images from 2010 and 2011, he formed a mosaic that covered the entire country. He combined the images in three wavelengths to highlight vegetation and then trained a computer to spot trees in the images. To check the accuracy, he manually compared the computer’s automated analysis to random samples chosen from Google Earth.
When the results came back, his first thought was that he had to do the whole process again. “Let’s check this 10 times to make sure it’s right,” he told his colleagues. According to their analysis, Haiti’s forest cover was more than 32 percent.
Wampler wondered whether they had set a sufficient minimum area for tree cover. So they used the FAO’s definition of a “forest,” which includes trees higher than 5 meters (about 16 feet) covering at least half a hectare. He ran the analysis again. The computer estimated Haiti’s forest coverage at nearly 30 percent, a number similar to the coverage in the United States, France, and Germany, and far higher than in Ireland and England. Wampler had discovered a rarity in today’s world: a good-news environmental story in one of the planet’s poorest countries. But then he had a troubling thought: “People won’t like this.”
“It doesn’t fit the narrative” that poverty causes deforestation and deforestation exacerbates poverty, he said. Foreign governments, charities, development banks, and the foreign media tend to present this relationship as an indisputable fact. “Organizations use this statistic as a lever to get funding and help. For them, it’s a lot more convenient to have a narrative that works.”He had discovered a rarity in today’s world: a good-news environmental story in one of the planet’s poorest countries. But then he had a troubling thought: “People won’t like this.”
Environmentalists and development experts have drawn a connection between overpopulation, ecological devastation and poverty for decades. “The narrative about overpopulation — and deforestation is usually not far behind — is what’s called a blueprint narrative,” said Jade Sasser, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Riverside. “It gets applied in a variety of different development settings regardless of local history and situations.” Blueprint narratives, first described by policy analyst Emery Roe in 1991, proffer ready-made diagnoses of environmental problems — overgrazing by cattle in Africa leads to desertification, for instance — but the solutions are often unsuited to local contexts and conditions.
Such narratives can also dehumanize. One area of Sasser’s research looks at how Western NGOs portray the poor, often communities of color, as environmentally unaware and in need of outside intervention. In reality, she said, local communities often use “nature” in ways that just don’t fit the notions of pristine wilderness at the heart of many conservation policies.
Paul Robbins, a political ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, called the environmental movement’s blaming of the poor for deforestation an “obsession” that is both “ironic” and “empirically questionable.” In West Africa, for example, the idea that local communities have caused deforestation is orthodoxy among development and environmental policymakers, but analysis of historical data and first-person accounts rarely support it.
Wampler had debunked the myth of how many trees were in Haiti, but his findings, published in the International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation in 2014, didn’t gain much traction among environmentalists or development agencies. The World Bank, USAID, Oxfam America and multiple United Nations agencies still cite a stat of 1 to 4 percent for forest cover in Haiti. (A USAID spokesperson who was aware of Wampler’s study agreed that the correct figure for tree cover is likely between 32 and 40 percent but defended the 2 percent statistic as referring to “original forest cover,” meaning before European contact.)
“It’s been controversial in some circles,” Wampler said. “Some people don’t want to talk about it. It’s not the story that they want to tell about Haiti.” Full Article:https://news.vice.com/story/one-of-the-most-repeated-facts-about-deforestation-in-haiti-is-a-lie