Port Salut – Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti’s southwestern peninsula in the early hours of October 4 last year, leaving in its wake scenes of devastation and hundreds dead.
UN Environment’s main area of work in Haiti, the Grand Sud region, was severely affected. Walking around outside the UN Environment office in Port Salut, signs of the impact of Hurricane Matthew stretch as far as the eye can see. Buildings and homes are in ruins, power lines are leaning on rubble, and many trees have been ravaged.
Many months on, many people in this area are doing their best to re-start their livelihoods. For some, though, continuing their former lives will be impossible.
In a landscape littered with decapitated coconut trees, uprooted fruit trees, and destroyed corn, sorghum and bean crops there is one notable survivor: the deep-rooted and resilient vetiver grass.
A whiff of hope
Vetiver is a grass with strong roots that penetrate deeply into the soil, making it an ideal plant to stabilize slopes and help prevent soil erosion.
While the plant is not typically harvested when it is used for this purpose, vetiver roots are highly sought after by the essential oil industry as an essential base note in major fragrances. In fact, an estimated 70 per cent of the vetiver oil for the world’s fragrance industry comes from southern Haiti.
Through project partners Agronomes et Veterinaires Sans Frontières (AVSF) and SOS Enfants Sans Frontières, UN Environment is supporting several cooperatives that help vetiver-cultivating members to build their capacities to manage the commercialization of their stock and to improve harvesting practices, which spells a better deal for the environment.
The UN Environment team joined one cooperative in Favette, in the commune of Port Salut, for their monthly meeting. The order of the day: finding somewhere new to store the harvested roots, as the hurricane had damaged their hangar and office.
Hurricane Matthew destroyed the roof and much of the outside structure of many buildings in Favette.
This one is just opposite the cooperative’s office. ©UN Environment: Peleg Charles, 2017.
This particular cooperative was one of several created in 2012 to improve traceability , along the value chain, which allows sustainably-harvested vetiver to be identified. It accomplishes this by geo-referencing the production parcels of members and implementing standards for traceable, certified vetiver oil. As part of UN Environment’s support, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway and the GEF, the cooperatives will develop soil management systems that will allow their members to harvest their crop without damaging the soil and causing erosion.
Members of the vetiver cooperative in their meeting place © UN Environment: Peleg Charles, 2017
Sustainable harvesting practices will help to stabilize the topsoil and prevent the runoff of sediment, which otherwise finds its way to the sea, causing siltation of coral reefs, preventing sunlight from reaching them and negatively affecting marine biodiversity. This safeguards marine protected areas downstream.
We spoke to one of the cooperative members, Vilma Raymond, who has lived his entire 59 years in Favette, and had been cultivating vetiver since the 1990s. He also raises livestock and grows other food crops to supplement his income. He was one of many farmers who lost livestock in Hurricane Matthew; over 20,000 animals died in just five communes, a devastating blow to the region’s food and income security.
Vilma’s house, like many others, was severely damaged in the hurricane. One of his key priorities is to secure the material needed to rebuild his house.
Vilma in the vetiver cooperative hangar. © UN Environment: Peleg Charles, 2017
Apart from construction materials, the talk among the vetiver farmers is about access to water sources.
“At the moment there’s no water for either cattle or agriculture,” Vilma told us.
The farmers were waiting for the onset of the rainy season to start replanting other crops.
“The vetiver is all we have,” said another member.
But the vetiver will have to wait too – sustainable harvesting ideally takes place between 12 and 15 months after planting, when the roots are at their best quality and can contribute to keeping erosion to a minimum.
In such difficult circumstances, the temptation exists to harvest the vetiver immediately to meet pressing needs, which would compromise on reaping its full potential value.
That’s why support mechanisms are needed— to give producers the time to wait.
We asked Vilma about his vision for his home region in the next five years. “I would like the area to be better developed, with decent housing and a better environment”.
UN Environment has been working in Haiti since 2008. Its main project office is in Port Salut, in Haiti’s South Department. By working directly with communities on the ground through local partners, UN Environment is able to make an impact on the lives of everyday Haitians.