May 3, 2022
36. Growing New Trees to Save the People of Haiti
Karen Nicolas is on a mission to bring back the forests in Haiti. She believes reforestation is the best way to help people recover from disasters and live sustainably.
Karen has years of experience in emergency relief and is now turning her focus to reforestation. Karen and her husband, Mackenson, a Haitian native, live with their two children in North Carolina.
Here are some important moments with Karen in the podcast:
At 3:05 Karen talks about all the important work that needs to happen once new trees are planted.
At 5:21 With all the disasters that have happened in Haiti, how does that add to the challenges of planting new trees?
At 12:06 What are your long-term projections for bringing back the forests in Haiti?
You can follow Karen through the following links:
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You mentioned that I worked for Greenstand as well as the Haiti tree project. And the mission that we have in common is to bring funding from the global marketplace of reforestation, to the actual farmer growing the tree. And the way we're doing that together is by monitoring those trees as they grow with a simple app that people in Haiti can use on their Android phone.George Siegal:
I'm George Siegal and this is the Tell Us How to Make It Better podcast. Every week, we introduce you to people who are working on real-world problems and providing actual solutions. Tell Us How to Make It Better is partnering with The Readiness Lab, the home for podcasts, webinars and training in the field of emergency and disaster services. Hi everybody. Thank you for joining me for this week's Tell Us How to Make It Better podcast. Every week on this podcast, I try to introduce you to people who have identified a problem somewhere in the world, and rather than just complain about it are trying to do something to make it better. So after you've listened to the podcast, if you liked what you were listening to please subscribe, leave a review and share it with your friends. That would be helpful as I try to grow the audience. My guest today is Karen Nicolas. She's the founder and director of The Haiti tree project and tree tracker liaison at Greenstand. Karen's passion is connecting small holder farmers in Haiti and around the world with support that they need to reforest. Karen welcome. Thank you so much for coming on.Karen Nicolas:
Nice to meet you, George. Thanks for having.George Siegal:
Now you certainly picked a country that has its share of problems. I mean, I was, I was researching Haiti first. You hear it in the news every year as the storms track through there, earthquakes, torrential, rains, floods, you name it. So as you are there, what is it that you've identified as, as a problem that you can help them with that you're trying to make better?Karen Nicolas:
What we see that people need. When we look at, I spent many years in relief work, first of all, and I was in Haiti and I could see, okay, they need every single basic need that, that, you know, humans need. So how do we solve that in the most simplest way, bring back their natural environment over the last 30, 40 years, because of things that happen in the eighties with businesses coming in and taking out trees. There's been so much deforestation in the country that people don't have enough clean water. They don't have the filtration from the trees. They don't have the year round food supply from the trees. They don't have the soil being held in the mountains. They get floods from the erosion. It's, it's a crisis that to me, instead of bringing them water bottles in an earthquake, we need to plant their trees now. So they have that food supply.George Siegal:
So you'll notice that Karen is sitting someplace different now, wala the magic of recording things online, we had some internet challenges probably nothing compared to the challenges they're having over in Haiti on a, on a regular basis. We were talking about what's involved in, in making a difference. You said it is easy to plant the trees, but there's a lot more after the trees are in the ground. That really has to happen for the, for the forest to take off. Tell us about that?Karen Nicolas:
That's right. Our manager in Haiti, he knows how to grow trees really well, but most of his time is spent shopping for the perfect land or the perfect farmer. Someone who is not going to let their goats run around where the trees are planted. And then beyond that, we have to find areas where it's not only mountanous, so we can filter water and bring, increase the water tables with the trees. But we have to find land that people are willing to water and water regularly because you know, the, with climate change, the rains are so sporadic. You never know of any season will be rainy season. And if there'll be a drought in the summer, So it actually takes two years to really care for a tree and get it to this point where it's old enough to avoid all of these dangers and have a lot less work. So our mission is to actually pay people to do this work as to pay the farmers or their helpers, a small amount each time we monitor the trees.George Siegal:
And how long a process would this be before you would start to notice a difference in the environment over there and how it had an effect to how different things start to come back once the forest comes back? What, what, what kind of a timeframe is that?Karen Nicolas:
Well, tree's grow four times faster in the tropics than they do in temperate areas. So I mean a mango tree. When you plant it, you can have fruit in five years, you can have a full tree of fruit in five years. The, the cacau is less than that. I mean, it can, in a, in, in general, the tropical trees will provide you with fruit in a forest in five years, but two years is when you don't have to care for them as much, they can grow on their own without health.George Siegal:
Now I was talking to a gentleman yesterday, just happened, had nothing to do with what we were talking about, but he was he's on a project in Haiti with his organization where they're trying to bring solar power there because he said 39% of the country didn't have electricity, you know, tens of thousands of kids going to school have no electricity at school. It's hard to imagine what that must be like. So in doing anything over there, how does that add to the challenges compared to other projects you might've been on?Karen Nicolas:
I mean, the, the fact that there's no electricity, it keeps people it keeps people living as farmers just they're really good at growing stuff. So, but it also sends the young people away to the cities. So a lot of the land we're looking at is owned by elderly people that don't have anyone to farm it, and we're working with them to help them reforest it. I mean, we have put solar panels on the shed that we built that somehow survived last summers earthquake. Our manager's also a construction worker. So he had happened to build the best concrete building in the whole region. So, I mean, we put solar panels on. Costs a couple of thousand dollars to just put a simple simple imported solar system. And then he's having people charge their phones there. So we're bringing the people in the air communication. They can communicate with their loved ones outside of the country pretty easily and get income from MoneyGram transfers, which is the way most people survive there. Yeah. The situation with the electricity. When I, when I lived there for years, I didn't have anything, but a solar panel. Yeah. There's very little healthcare in the end, too. I mean, you can't get anywhere. Gasoline prices are $15 right now, a gallon. So running out on the motorcycle to deliver trees instead of in a truck because of the price difference.George Siegal:
Wow. What's it like being over there in, in, in that? How would you describe life in Haiti to someone who gets upset here when the power goes out for five minutes, or if the cable goes down or if there's a little bit of traffic, I mean, what what's life really like over there?Karen Nicolas:
I can describe in the summertime what it's like. It's excrutiatingly hot. So people are sitting around and playing games like marbles. The women are in a really hot kitchen cooking. Outdoor kitchen, they're carrying wood all day, and then they're cooking from like noon to three and you have one big meal and that's it. In the morning, you might have a coffee from some leftover wood from the day before and a piece of bread. You spend the day trying to cool off, and then you desperately try to work on your computer with this if you get enough air to concentrate. And then, you know, if you're doing office work or, you know, relief work where you have to communicate a lot, and then in the morning you get up at 4:00 AM and go visit your sites that you're working on. And go visit the people in organized job, people would come to us knocking on door.I need a job at 4:
00 AM in the morning when I lived there, give me a job, you know? And then the other thing that happens all the time for foreigners who are there. As people come and say, my wife's having a baby something's wrong. And this happens like once a week, you're jumping in the truck, grabbing that one hospital to find out the doctor doesn't even work at the hospital on the weekends. And it's, it's, it's, it's, there's a lot of, I mean, people die so easily from no reason at all that for us would be no reason at all. One day there's a mechanic working on your tire. The next day he had a stomach pain. And in two days he had passed away you know, appendicitis, the bladder drop bladder, bladder that ruptured. We don't know. Yeah, I mean, yeah, I mean, I was actually pregnant in Haiti when I walked through Port-au-Prince with my large belly. They were just so shocked to see a foreigner. You know, they called me a white lady, you know, I'm pregnant in Haiti. They said, look at that beautiful woman, you know, because look at that beautiful woman there that pregnant beautiful woman, you know, translating it litteraly because large people are considered, you know, more beautiful in Haiti. So they're very excited to see a pregnant woman in Haiti because they never seen it before. And I got so much attention in the village where I lived, you know, and the reason is, I mean, it's scary because if anything goes wrong, luckily it didn't, you know, you're, you're stuck with very little, very, very little help.George Siegal:
Did you get out of there before having your baby?Karen Nicolas:
I did because I needed it to be born in the states. My husband was getting a fiance visa. We were waiting for paperwork, my husband he was getting his fiance. I walked to the embassy eight months pregnant and said, you've got to give him his papers. We, they let me break in line because I was pregnant. They were so shocked to see they let me break in line because I was pregnant. Yeah. I used that to get my husband, his paperwork. They said, get on a plane now. I said, I'm not leaving without my husband. So yeah.George Siegal:
How would you describe the spirit of the people there? Because you would think after a while you would want to just give up or try to migrate someplace else where it's not so, so bad. I know that's not an easy thing to do, but how did these people, what is the spirit with these people that keeps them going with all the bad things that happen over there? All the stuff they're dealing with?Karen Nicolas:
People who have trees are pretty healthy you know, and the people who don't are not so healthy, and it's just a very stark difference between the two groups people who still, who didn't manage to cut down every tree have that fruit year round when the crops are gone, they don't have to depend on the rice and beans coming from the world food program. A lot of people survive on just that when they don't have trees. So, you know the People do constantly try to get in boats and leave. And a lot of people die trying, but the Haitian people, I mean, if I were to live there for six weeks this summer with my husband's family, there would be guitar music at night in the dark people would be dancing. People would be sitting on a fence telling jokes for hours, and then we all go to bed and wake up at four or 5:00 AM in the morning. we go, you know, go do the farming together, go take pictures together. They take me to the Springs. I take, you know, I pay for everyone to go to the beach and no one's ever been to the beach, even though they live an hour away. It's super exciting when a foreigner comes and we just get so much love and attention, even in public life in Haiti, it's so different than in Latin, than in central America and south America. People love you, they treat you with so much respect.George Siegal:
Now do you have long-term projections or goals for your organization in like different metrics to see how it's going and when you think it could really turn things around there?Karen Nicolas:
Right? So since COVID started, we've been planting 40,000 trees a year and paying the growers when the funding comes in, the, you know, as donor money comes in as different sponsors catch on to what we're doing. We do pay the people regularly to keep those trees alive. And there's many facets to our project. We are working on a big project to fund the water on the mountain sides. We're looking for funding for that, so that we can have water up high, so it can trickle down to the trees over the summer. And of course, work on the water Springs from that. There's another project where we're simply trying to disperse trees, a few trees to everybody who wants them high value, like, like cacau, like, you know, the base of chocolate high value fruits, high value, high nutritional fruits. And the third project we're doing, oh, by the way, we have like 30 species every year that we plant to make sure the biodiversity is high. And five of those are indigenous hardwood trees. The other 25 are basic fruit trees that are not invasive, that people value all over the world. You know, like mangoes and whatnot. Breadfruit is the third major project we're doing. We're working with trees that feed, they have helped us get a mill. They've helped us establish a business in breadfruit production, which breadfruit flour, production, and baked goods from breadfruits it's still in its infancy. But this week, we are, the cooks are learning. The bakers are learning. There's two women who was sent to a seminar are learning how to grow. I mean, sorry, learning how to bake comperas which is a sweet bread. That's dried completely can sit on the shelf for three months and it's got mostly breadfruit flour in it for the first time. And there's three sites in Haiti that they're doing it. And so the agroforestry circle it's happening in our organization in these last few years, since COVID, I've been able to focus on it and we're getting products and turning them into results, you know, for the trees, people are seeing the value and seeing the full circle.George Siegal:
That is terrific. Now you've taken on such a huge task. I always like to ask my guests what advice you'd have for somebody who thinks they have an idea that could make a difference or something they want to try. You've really gone big with, with yours. What would you advise somebody who, who wants to make a difference and do something?Karen Nicolas:
It's always a matter of keep pecking away at it. Keep communicating, keep staying committed. I mean, over the years, I've had to take on different part-time jobs, but I've always volunteered for this. And, you know, sometimes I get paid. And I hope that in the future, I'm going to get paid full time. We'll see. It's it's, it's not easy to you know, raise kids and, and get an income right now and find a way. But my advice is just keep packing away. Just keep talking to people. Volunteer match is a great resource to find help, build your team quickly. Yeah. Get other people on board is my advice.George Siegal:
Now, how can people get involved with you? How can they follow you? What's the best way for people to reach out if they want to be involved with what you're doing?Karen Nicolas:
Well, the website is the Haiti tree project dot org.. We simple email. We'll definitely get you on our, on our radar to have a meeting and start volunteering with you. We are always looking for people to help us write grants, people to translate French. We want to talk to them in Haiti. So yeah. The volunteers that we need are mostly people who can do some grant writing. People who can communicate in French self-starters who would like to do some fundraising with us. And of course, even people who want to take the adventure and go to Haiti, you know, if we can find the funding together and then go start a second aspect of, you know, an, a new, innovative approach to our project together we would love that we have some marketing people. We always need more.George Siegal:
Yeah, that sounds great. You know, it's funny. It was actually, I don't know if it's funny or not, but we've had some technical challenges in trying to do this podcast and it's a little frustrating, but then I think about the story you're telling me about what people in Haiti experience and it's like, okay, this should be our biggest problem that we have to deal with.Karen Nicolas:
Yeah. I spend all day on WhatsApp waiting for it to reconnect because I'm talking to someone in WhatsApp, in rural Haiti and you know, it's in and out in and out all day long. Yeah, I can, I can only imagine. Well, listen Karen, thank you so much for your time and continued success with the project. It sounds like you're doing some great work over there. Thank you, George. It's great to meet you. Thanks for having me.George Siegal:
My pleasure. Thank you for joining me on this week. Tell Us How to Make It Better podcast. If you liked what you were listening to please subscribe, share the link with your friends and leave a review. That would be really helpful. There's also in the show notes, a link to leave me comments about what you thought and also to suggest guests for future episodes. Thanks again for listening. See you next time.