Sewanee sequesters carbon and conducts research on Haitian farms

Photo courtesy of Pradip Malade

By Duncan Pearce

Contributing Writer

This past summer, Sewanee made its first payments for carbon sequestration to farmers in Haiti’s Central Plateau. This represented a milestone for Zanmi Kafe (Haitian Creole for Partners in Coffee), a project initiated by students working with Biology Professor Deborah McGrath and the Haitian NGO, Zanmi Agrikol (Partners in Agriculture), to develop the first payment for ecosystem services (PES) program in Haiti. Launched in 2013 with the establishment of a 15,000 seedling nursery in the mountainous region of Bois Jolie, Zanmi Kafe promotes carbon sequestration through the planting and care of trees. The project has since developed into a large collaborative effort aimed at improving livelihoods by reversing the negative impacts of deforestation. Those involved include outreach students and interns from Sewanee, as well as Haitian interns, agronomists, and farmers.

Derisca Lucienne joking with  Geanina Fripp after signing a carb

For many rural families, cutting trees to grow crops or produce charcoal is a primary source of income; however, this practice of forest clearing erodes hillsides and subsequently lowers soil productivity, which exacerbates poverty and poor health in the region. After examining reforestation efforts in the developing world for over a decade, McGrath concluded that breaking this vicious cycle would require some form of incentive that could offset the opportunity cost of maintaining trees in lieu of making charcoal. The idea behind payments for ecosystem services is that companies or universities desiring to offset their carbon footprint purchase credits from sellers engaging in carbon sequestration activities, such as tree planting. The payments are made to landowners to maintain ecological services such as carbon sequestration, watershed protection, and biodiversity provision. When the idea of planting trees was discussed with the farmers of Bois Jolie, they wanted to grow coffee like their parents once did. Because coffee grows well in a shaded understory, it encourages the planting of a diverse agroforestry systems that provide fruit and other products. Paying farmers to sequester carbon encourages them to plant and protect seedlings as well as maintain existing trees that provide shade for the coffee. Unlike most carbon offset programs in which credits are purchased on the open market, Sewanee students directly support tree planting by Haitian farmers with the use of a green fee.

The Sewanee Student Government Association (SGA) agreed to use part of the Sewanee Green Fee, a payment incorporated into annual tuition for sustainability projects. Last spring, following her outreach trip to Haiti, SGA member Mary Cash (C’16) led an effort to raise awareness about how students can pledge their green fee to support reforestation efforts in Haiti. Nearly 400 students pledged their green fee, and it was from these funds that Derisca Lucienne joking with Geanina Fripp after signing a carbon offset payment receipt, Bois Jolie, May 23, 2015. Photo courtesy of Mary Margaret Johnson45 Haitian farmers were paid for planting seedlings the preceding summer. On a March 2015 Spring Break Outreach trip, led by Dixon Myers, Sewanee students hiked to each farm to count, measure, and assess the health of every seedling that could be found. This exhaustive survey provided data necessary to calculate the carbon payments for the farmers and furnished a baseline for future monitoring. On-farm research conducted by Sewanee and Haitian student interns provides information that will help farmers manage the system more sustainably. For example, a baseline survey of ant, beetle, and bird diversity conducted by Scott Summers (C’16) and Geanina Fripp (C’16) will be used to assess the impact of the agroforestry system on the region’s ecology. Photosynthesis measurements taken by Ben McKenzie (C’17) and Peter Davis (C’16) help determine the optimal light level for coffee productivity and health. Another important milestone achieved this summer was the graduation of the eight Haitian interns from the local vocational school, CFFL. After working with Zanmi Kafe for over a year, they wrote their senior theses documenting the project and research results to date.

A sister project, Zanmi Foto, started by photography professor Pradip Malde and Sewanee students (this Summer’s team included Mansell Ambrose (C’18), Brooke Irvine (C’16), Mary Margaret Johnson (C’17), and Hunter Swenson (C’17)) trains Zanmi Kafe families to document their lives in a way that stimulates conversations among family, friends, and neighbors. Through this specially designed program that combines photography and dialogue, Haitian farmers are considering their past, present, and future, and acquiring skills that will help them be active partners in development efforts that address poverty and marginalization. In the long term, the photographs will help to track economic and ecological change resulting from their participation in Zanmi Kafe. The Zanmi Foto archive already has about 20,000 photographs.

For those of us who have been participating in this project for years, the first distribution of carbon payments was more than just another step down the long road to reforestation; this day was the culmination of years of hard work from dozens of students and farmers. The payments connecting Sewanee students to farmers demonstrated our care and commitment to the well-being of our Haitian friends. Zanmi Kafe and Zanmi Foto are about integrating outreach, sustainability, and hands-on problem-solving to create respectful, long-lasting relationships that better the lives of all those involved. The Sewanee-Haiti Institute would like to thank the Sommer and Harris families as well as the Global Outreach program at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee school for their generous support. For more information on Zanmi Kafe and Zanmi Foto, please visit our website at