Sewanee students in Haiti: research, reforestation, and carbon sequestration

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Sewanee students and local Haitians analyzing measurements/data in preparation for building a new greenhouse. Photo courtesy of Stephen Priest (C’20).

By Luke Williamson, Executive Staff

By 2030, Sewanee will be completely carbon neutral. Or, at least, that’s the agreement that Vice-Chancellor Joel Cunningham signed in 2007 in an agreement called The Presidential Climate Commitment.

As part of its responsibility to The Presidential Climate Commitment, Sewanee created a Sustainability Master Plan document that outlines a number of strategic goals through which Sewanee might become a greener, more environmentally-aware campus. One way that Sewanee hopes to be greener is by minimizing its carbon footprint until it eventually reaches carbon neutrality.

Nick Cookson, Sustainability Program Manager, explained that one way that carbon neutrality goals are often met is through carbon sequestration (long-term carbon storage, often in order to mitigate climate change). Carbon sequestration is often accomplished through renewable energy credits.

“It’s like a certificate. You buy X amount; it’s pretty cheap, and what that means is that you have purchased a certain amount of power generated from renewable energy somewhere in the United States and that you can use that to offset your own emissions,” said Cookson.

But, Cookson explained, simply buying renewable energy credits is somewhat of a cop-out.

“It’s frowned upon in the environmental community because it’s like buying your way out… because you’re not really doing anything,” he continued.

That’s where Haiti comes in. One of the outlined strategies for reaching carbon neutrality in the Sustainability Master Plan document is by examining the feasibility of carbon sequestration programs off of The Domain—namely, in Haiti.

Dr. Deborah McGrath, a professor of biology at Sewanee, was instrumental in conceptualizing the program constructed to facilitate reforestation, carbon sequestration, and economic development in Haiti. Together alongside Dixon Myers (Associate Director of the Office of Civic Engagement), McGrath and Myers began to work with farmers in 2012 to attempt to implement their ambitious plan. As this Sewanee Purple article from 2015 explains, one of the primary goals of their project is reforestation.

McGrath explained that for many Haitians, deforestation is often simply the outcome of prioritization of short-term over long-term benefits: “People clear the land to cut food, and they also clear out trees to make charcoal—both of which are totally rational behaviors, given the context that they are in. But they sacrifice short-term gain—that is, money from charcoal or food on their table—for the long-term ecological stability.”

Essentially, as deforestation accelerates, so does erosion and nutrient depletion. One of the best methods of combating this is reforestation. McGrath, interested in facilitating the introduction of agroforestry systems into rural communities in Haiti, tried to devise a way for Sewanee to help.

“I, from the outset, was trying to see if a system called Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), could be used in the developing world context to help promote ecological restoration as well as the economic well-being among farmers,” explained McGrath.

PES, in short, rewards farmers monetarily for the trees they grow, which operate to both sequester carbon, but also to help re-establish ecosystem function. In Haiti, a key component of the plan would be incentivizing the maintained growth of trees to combat the trend of Haitians cutting down trees for agricultural uses or for charcoal.

One of the things that encourage the Haitian farmers to maintain the growth of their trees is carbon payments. These carbon payments, which average from anywhere between $30 to $100 USD, have been incredibly successful in terms of motivating the farmers’ participation in reforestation on a local scale. Over the last four years, the data that Sewanee students have collected show that farmers have been planting trees on their own.

“We think that this is due to the fact that they are getting carbon payments, for one,” explained McGrath, explaining that it was an example of a model of economic development called accompaniment.

Even though carbon payments are higher for farmers who plant trees of their own and who have high growth rates, Myers and McGrath were careful in designing the payment system so that every participating farmer would receive a base payment regardless of their own tree growth statistics. This, McGrath cites, was mainly so that Sewanee’s carbon payments didn’t cause dissent or jealousy among farmers.

The source of funding for such monetary incentives come from, at least in part, Sewanee’s Green Fee. Cookson explained that, in 2005, the Green Fee was proposed so that Sewanee might have the resources to purchase renewable energy credits; the Green Fee is a budget devoted to environmental concerns comprised of a portion of the tuition payments that students make.

Sewanee students working alongside local Haitians to take measurements of planted trees. Photo courtesy of Stephen Priest (C’20).

But the Green Fee’s usage has altered slightly since. Crystal Ngo (C’20), Green Fee Coordinator, explained that “Currently, 50 percent of the money [in the Green Fee] is going to the Haiti efforts to help the agricultural systems there.”

In 2013, McGrath, Myers, and their team grew around 5,000 trees and in 2014 distributed them to local farmers. In 2015, they went back, measured growth, and counted every tree.

“We’ve been doing that ever since, so that this year—the spring break that just passed—[the students] measured four years worth of tree survival and growth on nearly 50 farms,” stated McGrath.

“So this whole project is about economic development, it’s about ecological restoration, it’s about cross-cultural hands-on environmental problem-solving work for Sewanee students and Haiti students,” said McGrath.

She continued, “And it’s about always carefully thinking about what we’re doing in Haiti so that—I mean I’ve been in development for a long time, and there’s so much negative stuff that comes out of it like dependency. We’re really trying to proceed in a thoughtful way, so that we minimize any negative impacts and hopefully maximize positive impacts.”

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Graph courtesy of Dr. McGrath.

When asked what the impact was like on these local communities, McGrath expressed her excitement with the project’s findings over the past couple of years, shown in the graphs throughout this article.

“It’s having a lot of positive impact in that, we think, this right here—” she said, gesturing to the graphs, “—the fact that these bars are increasing every year—that’s [the farmers] deciding to plant more trees and we think it is important because we pay them a carbon payment every year and because we do this practice called accompaniment.”

The only aspect of the project that still waits to come to fruition as planned is actually getting what these Haitian farmers are doing on the market. Currently, the carbon sequestration that these farmers are doing isn’t on the formal market—in other words, it is not transforming into renewable energy credits that could be sold to institutions and organizations seeking to minimize their carbon footprints. The only thing stopping these Haitian farmers from being on the market is verification.

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Graph courtesy of Dr. McGrath.

“To be on the formal market you have to be verified, and that means that you need third-party certification which I found was about $50,000. Our students go and do third-party certification, it’s not rocket science what these consultants are doing,” she explained.

McGrath plans to publish a manuscript arguing that the model she has come up with is extremely useful, especially if colleges and universities could one day count as third-party certifiers. For McGrath, tweaking the PES model by involving academic institutions could be an incredible force for change, especially in developing countries where poorer farmers can’t afford third-party verification that necessitates a $50,000 fee.

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Graph courtesy of Dr. McGrath.

Alongside attempting to eventually purchase renewable energy credits from these local farms in rural Haiti, Sewanee’s efforts are also aimed at providing students with valuable learning and meaningful service opportunities. Ngo spoke to both of these aspects.

“We’re teaching them how they should measure the plants to collect accurate data. When I was in Haiti, I was working with one of the students and we were helping each other measure the plants. Now that Dr. McGrath and Dixon Myers have been working with them for so long, you build a sense of community,” she said.

One student, Chris Hornsby (C’19), shared that because he had been to Haiti so many times, many of the Haitians are still in contact with him. Grinning, he said, “I get Facebook messages all the time.”

For McGrath, the pedagogical and service aspects of Sewanee’s work in Haiti are very rewarding.

“I think it’s really special to introduce students to something that I care so deeply about, and to watch them become really enthusiastic even in difficult circumstances. It’s hard work, and to watch all of them rise to the challenge, they don’t complain, and they actually feel like what they’re doing is meaningful, to me that means—it’s why the world is going to be a better place in the future.”