History of Soil Erosion and Soil Conservation


Legacy of Erosive Agricultural Practices

Substantial soil erosion has been a problem in Haiti since the
colonial period when mountain forests were cleared for coffee
production, and plantation crops (cotton, indigo, tobacco) were
clean-cultivated (scraping weeds between plants, and pre-till
field burning).  Some reports state that due to excessive erosion
coffee plantations were difficult to reestablish after the first
generation, and indigo crops were only productive for three years
(Paskett "et al." 1990).  After the revolution, the slaves "cum"
peasants combined remembered horticultural practices of Africa
with learned agriculture and plantation cultivation methods of
Haiti.  The result was a mixed system where Haitian farmers
clean-cultivate agricultural crops, burn crop stubble prior to
tilling, periodically leave annually cropped parcels fallow for
an extended period, and establish tree gardens around family
compounds.  With increasing populations, and resulting pressure
on the limited arable lands, the fallow practice has increasingly
been precluded, tree gardens have diminished in size, and
peasants have steadily moved to less desirable mountain lands for
annual crop culture.  Agriculture and clean-cultivation, two
erosive and resistant remnants of the colonial period, have been
carried from the plains to the mountain slopes by the new

Indigenous Anti-Erosion Innovations

The widespread annual cropping of hill slopes is a fairly recent
phenomena, it was not until the mid twentieth century that
substantial numbers of farmers were faced with new, sloping
cultivation conditions.  Some peasants have adjusted the
techniques developed on, and appropriate to the plains in ways
which mainly conserve soil moisture, require limited amounts of
labor and non-financial input, and can be implemented with the
common tools; hoes and machetes.  These techniques are also
predominantly found in ravines and in association with higher
valued crops ("e.g." rice, bananas, taro).  With limited
exception, they are not commonly found in extensively managed
gardens planted to cereal crops.

Indigenous innovations associated with annual cropping which
conserve soil and water include: "zare" (soil and stubble scraped
up into a mound to retain water for rice cultivation); "sakle en
woulo" (weeds hoed into small mounds along the contour at one
pace intervals); "ramp pay" (stubble gathered along the contour
and supported with stakes);  "dig ravin" (assorted plant and soil
material placed in ravines to retain soil and water for banana,
taro, rice or yam cultivation);  "bit" (soil heaped into mounds
for sweet potato cultivation).  These techniques, where practiced
in the traditional manner, must be reconstructed on an annual
basis, and are frequently inexactly constructed and relatively
inefficient in controlling soil erosion.

The "tram", a peasant innovation, is the combination of the "bit"
and a contour seed bed promoted by a Haitian agronomist.  Since
the 1950s when this innovation took place it has become standard
practice in the vegetable producing areas of Furcy.  In analyzing
the evolution of the "tram" the anthropologist G. Murray
concluded that peasants were not interested in saving their soil
"per se", but in saving the fertilizer sown for vegetable
production.  In essence, "erosion control has occurred as the
secondary result of an innovation whose primary function, from
the peasants viewpoint, is the immediate enhancement of their
cash profits" (Murray 1979:58).   This finding is consistent with
the author's finding that the indigenous "dig, woulo, ramp pay,"
and "zare" are constructed to retain moisture for enhanced crop
productivity, not to necessarily to retain soil.

Review of Soil Conservation Project Approaches

Conventional Approaches

Since the initial development aid of the early 1950s, Haiti has
witnessed numerous reforestation, soil conservation and watershed
management projects, the majority of which, by most accounts,
have produced disappointing results (AID 1990, BREDA 1988, Murray
1979).  Most major development projects have utilized an
"equipement du territoire" approach which assumes that enhanced
rural welfare will automatically follow investments in engineered
environmental rehabilitation.  This approach has been
characterized by large-scale prescriptions of contiguous land and
large ravine treatments, mechanical rather than biological
structures, and monetary and commodity incentives to attract
peasant adoption (Lilin and Koohafkan 1987).  Highly degraded and
steep lands have often been the target for intervention. Contour
rock walls, canals, and bench terraces, the internationally
standard techniques, have been the primary techniques promoted by
international donors and professional technicians.

The use of this approach and these techniques has been criticized
for its orientation to long-term and downstream environmental
benefits rather than short-term and on-site socio-economic
benefits; its disregard for indigenous knowledge and techniques,
socio-cultural institutions and land tenure complexities; for
creating dependencies; for not responding to primary peasant
motivations, needs or requests; and for failing to result in the
sustained adoption and maintenance of the promoted technologies
(Murray 1979 and Lilin 1986).  In short, because of the
pervasiveness of such projects in rural Haiti, many peasants have
become accustomed to being approached by alien people intent on
transferring alien technologies for frequently alien reasons.  To
a large degree, these technologies have not been adopted or
maintained by peasants and have not spread beyond the immediate
project boundaries.

Current Approaches

An "agricultural parcel" approach to soil conservation developed
in the early 1980s in response to the weaknesses of the
conventional soil conservation approach stated above and the
recognition that:

1) farmer remuneration was not necessary for technique adoption
and even acted against technique maintenance and diffusion;

2) a number of indigenous techniques existed which could be
improved, and;

3) peasants have a natural incentive to conserve soil in order to
increase agricultural production.

This new approach takes a farmer rather than an engineering
perspective of soil erosion and as primarily an "upstream"
agricultural problem rather than a "downstream" sedimentation
problem.  Projects adopting this approach target individual
parcels and do not disburse external incentives to encourage
adoption.  Increased agricultural production via retained
moisture and soil is the primary incentive for farmer adoption of
soil conservation techniques.  Due to the success of projects
utilizing the "agricultural parcel" approach in achieving
sustained adoption: consensus among technicians is currently
emerging in which the "agricultural parcel" approach should be
used when targeting private lands, and the conventional
"equipement du territoire" approach be subsequently employed to
treat the "public" ravines.  This basic strategy has been
recommended by STABV.  Remuneration would be used only in cases
of collective effort for collective good (such as the treatment
of public courses or public roads).

Current Extension Modes

In addition to overall project approaches, implementors choose
different extension modes and methods to promote soil
conservation techniques.  Put generally, current extension modes
can be separated into three broadly defined categories (adapted
from Murray 1990):

1) A comandante mode in which adoption occurs because of either
project authority or project disbursed wages (Murray 1990).  This
mode is usually associated with joint GOH/international donor
projects which use the "equipement du territoire" approach.  This
"peasant persuasion" mode can result in rapid construction of
treatments but can also jeopardize long-term development
objectives.  When used for installation of hillside treatments it
has not generally resulted in maintained structures, sustained
soil conservation or crop production increases.  Ravine
treatments constructed with this mode have however received a
higher degree of volunteer maintenance.

2)  A technique by task mode in which an agricultural extension
type network organized by specific extension tasks is used solely
to promote project selected techniques.  The Pan American
Development Foundation (PADF) agroforestry hedgerow campaign,
which since 1988 has paid extension agents for each meter of
structures established on private land is an example of this
approach.  This approach is based on project-peasant
conversation, is generally administratively efficient and has
resulted in a large number of treated parcels.

3) A integrated and participatory promotion mode in which soil
conservation techniques are developed and extended along with
other agricultural system interventions.  Techniques are
frequently based in indigenous practices and are refined and
promoted with the participation of local farmers.  Projects
employing this mode usually focus on select communities and use
peasant groups as vehicles for technique diffusion.  The MCC's
Bois de Lawrence project and SCF's Maissade project are examples
of this approach.  Project experience has shown that investment
in peasant organization can permit the voluntary treatment of
common soil conservation problems such as "public" ravines. 

As soil erosion problems are immense and diverse in Haiti, each
of these modes used appropriately can and has made a contribution
to soil conservation and enhanced rural welfare.  The differences
between the modes are fundamental and choice between them would
be based on implementor objectives, level and duration of
funding.  Projects employing the comandante mode calculate that
the cost of paying upstream farmers is worth the protection of
downstream investments.  Those employing the promotion by task
mode aim to enhance the welfare of individual farmers, and those
employing the integrated and participatory promotion mode cast
their net further and aim to increase local capacity to respond
resiliently to changing conditions.  Soil conservation is
incident to this process.  

Review of Techniques Promoted by Soil Conservation Projects

Summary of Experience

Conventional Techniques.  Various soil conservation techniques
have been promoted in Haiti with varying degrees of success. 
Early projects primarily prescribed mechanical, internationally
standard techniques ("e.g." bench terraces, contour rock walls,
contour canals, and rock checkdams).  Generally efficient in
terms of soil retention, these techniques are labor intensive,
alien to the Haitian agricultural system, and have not been
adopted unless wages were paid as incentive.  In the case of
bench terraces and contour canals, infertile subsoil is brought
to the surface during construction resulting in crop production
declines.  Bench terraces have not been maintained except in the
high-valued crop area south of Port-au-Prince.  Contour rock
walls have had a similar history, many kilometers have been
constructed on infertile lands in food for work projects, and
maintenance has been extremely limited.  Checkdams have been
maintained to a greater degree as evidenced in the existence of
checkdams built by FAO/MARNDR projects in Aux Cayes and Limbe
during the 1970s.

Vegetative Techniques.  Vegetative hill and ravine treatments
began to be promoted by a majority of projects during the 1980s. 
These include "Leucaena" and elephant grass hedges, "ramp pay"
(contour trash barriers covered with soil), and wattling
("kleonaj") in ravines.  These techniques are sometimes used in
combination.  These require low labor inputs, and can result in
short-term, net financial gain to the adopter.  They have been
promoted throughout Haiti without wage or food incentives and
have been widely adopted.  These techniques are generally less
efficient than mechanical structures in terms of soil retention,
but can be altered or combined to meet specific landowner site
conditions and management objectives to a greater degree.

Contour vegetative hedges of lemon grass and vetiver were also
promoted during the 1970s.  Like the mechanical techniques of the
period, these techniques were also widely rejected.  This
rejection could be due to several factors:  an adverse reaction
to the manner in which they were promoted; or because they did
not yield an adequate short-term economic return.

Factors Affecting the Adoption of Soil Conservation Innovations

Given the soil conservation innovation is deemed worthy and
desirable by the farmer, several primary contextual conditions
appear to impact farmer decision on whether or not to adopt a new
soil conservation technique on a certain parcel of land (adapted
from Pierre-Jean 1991):

1) level of land security felt by the farmer [note 1];

[Note 1. Land security should not be confused with land tenure. 
Various land tenure arrangements exist in Haiti, and the degree
to which a farmer is assured control over the benefit of the soil
conservation technique, not necessarily tenure, directly affects

2) productive and economic value of the soil (impacted by
distance to markets);

3) capacity of the farmer to invest time and labor for learning
the technique and then for installing it, and;

4) natural willingness of farmer to take risks and adopt


Converted from gopher on 8/6/1999