Haitian Peasant Tree Chronicle: Adaptive Evolution and Institutional Intrusion

During ten years of operation, between 1981 and 1991, the Agroforestry Outreach Project (AOP) made it possible for some 200,000 peasant households throughout the ecologically and politically ravaged country of Haiti to plant over sixty million fast-growing wood tree seedlings on their land. The unexpected participation of as much as 20 percent of the entire rural population in this tree-planting effort vastly exceeded what anyone had anticipated. Several articles and reports (for example, Conway 1986; Murray 1984, 1987; Lowenthal 1989) have discussed the project’s conceptual and methodological underpinnings; how it used anthropological theory and ethnographic methods to reformulate the relationship between trees and people in a manner acceptable to Haitian villagers, and how it employed nongovernmental channels to implement the project, bypassing Duvalierist ministries to assure that donor funds would reach intended beneficiaries in the form of income-generating seedlings.

After ten years of effective operation, the project was renewed for yet another five years. But it was brought to a sudden halt by bureaucratic interventions in 1991. Even though it was partially resurrected in early 1995, it is important to examine the vulnerability of such an undertaking to institutional oscillations. Although tens of thousands of rural households benefited from the AOP’s provision of trees, this case shows that even well-functioning projects can be damaged by institutional meddling.