Deforestation and biodiversity loss in Haiti

Mountains in Haiti. image: Logan Abassi (UN/MINUSTAH)

Writing for Bloomberg, Faye Flam discusses recently published research about deforestation in Haiti, and the impacts on Haiti’s rare and endemic forest species:

Improbably, a fairly tale world of miniature frogs and lizards survives in Haiti — dozens of species found only in that environment. Wildlife doesn’t always disappear in proportion to lost forest, but clings to what’s left, waiting for one final collapse. In a scientific paper published in November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers estimate that with the current rate of deforestation, the ecology will collapse within the next 20 years.

The pace of destruction is staggering. When I was there, tagging along with a biology expedition in 2011, forest covered .45 percent of the land; now it’s about .28 percent, meaning that in the seven years since my visit, Haiti has lost 38 percent of its forest cover. The desperate and hungry continue to cut down the trees for cooking fuel.

Temple University’s Blair Hedges, who headed my expedition and is an author of the PNAS paper, said many of these reptiles and amphibians are endemic species, meaning they don’t live anywhere else. Separated from other bits of forest by miles of barren land, they can’t get to the Dominican Republic, which occupies the less rugged eastern side of Hispaniola. So they remain stranded on ever-shrinking islands within an island.

Saving these forests is not just the sentimental wish of meddling tree-huggers. Haitians told us they wanted to preserve the forests, which are officially on protected lands.

The research paper Flam refers to is titled Haiti’s biodiversity threatened by nearly complete loss of primary forest. It is not open access, but you can read the abstract online:

The loss of forest from human activities is a global threat to biodiversity, continually diminishing populations of forest-dwelling species. However, species extinction usually is delayed until the last habitats disappear. Nonetheless, mass extinction may be imminent in a small number of tropical countries with low forest cover. Here, we find that Haiti has less than 1% of its original primary forest and is therefore among the most deforested countries in the world. Forty-two of the 50 highest and largest mountains have lost all primary forest. Our surveys of vertebrates on these mountaintops suggest that endemic species have been lost along with the loss of forest. This indicates that Haiti is already undergoing a mass extinction of its biodiversity because of deforestation.

It is worth nothing that statements about the high level of deforestation in Haiti have been somewhat controversial.  For example, anthropologist Andrew Tarter has argued that, while Haiti is severely deforested, “contemporary Haiti is hardly devoid of tree cover“. In correspondence with Gizmodo’s Earther blog, Tarter emphasized that secondary or regrown forest should still support biodiversity. This is true. Nonetheless, as mentioned in the abstract to the journal article:

Not all tropical forests have the same ability to sustain biodiversity. Those that have been disturbed by humans, including forests previously cleared and regrown (secondary growth), have lower levels of species richness compared with undisturbed (primary) forests.

[Image: Logan Abassi (UN/MINUSTAH)]

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