As Haiti grapples with the aftermath of last month’s earthquake, Prof. Manish Raizada, Plant Agriculture, is setting up a lab aimed at improving the lives of Haitians and limiting the destruction caused by natural disasters. He’s investigating how indigenous and innovative agricultural techniques can better the livelihoods of Haitian farmers as well as prevent the devastating mudslides that follow natural disasters.

“Haitian farmers struggle with hilly land, deforestation, and heavy and intermittent rainfall, which all contribute to massive soil erosion,” says Raizada. “Extreme drought and downpours from climate change will only further devastate millions of Haitians. The purpose of this research is to work towards long-term reconstruction of Haiti that will not only help establish sustainable agriculture in this extremely impoverished country but will also protect people from the threat of mudslides.”

Raizada will use 10 acres of land near Kingston, Jamaica, for his research. The field lab is in Jamaica because it has a climate similar to Haiti’s and already has the infrastructure in place to support the initiative, he says. The long-term goal is to set up a field lab in Haiti.

As part of his research, Raizada has begun working with farmers in Île à Vache, Haiti, in collaboration with Friends of Île à Vache, a small Canadian NGO, to conduct an extensive survey of the needs and practices of 1,000 Haitian farmers.

“For adaptation strategies to be adopted, it is critical to involve the stakeholders at each stage of the process,” he says. “We can learn from indigenous practices that might have been lost and determine which agronomic practices and seed varieties are acceptable based on feedback from the Haitian farmers.”

One indigenous farming technique Raizada will be testing in the lab is planting crops on rows of dirt mounds. “This is an ancient farming technique that was used because the mounds of dirt act like a sponge, helping to retain water and prevent the nutrients from running off.”

Besides testing indigenous farming techniques, he will use the lab to investigate new ways of farming that will boost soil-nutrient retention and reduce runoff. This will include studying different intercropping practices aimed at reducing soil erosion from wind and rain and testing the root structures of plants to see which are most effective in stabilizing crops, particularly on hillsides. He’ll also look at agricultural practices that would provide year-round groundcover for farmland, further protecting it from erosion.

Because deforestation is a major contributor to soil erosion and mudslides in Haiti, Raizada will be experimenting with fast-growing woods and more sustainable tree-harvesting practices.

“Haitians rely on trees as cooking fuel,” he says. “One way to reduce deforestation is to continually harvest just the branches from trees, which promotes regeneration of the trees. This not only helps prevent soil erosion but also maintains a constant crop of trees for wood.”

As part of the effort to reduce deforestation, Raizada will also work towards introducing cooking stoves that use less wood and building ones that are solar-based.

One of the final stages of the project is to develop sustainable agriculture kits that will include seeds for staple crops, green manures and pesticide-deterrent crops as well as storage bags and a picture book of best farming practices to aid illiterate farmers.

“Rather than giving handouts, this bottom-up project will provide Haitian entrepreneurs with low-cost appropriate seeds and technologies for them to start their own agribusinesses as well as the sustainability to lift the Haitian economy out of cycles of poverty,” he says.