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The Tree of Life, Indeed!

Rubbing a small tree of life with ash to prepare it for application of clear-coat weather-proofing.

An artist puts the finishing touches on a small tree of life.

The Tree of Life is a very popular design. Our artists make them in astonishingly different and creative ways and our customers buy them in all their iterations with great enthusiasm. To both groups, they are representative of a number of things; the beauty of nature, the interconnectedness of living beings, and life-giving abundance. Yet there is tremendous irony about trees in Haiti. There really aren’t very many of them left.

Much has been written about deforestation in Haiti. The facts as they are presented in such online sources as Eden Projects and Triple Pundit are indeed pretty grim: Haiti has become 98% deforested and what little remains is disappearing at a rate of 30% per year. Contributing hugely to this deforestation rate is the practice of using nearly every bit of available wood for fuel. In a country with no natural gas or petroleum resources, wood is the logical choice for all cooking and heating in a poor nation whose population can afford little else. It’s a devilish problem.

Eden Projects is a charitable organization that seeks to alleviate poverty by employing locals in countries such as Nepal, Madagascar, and Haiti to plant trees. Reforestation efforts aim to reduce soil and waterway degradation, which are the first steps in boosting the land’s productivity and revitalizing the agricultural sector of the economy. It is a single, two-pronged solution to pressing economic and environmental emergencies .

One of the trees that Haitians have been hired to plant throughout the country is a variety of mesquite. Known as “bayawonn” in Haitian creole, the scraggly-looking tree is already yielding some encouraging results. Bayawonn is a particularly hardy species of mesquite that is able to withstand rough terrain, poor soil, and periods of high heat and low rainfall. Additionally, it is fast-growing – an important characteristic in establishing a tree canopy under which other plants may grow and flourish. They are particularly adept at nitrogen transfer, which it accomplishes by absorption from the air and sending it to its roots. The nitrogen is then released into the soil, thereby enriching it for other nearby plants. And there’s more! Bayawonn pods can be used as a food source for livestock while the beans can be ground into flour and made into a hearty, healthful bread. Truly, there is much to be sung in praise of the bayawonn planting program in both short-term benefits and sustainability.

In a sense, then, the Tree of Life may have a specific form. Despite all of it’s renditions conceived by artists and executed with great flourishes and embellishments, the Tree of Life in Haiti may, in actual fact be the scruffy, humble bayawonnn.

Created by Linda for It’s Cactus

Vetiver: The earthy, aromatic smell of success

The grassy roots are blended with floral tones to create many of today's most expensive perfumes.

The grassy roots of vetiver are blended with floral tones to create many of today’s most expensive perfumes.

Who knew?

A grassy plant known as vetiver- originally introduced in the 1940s as a soil anchor to reduce erosion on the steep, dry, denuded mountainsides of southwestern Haiti – has become the premium cash crop of the region.  The Haitians appreciated it for its quick-growing density and began cutting it seasonally for thatch, but its real value, as it turns out, is in its roots.  When harvested and boiled down, the root oil becomes a primary ingredient for the world’s perfume industry, which demands 100-120 tons of vetiver annually.  Haiti is now the largest producer, raising over half of the world’s total, with smaller quantities grown in Java, China, Madagascar, Brazil and Paraguay. Pierre, a Dutch-trained Haitian agronomist calls vetiver, “a miracle plant. You dig it up, cut off the roots, plant it right back and it produces again next year. It needs no irrigation or fertilizer.”

Vetiver oil is the major ingredient in some 36% of all western perfumes, Caleche, Chanel No. 5, Dioressence, Parure, Opium, to name a few.  (For a comprehensive list, click here: http://www.fragrantica.com/notes/Vetiver-2.html) It’s value lies in the fact that it blends easily with other aromatic oils and because its fixative properties promote lasting fragrance. In the words of Dr. Chandra Shekhar Gupta, Senior Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resourses in New Delhi, vertiver possess, “aromatic verdancy, fragrant rootiness, subtle, refreshing citrusiness, enjoyable earthiness, a wonderful hint of woodiness, and a certain Guerlainesque leathery-ambery darkness in the drydown.”

In addition to its direct perfumery applications, vetiver oil in its diluted form is extensively used in after-shave lotions, cosmetics, air fresheners and bathing products, as well as flavoring syrups, ice cream, and acting as a food preservative. It is used in cool drinks, incense sticks, and (I love this part!) for reducing pungency of chewing tobacco preparations, thereby providing a sweet note to other masticatories.  Additionally, roots have been used for making screens, mats, hand fans and baskets. In Java, screens are hung like curtains in the houses and when sprinkled water, imparting a fragrant coolness to the air.

There is no synthetic substitute available, making vertiver a crop with excellent value and staying power.  Approximately 150 pounds of vetiver roots are required to produce a scant 1 lb of oil.  The roots are cut, cleaned, delivered and sold by the farmers to distilleries which produce the oil. From there, it is transported to major distributers of essential oils who in turn, sell to the perfume industry in 55 gallon drums, (sound familiar?!) the contents of which being worth between $30,000 – $40,000 each.

Unfortunately, the vetiver farmers of Haiti don’t currently collect their fair share of that princely sum, but that is changing.  Following the 2010 earthquake, both perfumers and distillation companies became (suddenly and curiously) overcome with the desire to engage in fair trading and sustainability practices.  Schools were built, roads were excavated, wells were dug, and farming cooperatives were formed.  To date, approximately half of all Haitian vetiver producers are participating in co-ops which protect their prices, teach good conservation practices, and provide incentives for superlative crops.  As a result, the farmers’ daily earnings have increased dramatically; up almost 30% since 2010. This is an astronomical growth in earnings, but bear in mind, the average daily wage back then was $2.  In other words, there’s still a long ways to go, but the trend is both important and encouraging.


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It;s Cactus

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