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Innovative idea may give Haiti sustainability

Some western Wisconsin parishioners have taken the sister church model to a new level. They plan to help move Haitians toward economic sustainability by growing a cash crop that can produce a fuel much like petroleum.
The ecumenical group from River Falls, Wisconsin, which includes Lutherans in its leadership, plans as a first step to raise $1 million for planting 50 acres of jatropha trees. The trees are only 10 feet tall, but they pack an economic punch. Jatropha seeds, after brief processing, can create biodiesel fuel with many uses. One acre can produce 330 gallons a year from the fig-like fruit.
Patrick O’Malley of River Falls pursued this dream to benefit Ganthier, a Haitian town with a population of 71,000, before the devastating 2010 earthquake. Once established there, he hoped to spread this biodiesel industry throughout the entire country.
The dream is moving closer to reality. A several-page plan written mostly by Curt Larson, a member of Ezekiel Lutheran Church (ELCA) in River Falls, was presented to United Nations leadership in March in an effort to obtain funding for the effort.

Ralph Lapointe, the mayor of Ganthier, Haiti, meets with Curt Larson and Pat O’Malley, both of River Falls, Wisconsin, after checking on a patch of jatropha trees near Port au Prince. Photo provided by Joe Winter

Jatropha seeds, after brief processing, can create biodiesel fuel with many uses.

“Curt Larson and I think this could be a whole economy for the country of Haiti,” O’Malley said. “It would be run by local farmers and keep government and Big Oil out of it.”
He added that the tree is also found in surrounding countries, but that with its profitable uses, there could never be too much of the fuel or a glutted market. The tree does have its limits though. “It can’t take a frost, so it can’t be produced in northern climates,” O’Malley said.

Casting seeds on Haitian ground

The trees, which live up to 60 years, can grow in poor soil that is otherwise devoid of trees, and even take root in crevices between rocks, Larson said. “It won’t tolerate, and doesn’t require, a lot of water, either,” O’Malley added, noting that between those two conditions, there is plenty of otherwise unusable land in Haiti.
The fuel created can also be utilized by natives for cooking, fires, supplying stoves, and a variety of other uses. “When processed into biodiesel it can be used to fuel vehicles such as cars and trucks, as well,” Larson said, adding that this would require the fuel to be more refined in order to remove certain naturally occurring waxing agents.
Haiti has a high level of unemployment and people need work badly, Larson said, so the planting effort could provide gainful work. The plant also will lessen erosion, which is a major problem in Haiti; other useful crops can grow in the spaces between the trees, he said.
Farmers would grow the trees on about 50 parcels of four to five acres each. The plots are grouped together and have a centrally located co-operative for processing.
The locally based group, named Haitian Relief Services, has already raised $320,000 for various projects, including a school and the fuel effort. An annual “It Takes A Village” concert, which features singing by local church musicians, usually raises more than $7,000.
The group is also researching grants through agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture. It is working with Haiti’s minister of finance to acquire land for planting.
Joe Winter is a freelance writer living in Hudson, Wisconsin.

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