News this Week

Science  05 Feb 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5966, pp. 628
  1. U.S. Budget

    Science Spared From Domestic Spending Freeze—for Now

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    What's not to like? Despite his pledge to freeze domestic discretionary spending in an attempt to shrink a $1.6 trillion deficit, President Barack Obama has asked Congress to boost science spending next year across the federal government. The request is part of the president's $3.8 trillion budget blueprint for 2011. Although Congress is certain to revise that plan as the year unfolds, for the time being agency heads are crowing.

    “I have to admit that right now, I'm not feeling a lot of pain,” says Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which would receive a boost of more than 7%, to $7.42 billion.

    What sold especially well this year was the argument that more research and a larger scientific workforce are long-range solutions to the country's dismal 10% unemployment rate. “We're overjoyed with the budget,” says Patrick Gallagher, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is slated for a 7.5% increase, to $922 million. “It shows that science and technology are really viewed through an economic lens.”

    An emphasis on jobs explains in part the boost for clean energy research programs at the Department of Energy (DOE), efforts meant to move the nation toward a low-carbon economy. In step with that goal, climate change also remains a priority for the Administration, which proposed a 21% hike in global climate research across eight agencies as well as a major realignment of Earth-observing satellite programs (see sidebar).

    The budget also takes a new view of human space exploration. The president has proposed a major reshuffling that turns the agency away from a program launched by President George W. Bush that was to have returned humans to the moon by 2020. The new policy has an unspecified target and timetable; in the meantime, however, it slashes more than $1.2 billion from space operations. In contrast, NASA's science directorate would receive a $540 million increase in 2011. “This brings NASA back to its roots as an engine of innovation,” says Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space and a member of an external commission that seemed to favor such a redirection.

    The good news.

    Presidential science adviser John Holdren had lots to tout in highlighting Obama's 2011 budget request.


    The Democratic leaders in Congress are not enamored with the president's wish to protect national security programs from any freeze and have vowed to make the Pentagon share in any budget trimming. If they prevail, that could relieve some pressure to trim the proposed increases in domestic research programs. Indeed, the White House has already proposed shrinking development programs within the Department of Defense to the point at which the government's overall research and development budget (more than half of which is devoted to defense) would remain flat, at $147 billion. A preferred metric for the president's science adviser, John Holdren, and other agency heads is federal spending on basic and applied research, which does not include the cost of developing new weapons systems. That budget would rise 5.6% in 2011, to $61.6 billion.

    Despite enjoying an increase at a time when most other parts of the federal budget are getting squeezed, some science lobbyists say that the research enterprise needs more money to remain healthy. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which would get a $1 billion hike, to $32 billion, needs six times that much to maintain its momentum from the $10.4 billion it received from last year's massive stimulus package, says Mark Lively, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Even so, Lively says he appreciates that the 2011 increase is the largest proposed for NIH by a president in 8 years.

    The president's 2011 budget will be the subject of countless hearings over the next several weeks and months, as Congress shapes the document for its own purposes, not least of which is a November election that will determine if Democrats retain their majority status. In the meantime, here are some highlights:

    NASA: The White House has eliminated the Constellation program—a $3.5-billion-a-year initiative aimed at building rockets, spacecraft, and other systems for the moon mission. Although the moon mission would be zeroed out under the Administration's proposal, NASA's overall budget would increase by $6 billion over the next 5 years, including a $300 million rise to $19 billion in 2011.

    NASA officials say Constellation's end could accelerate space exploration by freeing up money for science and letting the private sector take the lead in developing new technologies. The Augustine commission found that “key milestones” of Constellation “were slipping, and that the program would not get us back to the moon in any reasonable time or within any affordable cost,” explained NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. at a media briefing.

    NIH: The 3.2% increase, which Director Francis Collins says “could have been a lot worse,” reflects five themes he laid out after taking the helm last summer: genomics, translational research, health care reform, global health, and reinvigorating biomedical research. The Obama Administration had already singled out cancer and autism, he says, and that confluence resulted in a proposed boost for research on both diseases—4.4% more for cancer, to $6.036 billion, and 5% more for autism, to $142 million, as part of a $222 million initiative at the Department of Health and Human Services.

    Although NIH directors generally don't like being told to spend money on specific diseases, Collins says these two areas were “particularly well primed for investments.” NIH plans to expand its cancer genome atlas and to sequence the entire genomes of 300 autism patients and their parents.

    Those and other priorities will make it tougher for scientists competing for NIH's individual investigator–initiated awards. The pot of money for new and competing extramural grants will drop 0.3% to $4.014 billion, with a projected decline of 199 awards, to 9052. With many scientists who received temporary, 2-year funding from the stimulus package seeking to extend their research, Collins expects success rates—the chances that a submitted application will be funded—to slide in 2011.

    DOE: Within a 4.4% increase for science programs, to $5.12 billion, basic energy sciences would jump by 12.1%, to $1.83 billion. Fusion energy sciences would be hit with a 10.8% decline in funding, to $380 million, as the United States slashes its contribution in response to a stretched-out schedule for ITER, an international fusion experiment to be built in Cadarache, France. “We need to make sure that we don't get ahead of the project as a whole,” says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, home of the U.S. ITER project office. Even so, Mason worries that a $55 million dip this year will make it harder to meet required funding increases in 2012 and beyond.

    Elsewhere in the department, the fledgling Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy would receive $300 million for its first annual appropriation. It's currently spending $400 million in stimulus funding. And Energy Secretary Steven Chu is asking for $34 million to add a fourth energy innovation hub—a freewheeling research center modeled after the Bell Labs of old—to three that will be created this year. Congress trimmed back his initial plan last year for eight hubs.

    NSF: Bement admits to being opportunistic in advancing a budget that will mesh with the Administration's priorities. “You have to look at what the Administration is trying to do and address the challenges that the country is facing,” he notes. One such area is training more scientists and engineers to work on clean energy technologies. NSF is putting up $19 million for graduate training and postdoctoral fellowships in a joint program with DOE, which has budgeted $55 million. It will continue to expand its larger graduate research fellowship and early-career faculty development programs.

    On the research frontier, NSF would finally allocate the first construction funds for a $434 million National Ecological Observatory Network to be built over the next 6 years. A decade in the planning, NEON hopes to collect long-term, continent-wide measurements of the effects of climate change, land usage, and invasive species.

    EPA AND USDA: Competitive grant programs would receive a big shot in the arm at the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The new home for extramural funding at USDA, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, would boost the size of its program by 64%, to $429 million. “It's a pretty incredible number,” says Karl Glasener, who directs science policy for three professional societies. Glasener attributes the jump to Rajiv Shah, who oversaw USDA research until he became head of the U.S. Agency for International Development in December.

    Similarly, the Science To Achieve Results (STAR) program at EPA would get $87.2 million in 2011, a $25.2 million boost from this year's budget. One component of the program, STAR grants to graduate students, would rise by $6.2 million to $17.3 million, enough to fund an additional 240 fellowships.

  2. U.S. Budget

    Obama Shakes Up Satellite Programs For Clearer Picture of Earth

    1. Eli Kintisch
    Earth monitors.

    NOAA's Jane Lubchenco (right) with OSTP's Shere Abbott at the science budget briefing.


    More money to study climate change is a central element in the president's 2011 budget, and much of that science will be done in orbit.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will spend $2 billion—a 58% increase over this year's budget—to launch satellites to take crucial climate measurements for a decade or more. That effort will involve a massive—and costly—restructuring of the troubled National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), which was intended to procure space hardware for both military and civilian purposes. The president's budget also promises a massive reinvigoration of earth sciences at NASA, much of it climate-related. That endeavor begins with a request for $170 million for a replacement of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which tracks flows of greenhouse gases. The original version crashed after a launch last year.

    Fixing the four-satellite NPOESS system involves negotiating the end of a failed three-way marriage between NASA, NOAA, and the Air Force. Amid endless technical failures and bickering between the spouses, the cost of the 13-year-old multisatellite program ballooned from $6.5 billion to $14 billion and fell 5 years behind schedule. Under the terms of the divorce the White House negotiated, the Pentagon will build two of the multipurpose satellites and NOAA and NASA will fly the other two. NOAA will operate the Pentagon's satellites, and the agencies will share ground-support facilities.

    “This is good news,” said oceanographer Tony Busalacchi of the University of Maryland, College Park, who led a National Research Council study of the program. He hopes that, with management woes out of the way, “we can start truly planning for the future.” One concern of his, however, is that having each agency make its own procurement decisions could lead to disagreements causing delays. NASA officials are hailing their return to monitoring the health of the home planet, a responsibility that the Bush Administration removed from their mission statement.

    By contrast, Obama's budget “dramatically expands NASA's climate research and observations capability,” says NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. The space agency plans to increase its spending on climate research by $2 billion over 5 years. The funding could help accelerate several missions relevant to climate, such as ICESat II, which uses laser altimetry to monitor ice sheets, and SMAP, which measures soil moisture to understand fluxes of water vapor, methane, and other elements of the atmosphere.

  3. Research Facilities

    New Korean Science City Caught in Political Crossfire

    1. Dennis Normile

    Plans for a new $34 billion Korean science city inched forward last week when the South Korean administration unveiled enabling legislation that will eventually go to the National Assembly. But opposition political parties may thwart the city, proposed for a spot 120 kilometers south of Seoul named Sejong after a former Korean king, in protest of the administration backing away from also making the location home to 13 ministries and government agencies. If the revised plans are blocked, “I'm not sure if [the scientific projects] would also be given up,” says Dong-Pil Min, chair of the Korea Research Council of Fundamental Science & Technology.

    Regal fight.

    Politicians differ on the purpose of a new city named for Korea's King Sejong.


    Plans for a new science city grew out of discussions among an informal group of scientists over how to push South Korea into more basic research. “Of the current national laboratories, none deals with basic science,” says Seung-Woo Hong, a nuclear physicist at the Suwon campus of Sungkyunkwan University. Over several years, the group developed plans for a new institute that would pursue fundamental research across the board. They also proposed a $400 million accelerator that would create beams of exotic isotopes at unprecedented energy levels for studies in nuclear physics and materials science.

    These ideas coalesced into the call for an overall science city. “We wanted to establish a really creative environment, including a comfortable environment for living” to attract researchers from around the world, says Hong. The project caught the attention of Lee Myung-bak, who became the Korean president in February 2008 and asked the education and science ministry to further develop what came to be called the International Science and Business Belt.

    Meanwhile, in 2002, the previous administration proposed creating Sejong as a new capital to alleviate overcrowding in Seoul. Courts ruled moving the capital to be unconstitutional, however, so the plan was revised to move parts of the bureaucracy to Sejong. The Lee administration announced in January that it wants to scrap those plans and turn Sejong into an education and research hub, incorporating the science city proposal as well as separately developed plans by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), based in nearby Daejeon, and Korea University, headquartered in Seoul, to build new campuses there. Four of the country's major conglomerates have also committed to building high-tech manufacturing and research facilities in Sejong, lured by sweetheart deals for land.

    But national politics may scuttle the administration's push for the science city. Two opposition parties have announced they will fight to keep the original plans for Sejong to be a governmental administrative center when the relevant bills come to the assembly, which could be as early as next month. “It's kind of a mess now,” says Yong-Taek Im, dean of external affairs at KAIST. “To implement this new plan, they need approval from the National Assembly, which might be tough.”

  4. Scientific Publishing

    Publications and Expats Warn Of Russia's Dangerous Decline

    1. Daniel Clery

    Russian researchers at home and abroad have long warned that Russian basic research is in a dangerous, even terminal, decline. Last week, information provider Thomson Reuters confirmed their fears, releasing an analysis* of worldwide publications that shows that Russia's research output has continued to slide since the demise of the Soviet Union. After a peak of more than 29,000 papers published in 1994, the total slumped to 22,000 in 2006, although it bounced back somewhat in the following 2 years. In the 5 years from 2004 to 2008, Russia produced only 127,000 papers, 2.6% of the world's total. During that time, Russia ranked behind countries such as China (8.4%), Canada (4.7%), Australia (3.0%), and India (2.9%) and was only slightly ahead of the Netherlands (2.5%).

    On the up?

    Russia's publications are lagging behind similar countries, especially China (omitted because growth so steep).


    The authors say that Russia has slipped because of chronic underfunding by the national government, an aging scientific workforce, lack of public respect for science, and a devastating brain drain in the early 1990s, in which tens of thousands of researchers left the country, mostly to go to Western Europe. “One wonders how vulnerable the whole Russian system is,” says Jonathan Adams, one of the report's authors.

    The report compares Russia with Brazil, India, and China because Adams and co-author Christopher King say all four could become front-rank economies with their vast resources and potential for growth. But while the other three countries have seen the number of their scientific publications rise, Russia's has stagnated (see graph). Among the different research fields (see table), former Russian strengths in the physical sciences and engineering have shown the steepest declines, while some fields in biology, medicine, and environment have grown.


    Last year, some expatriate Russian scientists sent President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a letter warning of “the catastrophic conditions of fundamental science.” Particle physicist Alexander Belyaev of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, one of the authors, says there was a positive reaction—the president mentioned the letter in speeches—but little has changed. “The government doesn't seem to understand the difference between fundamental and applied science,” he says. Grad students don't get enough to live on, Belyaev says, so anyone who is serious is forced to move abroad. More than 190 scientists have signed the letter online.

  5. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    ScienceInsider has analyzed the Administration's budget proposals for individual agencies in a series of postings throughout the week.

    Philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates have spent some $4.5 billion on vaccine research, development, and delivery since creating their foundation in 1994. Now they have pledged to spend a total of $10 billion over the next decade. Goals include increasing vaccination rates for measles, Haemophilus influenzae type B, pneumococcal disease, and rotavirus while rapidly introducing a new malaria vaccine by 2014.

    China's top climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, said he had an “open mind” on whether humanmade carbon emissions were contributing to climate warming. The comment came during a meeting of four key developing nations that were meeting to firm up plans to voluntarily cut greenhouse gas emissions under the nonbinding Copenhagen Accord.

    Senator Ben Cardin (D–MD) has introduced a bill that would repeal a provision of the Recovery Act that exempted the National Institutes of Health from the normal 2.8% set-aside to fund the Small Business Innovation Research grants programs, which covers 11 federal agencies. Cardin's bill would require NIH to spend $150 million of its Recovery Act money on such grants.

    Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston, Texas, has decided to remain an independent institution after flirting with joining Rice University or Baylor University in Waco. Many faculty members at nearby Rice fiercely opposed the first proposed merger; BCM faculty members, students, and alumni opposed a possible alliance with Baylor University, arguing that the Baptist university's religious mission was in conflict with that of the medical school.

    For the full postings and more, go to

  6. Conservation

    Big Battle Brewing Over Elephants at Upcoming CITES Meeting

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Kenya and other nations oppose ivory sales, which they fear will lead to more poaching.


    Wildlife advocates and scientists are concerned that a proposed sale of elephant tusks may spur even more poaching of the animals in Africa. International trade in ivory is banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but Tanzania and Zambia have asked the convention for a special sale of 112 tons of ivory.

    Such a sale “would be devastating,” especially because poaching is already on the rise, says zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants in Nairobi. “It would risk a further escalation of demand.” However, the connection of one-time ivory sales to increased poaching has not been conclusively demonstrated, says David Morgan, the chief scientist for CITES in Geneva, Switzerland. The proposals will be considered when representatives from 175 nations meet 13 to 25 March in Qatar.

    The current trade ban was put in place in 1989, after massive losses of elephants during the 1970s and '80s. In East Africa, poachers reduced populations by 50% to 80% and probably by even more in Central Africa. The ban worked: After 1989, populations in East Africa began to recover. Meanwhile, other countries, such as South Africa, had been amassing stockpiles of ivory collected from elephants that died naturally or nuisance animals that had been killed, and they wanted to sell the ivory and use the proceeds for conservation.

    In 1997, CITES allowed three countries—Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe—to sell a total of 50 tons of ivory. Because of fears that the sale would stimulate demand for ivory and encourage poachers, CITES created monitoring networks to keep tabs on illegal killings of elephants and seizures of ivory. These official studies indicated that poaching had declined in the years after the sale.

    After getting permission in 2002, these three countries and South Africa sold another 106 tons of ivory. As part of that agreement, CITES put a 9-year moratorium on further sales (Science, 22 June 2007, p. 1678). But a loophole was added at the last minute: The moratorium would apply only to countries that had previously sold ivory.

    That left the way open for other nations. Last November, Tanzania asked CITES for permission to sell 90 tons of ivory, and Zambia asked to sell 22 tons, all from natural deaths and culling. The two countries argue that the ivory trade is “essential to the conservation of elephants,” because it will help resolve the growing conflicts between humans and elephants in their countries. “Elephant products such as ivory picked up from the wildlife-management areas could increase the value of elephants to those communities,” the delegations claim.

    Opponents, including international animal-welfare groups, scientists, and a coalition of 23 African countries, say the proposal violates the intent of the 2007 agreement. Further, CITES requires adequate law enforcement to prevent poaching and to stop illegal trade before a sale can be allowed. According to the monitoring networks, people in both Tanzania and Zambia are still “heavily involved” in the movement of large shipments of illegal ivory.

    The main concern is that a legal sale would stimulate demand for ivory and create a parallel illegal trade, particularly in China, where a growing middle class sees ivory as a symbol of prosperity. “It is a virtually insatiable demand that elephants cannot satisfy,” says Will Travers of Born Free, an advocacy group in Horsham, U.K.

    There is no definitive proof of that connection from the official monitoring networks, however. “The results show that any link between the ivory sales that have taken place and levels of elephant poaching remains tenuous at best,” says Morgan. Daniel Stiles, an expert on wildlife trade based in Diani Beach, Kenya, who has interviewed dozens of ivory traders, is skeptical that such sales increase demand. In the April 2005 issue of Environmental Conservation, he reported no sign of increased demand after the 1997 sale.

    Other scientists counter that the monitoring networks aren't quick or complete enough to show the link between ivory sales and poaching. Patrick Omondi of the Kenya Wildlife Service criticizes the analysis of one network, Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), and says that in Kenya they have seen greater poaching, which they attribute to previous sales. The MIKE data are “not up to speed with the reality on the ground,” he says. Travers agrees that MIKE's data are so patchy that they should not be the basis for deciding whether the sale goes forward.

    Everyone agrees, however, that poaching is now on the rise. The number of illegally killed elephants found has increased from 47 to 232 over the past 3 years in Kenya, a country with relatively good management and enforcement. TRAFFIC, a network run by the WWF and IUCN, says that CITES needs to focus on improving enforcement in the three countries “most heavily implicated” in the ivory trade, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and Thailand.

    Momentum appears to be building against the proposed sales. The United Kingdom announced last week that it is opposed. And the coalition of 23 African countries sent representatives to Brussels last week to lobby the European Union. The coalition has its own proposal for CITES: a 20-year moratorium on ivory sales in order to put better controls in place and to study the impact of legal sales.

  7. Evolution

    'Toadness' a Key Feature for Global Spread of These Amphibians

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    It takes a special kind of toad to hop around the world, colonizing continent after continent. And Ines Van Bocxlaer knows the secret to that success. Through an extensive analysis of 228 toad species, the graduate student at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) has come up with a list of traits that made such a worldwide spread possible. On page 679, she and her colleagues reveal what enabled some toads to leave South America, where the first toads originated, for places far afield. “This study elegantly analyzes specific morphological traits and correlates them with successful range expansion,” says Jennifer Pramuk, a herpetologist at the Bronx Zoo in New York City.

    That global spread may have accelerated speciation of this group of toads, says Franky Bossuyt, Van Bocxlaer's adviser. The team's work also suggests one way to evaluate if toads newly introduced to a location will become pests. “It's a really good start to thinking about what kinds of attributes make for an invasive,” says Darrel Frost, a systematist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

    In 2009, using a combination of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, Van Bocxlaer and her colleagues built a family tree that encompassed 86 toad species. Until that time, most systematists assumed that the Bufo genus of so-called true toads, which includes the cane toad, common toad, western toad, and others with short legs and warty, thick skin, belonged on the same branch. But “they didn't fall together,” Bossuyt recalls.

    Instead, this quintessential “toad” form has emerged multiple times on multiple evolutionary branches. Moreover, when the researchers looked at where toads with this characteristic look were distributed across the globe and when these amphibians first appeared in a particular place—fossils and other evidence provided that timing—they saw that this kind of toad tended to be the first toad to arrive, and thrive, in a new continent or region.

    Cross-continental hopper.

    The common Indian toad has features that enabled it to become widespread.


    Bossuyt and his colleagues began to wonder if the Bufo “look” represented a suite of traits that equipped those toads for global exploration. They came up with a list of seven traits that might help the toads expand their reach. For example, one was the ability to live away from water instead of being dependent on high-humidity, damp, and even wet places to survive. “If you need constant high humidity, you can't go far,” says Bossuyt.

    Other traits that favored spreading included the possession of poison glands, to deter predators, and internal fat-storage bodies, for energy reserves. Large size likely helped as well, the researchers concluded. Toads that were flexible in where they lay eggs and could make use of temporary wet spots had an edge, too. Large clutch sizes, consisting of thousands of eggs, would also be beneficial, as would be larvae that could feed off the environment rather than have to rely on energy stores provided by the mother.

    To see whether toads that dispersed had all these traits, Bossuyt's team added another 142 species to the toad family tree, so that it comprised 43% of all known toad species. At the same time, they compiled the ranges of each species from published records. The results are convincing, says Pramuk: “Genera of toads with the typical ‘toad’ morphology were ideally adapted for surviving and, apparently, colonizing the globe.”

    Knowing what kind of toads spread in the past should help us understand which ones will survive if accidentally transported into a new environment, adds Ben Phillips, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney in Australia. This work, he says, “may have far-reaching consequences for … how we might predict which taxa are likely to become invasive.”


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Foster Care for Chimps When Victor's mother died from anthrax, Fredy came along and adopted him. He shared his home with Victor every night, carried him on his back, and even gave him some of his precious food. Such altruistic behavior is one of the noblest attributes of our species. But Fredy and Victor aren't humans—they're chimps. A new study of these primates in the wild suggests that they are far more selfless than scientists have given them credit for, though some researchers have their doubts.


    A Master Blueprint for Making Stars It's a puzzle that has bedeviled astronomers and theorists for years: Do massive stars form in the same way as our sun or by some other process? Now a team of researchers has gone a long way toward providing the answer by catching a massive star in the act of condensing. Their verdict is that this massive star, at least, seems to follow the same mechanism as smaller stars.

    How Carnations Conquered Europe The humble carnation in your Valentine's Day bouquet may be cheap, but it rivals the most exotic of tropical plants in evolutionary spectacle. New research reveals that the flower's 300 species emerged at a record rate. Many of these varieties arose in Europe, suggesting that the continent may have been more of an evolutionary hot spot than scientists thought.

    The Shocking Truth About Running Shoes Haile Gebrselassie, the world's fastest marathoner, once said of his early career, “When I wore shoes, it was difficult.” A new study reveals why: Humans run differently in bare feet. Researchers have discovered that sneakers and other sports shoes alter our natural gait, which normally protects us from the impact of running.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more on

  9. Relief Among The Rubble

    1. Leslie Roberts*

    A network of tropical disease experts in Haiti pulled off a remarkable relief effort as a group of their colleagues miraculously survived the 12 January earthquake.

    Before and after.

    The Hotel Montana, where health experts were meeting when the quake struck on 12 January.


    A few minutes before 5 p.m. on 12 January, Marie Denise Milord, Sarah Craig, Logan Anderson, and Nisha Garg had just taken their drinks out to the fourth-floor balcony of the swank Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince. “It was so beautiful,” says Milord, a Haitian physician and expert on neglected tropical diseases. “We sat just leaning on the railing and looking at the beauty of Haiti and saying how positive things seemed to be happening now.” And then the earthquake hit.

    There was a noise “like a freight train,” recalls Milord. The railing disappeared, and she and her colleagues were thrown to the floor. “The building below us just collapsed, and we could feel it going down each floor until we ended up somewhere between the first and second floors with rubble beneath us,” recalls Craig, who manages the Haiti Program at the University of Notre Dame (UND) in South Bend, Indiana.

    The dust was horrendous, but the four were together, scratched and bruised but otherwise okay. They immediately began to search for colleagues who had been with them all day at the Montana, where they were reviewing a collaborative program run out of the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and Population in cooperation with UND and IMA World Health to fight neglected tropical diseases. The program, which stretched back more than 20 years, was on the verge of a major push within Haiti to eliminate lymphatic filariasis (LF)—a debilitating, mosquito-borne parasitic disease (see sidebar, p. 636). The meeting was scheduled to go on until 5 p.m.; if it had not ended early, they would likely all have been killed.

    The first person they spotted was Thomas Streit, a Catholic priest and biologist at UND who founded the program, near what remained of the pool on the first floor. They scrambled down to join him, and then all began searching for program assistant Claudy Bertrand and their driver, Wilfred. They pulled Bertrand from the wreckage with a broken leg.

    After splinting his leg and doing what they could for the injured around them, the six made their way to a safer spot, by a flattened house that still had a manicured lawn and a swimming pool—which meant drinkable water. They spent the night outside with 40 or 50 others, many injured.

    Streit had managed to get through on his cell phone to the UND office in South Bend at 5:20 to say they were alive. Then the phones went dead. Cut off from the world, the group had no idea if the partners who had joined them at the meeting—some, like Garg, from the U.S. Agency for International Development NTD program, others from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Haitian health ministry, and IMA World Health—had managed to escape. (Three IMA World Health staff were pulled from the rubble of the hotel unharmed 2 days later. Later, the group learned that all except one person at the meeting made it out alive.) And the six gathered on the lawn had no idea if their colleagues and friends in Léogâne, some 30 kilometers west of Port-au-Prince where the UND Neglected Tropical Disease Program of Haiti is based, had survived, or even if the town was still standing.

    Nor did they know that back in the United States, their colleagues at CDC and UND, along with an ever-expanding group of UND alumni, physicians, missionaries, and private citizens, had launched a remarkable relief effort, commandeering planes and helicopters to get medical supplies to Léogâne, which had been all but forgotten in the first days after the quake.

    A numbness

    Once they pulled themselves from the wrecked hotel and saw their injured colleague airlifted out, the UND group and their USAID colleague were determined to get home. There was so much suffering, but without medical supplies, they felt useless, recalls Craig.

    By Wednesday evening, thanks to help from a battalion of United Nations (U.N.) troops, the group reached the U.S. Embassy, where they and others spent another night on the lawn while embassy staff tried to arrange transport back to the States. The exit plan didn't include Milord, however, who is at UND on a Fulbright scholarship but is not a U.S. citizen. She says she understands that the embassy was concentrating on getting Americans out, but Streit was distressed. Refusing to leave, he stayed on until her evacuation was arranged with the help of UND that coming weekend.


    Jean Marc Brissau, Thomas Streit, Wesly Pierre, and Marie Denise Milord have spent years fighting disease in Haiti. Streit and Milord survived the collapse of Hotel Montana; Brissau and Pierre coordinated a remarkable relief effort in Léogâne.


    Craig, Anderson, and USAID's Garg got to Santo Domingo on Thursday night, where they were greeted with food, water, a change of clothes, and a bed. The bed was the best part, says Anderson, who handles finances for the group in South Bend. By Friday, they were back home.

    A week later, when they regrouped at UND, the team was still in shock, amazed to be alive and marveling at their lucky breaks—but also filled with a wrenching sorrow for the devastated country where they have worked for so long. “There is a numbness,” says Patrick Lammie, a longtime partner in the program and parasitologist at CDC who has devoted most of his career to research in Haiti.

    For now and for the months ahead, Lammie says, everyone's efforts will be focused on emergency relief for Léogâne. But at the same time, the partners are beginning to get a fix on what was lost—their program was considered one of the few success stories in Haiti—and how they can pick up the pieces and move beyond their LF work to help rebuild the public health system in this shattered country.

    Emergency intervention

    Meanwhile, in the days following the earthquake, the group's many collaborators at CDC and elsewhere were frantic, wondering whether their friends in Léogâne were alive.

    On Thursday, Els Mathieu, an epidemiologist in the LF program at CDC in Atlanta, Lammie, and several other colleagues received desperate e-mails from Jean Marc Brissau, who joined the UND Haiti program as a Creole translator in high school and now directs it in Haiti, and Wesly Pierre, the program administrator in Léogâne. Some 80% to 90% of the buildings had been destroyed, including a school, where several hundred children were killed, and the rectory where Streit has lived 6 months out of every year. But the hospital, the UND residence, and nearby nursing school were standing. With no antibiotics or painkillers, Luccene Desir, a physician with the Haiti program, along with a few other doctors and nurses and a missionary couple, were treating the injured as best they could.

    “I am finally able to get some internet connection,” wrote Brissau on Thursday, 14 January, 2 days after the quake. “Leogane needs a lot of help. No one has reached Leogane. People are dying here because of infection, I have taken everything possible [supplies] in our depot to help them but it is not enough. … Continue to pray for us because we may soon be facing hunger if we cannot get help here.”

    We had to do something fast, recalls Mathieu, who had worked for 2 years in Léogâne. Official channels would be too slow. So Mathieu, a former fieldworker for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), mustered up the skills she had used in Chechnya, Sudan, and other war zones to get planes and supplies to Léogâne.

    And so began a herculean 48-hour effort by Mathieu, Lammie, and many others, all acting as private citizens and pulling any strings they had, appealing to wealthy friends in Atlanta and total strangers across the country who might have supplies or planes.

    But how to reach Léogâne, many kilometers from any airport? Mathieu remembered tales of a road near Léogâne that drug dealers used as a landing strip. Pierre and Brissau quickly got the GPS coordinates—latitude 18°29′54.59″N, longitude 72°37′35.24″W—measured the strip, and sent photos so others could assess whether it was intact enough to land a plane.

    By Saturday, the mushrooming team in the United States had identified a plane, thanks to Robin Eissler of Jet Quest, and a pilot willing to land on an unknown road after an earthquake, but not enough supplies. Then they heard about a team of doctors in Iowa with supplies in search of a plane. The physicians, supplies, and plane—almost all donated—converged on Sunday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

    The first plane arrived in Léogâne Sunday afternoon. By Wednesday, they were up to four flights a day, all met by Pierre and Brissau, says Ashley Aakesson, who directs the Children's Nutrition Program in Léogâne and had just gotten out herself—and then volunteered to coordinate the transport and supplies from the United States. Pierre and Brissau had also mustered Sri Lankan U.N. troops to help with security while they transported supplies to the makeshift clinic at the nursing school. Outside aid groups also began to trickle in on Sunday, from Iceland, Japan, and Canada, as well as international organizations such as MSF and Save the Children.

    Countless people, such as Ralph Pennino, a physician and UND alum in Rochester, New York, and many others, helped in the United States and on the ground in Léogâne. “I can't believe what we accomplished in a few days,” says Aakesson. “I was so amazed,” adds Mathieu. But the real “heroes” are Pierre and Brissau, she and others say. “Wesly and Jean Marc were unbelievable,” adds another CDC colleague-turned–relief worker.


    Three weeks later, the situation in Léogâne was still desperate. It is hard to know where to begin, says Streit, “the needs are so massive.” Infections were beginning to set in; more orthopedists were needed to set bones and amputate limbs. Health workers on the ground were bracing for an explosion of dengue fever and LF, as the mosquitoes that transmit both diseases flourish in the now-abundant sewage and exposed containers, and very few bed nets or tents were available for the displaced. Food and water were still scarce. The first shift of exhausted doctors and nurses was about to cycle out, to be replaced by a fresh team.

    For now and the coming months, the UND Haiti program has put LF on the back burner, as have many other aid groups working in Haiti on their specific diseases, while they concentrate on immediate relief. “We have to be realistic; filariasis and deworming, while important, can't be at the top of anyone's agenda now,” Lammie says.

    Devastation in Léogâne.

    More than 80% of the town's buildings were destroyed.


    But at the same time, at a meeting in South Bend on 22 January, the Haiti program partners were beginning to think about how they can minimize their losses and eventually regain momentum. “We know we will lose time, but can we not lose years and years?” Lammie asks.

    Already it is clear that when the program does resume, it will be dramatically different, say Lammie and Streit. They have begun talking with partners at IMA World Health, Pan American Health Organization, the Inter-American Development Bank, and others about putting together an integrated program to address all neglected tropical diseases, not just LF, in all of Haiti.

    Going forward, they want to bundle these interventions with other essential health services—delivering bed nets to fight malaria, for instance, or fortified foods and dietary supplements such as vitamin A and iodine—for the many malnourished, as well as measles vaccines and other routine immunizations. “We have the network and experience on the ground. So what else can we deliver? How can we combine our work with other health services?” asks Lammie. With the world's attention focused on Haiti and pledges of billions of dollars to come, they say, it just might be possible, finally, to build a decent public health system there. But, cautions Streit, it will take “a long, long time.”

    • * Leslie Roberts visited Léogâne and Port-au-Prince for a reporting trip in October 2009.

  10. The Long Battle Against a Horrific Disease

    1. Leslie Roberts

    When the earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area on 12 January, a long-running program to combat lymphatic filariasis was gearing up for a major assault on this devastating disease.

    When the earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area on 12 January, a long-running program to combat lymphatic filariasis (LF) was gearing up for a major assault on this devastating disease. The earthquake was the latest setback in an effort that had, at last, seemed closer to success. A loose-knit network of experts who have worked on the program over the years swung into action in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake (see main text); now they are contemplating the future of this and other public health programs in Haiti.

    LF is a parasitic disease transmitted person to person, like malaria, by infected mosquitoes. Although LF doesn't often kill, it is a horribly debilitating and disfiguring disease of swollen limbs and impaired mobility, hitting the poor disproportionately, often ostracizing them and rendering them unable to work. Roughly 80% of LF in the Western Hemisphere is found in Haiti, likely imported from Africa with the slave trade; up to half the population is infected in areas of high transmission, and 10% or more have overt disease in many communities.

    In Haiti, the parasite is Wuchereria bancrofti and the vector is Culex quinque-fasciatus, which breeds in dirty water. When an infected mosquito bites someone, it deposits larvae, which then travel to the lymphatic system, where they grow and reproduce, damaging the lymphatic system and leading to the irreversible swelling characteristic of the disease: lymphedema and elephantiasis of the leg, usually in women; and in men, hugely enlarged scrotums that can descend to the knees. The adult females produce microscopic worms called microfilariae that then swarm into the bloodstream to be picked up the next time a mosquito bites.

    The LF-elimination program in Haiti grew out of a small basic research project started by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the early 1980s. Patrick Lammie, a parasitologist who now leads the CDC LF program, first went to Haiti when he was a graduate student at Tulane University to study host-parasite interactions and, like many others, became hooked on the country. In 1993, after he had joined CDC, Lammie took on an unusual postdoc about his own age, Thomas Streit, a Catholic priest at the University of Notre Dame (UND) who had just completed his Ph.D. in vector biology. By 1995, Streit, known affectionately by most as Pere Tom, was living in the rectory in Léogâne and working out of Hôpital Sainte Croix, directing the program as it morphed from a community research project into a government-directed public health intervention.

    Disease burden.

    Lymphatic filariasis, spread by mosquitoes, causes irreversible damage.


    By the mid-'90s, researchers in Haiti and elsewhere had discovered that a two-drug regimen, given just once a year, could kill microfilariae in the bloodstream—and thus block transmission—for about 1 year, giving hope that the disease might actually be eliminated rather than just controlled. However, the antifilarial drugs—DEC (diethylcarbamazine) or ivermectin, which are given in combination with albendazole to kill intestinal worms—aren't as effective at killing adult worms as they are at killing microfilariae. That meant that LF elimination would require mass drug administration (MDA) to the bulk of the population for about 5 years—the estimated life span of the adult worm.

    In 1997, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution calling for the global elimination of lymphatic filariasis “as a public health problem” by 2020. To kick-start the effort, Glaxo-SmithKline and Merck pledged to donate their drugs for the lifetime of the effort.

    Lammie, Streit, and their colleagues, who by then included Marie Denise Milord, a physician and neglected tropical disease expert, physicians Madsen Beau de Rochars and Abdel Direny, and a lawyer, Jean Marc Brissau, who now directs the UND Haiti program in Léogâne, wanted to see if elimination was possible in Haiti. With money from CDC and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UND started a pilot program in 2000 in Léogâne, a particularly hard-hit area, treating more than 100,000 people in the first year.

    At the outset, Brissau told a reporter during a visit in October, no one knew how widespread LF was in Haiti. Studies led by Milord and colleagues showed that LF was distributed across the entire country, rather than just in isolated pockets, as earlier research had suggested. So that meant more money, more partners, and more community workers would be needed. Impressed by a presentation by Milord to Haitian President Réne Préval on LF epidemiology, the health minister invited Milord to found and run a national program from Port-au-Prince.


    Researchers in Léogâne have tracked the extent of disease.


    From day one, the collaborative program operated on a shoestring. Unable to tackle the entire country at once, Lammie, Streit, and colleagues decided to focus on the worst areas first, where transmission was most intense, using Léogâne as a test case to see what worked and what didn't. The first year was a rousing success, reaching more than 70% of the targeted population, who agreed to swallow the handful of pills from a little paper cup. But the second year, the numbers dropped dramatically—the first sign of noncompliance that has continued to plague the program. In retrospect, says Brissau, the community health workers had not adequately prepared the population for the side effects of the drugs. Those with low levels of parasites were fine. But those with high levels tended to get violently ill for a couple of days with flulike symptoms, as the microfilariae and some of the adult worms began to die.

    The researchers wanted to switch to administering DEC in smaller doses in fortified salt, along with iodine (still missing in Haiti). That strategy worked well in China, with no side effects, says Brissau. But salt manufacture and distribution in Haiti has been repeatedly foiled by a lack of funds.

    The team refined their message, gradually regaining community trust and expanding the MDAs with the help of additional partners. By 2005, they had treated 1.2 million people during that year, and Léogâne was on its sixth round of MDAs. But when the researchers checked children's blood for antigen and antibody, they found that transmission was still ongoing, as a “very scary” 15% or more of children born since the MDAs began were still infected, said Brissau. He and others blame the continued transmission on noncompliance, a steady influx of untreated people from Port-au-Prince, and the intensity of transmission in that part of Haiti.

    Then in 2003, violence exploded across the country. One of the staff members was taken hostage and the driver injured. Another team member, Joseph Dorvil, driving home in a UND car, was murdered at an illegal checkpoint—his body never returned. Others were robbed and beaten. Two urogenital surgeons on staff, who performed operations to drain fluid and remove damaged tissues from the scrotum (hydrocele, as the genital swelling is called, can be surgically corrected, but elephantiasis cannot) fled the country. Hôpital Sainte Croix was nearly shuttered, leaving just outpatient clinics for LF treatment and a separate program to treat severely malnourished children, run by the Children's Nutrition Program out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Then in 2006, worried international donors didn't renew their funds for the LF program and the MDAs ceased. By 2007, infection rates had returned to 2003 levels.

    When Gates resumed funding in late 2006 and USAID began contributing through IMA World Health in 2008, the program expanded rapidly, reaching 3 million people that year, despite the four hurricanes that washed out roads and entire communities and made MDAs in some areas impossible. In 2009, the program reached 3.8 million people; the goal for 2010 was 4.5 million.

    But by that time, Streit was convinced that MDAs alone would not be enough. Getting DEC, along with iodine, into dietary salt was crucial, he says, as well as measures such as bed nets and insecticide spraying to control the mosquito population—which would also help fight malaria and dengue. Such a combined approach may finally be possible when the immediate crisis has passed and various groups working in Haiti pick up the pieces of their programs and work together, as Streit hopes they will.

  11. Rebuilding

    From the Bottom Up

    1. Sam Kean

    Haiti needs robust buildings that cost little and are acceptable to locals. Can scientists provide them?

    Rebuilding the cities of Haiti to withstand natural disasters seems both simple and impossible. Engineers in the United States, Europe, and Japan have known for decades how to buttress buildings against earthquakes. The 1989 quake near San Francisco, California, for example—although it had the same magnitude as the Haiti tremor (7.0)—killed only 63 people. But Haiti simply doesn't have the money to adopt first-class solutions. Although various governments pledged to support Haiti over the next decade at a meeting in Montreal, Canada, in late January (Haiti is seeking $3 billion), Haiti has very little time to develop a rebuilding plan. With perhaps 170,000 dead and most survivors living outdoors and scared to enter standing structures, Port-au-Prince cannot wait. Nevertheless, scientists do see quick and cheap ways to rebuild—if Haiti is willing and able to accept foreign ideas.

    Time out.

    Pierre Fouché, a Haitian earthquake engineer, aims to help rebuild his homeland quickly.


    Long vulnerable to disaster, Haiti has seen the danger grow in recent years, says Pierre Fouché, a Haitian citizen studying at the University at Buffalo's graduate school and, he says, one of Haiti's few earthquake engineers. Jobs drew millions to Port-au-Prince from rural areas, and the crowding forced people to build homes on dangerous slopes or unstable wetlands. He says the government lacked the power to dissuade anyone: “You just select a place to live and put up a house there, and no one is going to say anything.”

    Compounding that problem, the buildings themselves are made of concrete that's heavy and brittle, the worst combination in an earthquake. People also tend to skimp on reinforcements like rebar, partly because no one in Haiti enforces building codes, Fouché says. Even when people do try to build safe houses, they cannot always trust the material they buy: There are already reports of people wrenching steel out of fallen buildings after the earthquake, bending it straight, and reselling the brittle, compromised rods.

    Buildings toppled for less censurable reasons, too. Some were designed to withstand a more common natural threat, the sheer force of hurricane winds, not the back-and-forth shaking of earthquakes. Hurricane winds also produce a lift force that can pull rooftops off. Heavy roofs were therefore popular, but they became deadly during the quake. Perhaps most poignantly, people in Haiti saw modern concrete houses as a status symbol and aspired to have one. Indeed, the earthquake devastated both upper- and lower-class neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. Both the shanties and the presidential palace fell.

    New ideas

    Much research into earthquake-resistant buildings today focuses on fine structural damage—research almost too sophisticated to apply to Haiti. Before he began developing ideas for cheap homes in seismically vulnerable countries, John van de Lindt, a civil engineer at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, studied topics such as how to alter the patterns of nails in wooden houses, mostly to prevent small frame shifts. He admits, “In Haiti, this stuff is overkill. You're basically trying to prevent collapses.”

    Some engineers want to rethink the basic materials used in developing countries. Darcey Donovan advocates replacing concrete walls with load-bearing straw bales. Her nonprofit group, Pakistan Straw Bale and Appropriate Building, erects 7.3-m-by-7.3-m houses in northwest Pakistan, which was ravaged by an earthquake in 2005. The bales are stacked and bound together top to bottom with a fishnet, which keeps them from slipping apart during shaking, then plastered over. Her team has built 11 houses so far, with six more coming. The design recently survived, with minimal damage, a violent test on a shake table, a large platform that simulates earthquakes. Because the tough, fibrous plants used for straw are ubiquitous, Donovan believes the bale design could easily be exported, and her team is discussing traveling to Haiti.

    Donovan would like to eliminate concrete, but other engineers don't mind it, provided people use it safely. James Kelly, professor emeritus of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, expects people in Haiti to continue building with concrete because it's cheap and easy to shape into blocks, and because deforestation has left few other materials. So Kelly focuses on keeping concrete buildings upright with rubber isolators to absorb shocks.

    One more ride.

    Old tires can cheaply insulate small concrete homes from the shaking of earthquakes.


    Many buildings in California and Japan sit on hundreds of rubber pads that absorb seismic energy by deforming, as opposed to cracking or shifting. A building on a rubber foundation essentially shakes independently of the ground and at a slower frequency, which helps brittle walls survive intact. But because isolators are usually custom-made and contain steel, they cost up to $10,000 apiece. Kelly designed cheaper isolators for a few hundred dollars, with embedded carbon fibers instead of steel. Carbon preserves the material's strength but makes it easy to mass-produce and cut into strips, which can be used in the foundations of small homes.

    Van de Lindt works on a similar isolator design, but with recycled rubber tires instead of strips. And beyond redesigning walls and foundations—which only help new homes—Van de Lindt wants to retrofit existing homes. He says that drilling holes into concrete walls and inserting bamboo buttresses 1.3 meters long would keep many modest-sized homes in developing countries standing during quakes. This isn't sophisticated science, “it's more a social question,” van de Lindt acknowledges: “Can we provide fixes that may not be perfect but are much, much better than anything they have now?”

    Better than brick.

    A nonprofit run by Darcey Donovan (center) builds earthquake-resistant homes in poor parts of northwest Pakistan that rely on load-bearing straw bales for walls.


    In addition to rethinking building designs in Haiti, scientists are studying risks in the land itself. Marc Levy, an environmental management expert at Columbia University, was in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck. The building next door toppled, and he saw walls fallen over onto cars and pedestrians. He now worries about a secondary disaster: landslides, which usually happen during the rainy season starting in May. “The pattern of risk is going to shift,” he says. “Areas not due to experience a catastrophic landslide for a decade” may have “moved to the top of the queue because of the loosening of the soil.”

    To address concerns like these, a team led by Brady Cox, a civil engineer at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, who surveys disaster zones worldwide, is currently mapping the soil in Haiti. They're doing so with the most sophisticated equipment they could ship in. At each site, they plant a sensor in the ground, walk about 30 meters away, and begin banging on the ground with a hammer. The energy of the blows propagates through the soil, and the sensor records higher or lower readings depending on how compact it is.

    Cox says two types of soils in Haiti are vulnerable to earthquake damage. First is wet, sandy soil, which shifts unpredictably because sand grains, when shaken, grow compact and squeeze water out into confined spaces. Water then builds up underground and erupts like a geyser as the pressure grows. Cox suspects that this process opened the rifts along Port-au-Prince's harbor. Second is softer soil like clay, which shakes violently when the energy waves from an earthquake, straitjacketed in stiff bedrock underground, suddenly emerge in the softer material. Cox is mapping these types of soil not to tell Haitians where to avoid developing as much as to provide sorely lacking information. “We have the ability to design [buildings] for all these soil types,” he says. “You just have to understand what type's there.”

    Small window

    Even if scientists hit on a perfect design, other challenges remain. People must actually use the design—and quickly.

    Georg Pegels, a civil engineer at the University of Wuppertal in Germany, has helped spread safer designs in Iran that rely on diagonal steel beams. Iran lost 30,000 people to a 2003 earthquake and experiences quakes of magnitude 6.0 or greater many times a decade. Despite the danger, Pegels says people often resisted living in his buildings for aesthetic reasons: They didn't like homes different from their neighbors'. Allowing artists to decorate the buildings helped convince people to accept them, he notes.

    Pegels smartly concentrated on building schools, which gets many people in the community, including the next generation, comfortable with the design. His team has built more than 30 schools so far. In Pakistan, Donovan adds, people actually embrace new designs if they see them as status symbols. Some beneficiaries “think of [a straw-bale house] as high technology because it's earthquake resistant,” she says. “It's all how it's presented.”

    Pegels also discovered that people often fear that inept or corrupt workers will cheat them out of the safe but expensive materials they pay top price for. (He mentioned cases of people putting steel in wet cement, showing the reinforcements to customers, then secretly pulling the metal out before the cement sets.) So his team builds steel frames at a trusted local factory and ships them to the site intact. This allows people to see they are getting a safe house. And unlike fully prefabricated homes, it also preserves jobs for locals, who fill in the masonry around the skeleton.

    Scientists can foresee disaster in many seismically vulnerable countries: Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, China. But Haiti's acute need for housing presents a special challenge. Fouché fears his fellow Haitians will fall back on whatever design is most expedient: “If nothing is done quickly to set a new framework, the people there are going to do the same thing,” he says. “They think, ‘A big earthquake just happened, so there isn't going to be another one for a while.’”

    Fouché knows there's a short time to establish the new framework. He has not visited Haiti since the earthquake but hopes he will have a chance to return after he has his degree and finally help Haiti build properly.

  12. Agroforestry

    Greening Haiti, Tree by Tree

    1. Ann Gibbons*

    Haiti desperately needs trees, now more than ever. But how best to plant them in a nation whose forests are all but gone?

    Standing atop a steep slope in the Artibonite valley last spring, 100 kilometers northeast of Port-au-Prince, Starry Sprenkle surveyed the denuded hillsides and asked what she calls the “big question”: “What was here before?” What were the native species of trees that covered Haiti's mountains when Christopher Columbus set foot on this island of Hispaniola in 1492? “There are no remnant forests left,” says Sprenkle, a graduate student in ecology at the University of California (UC), Davis, who was inspecting trees she had helped plant on a bare slope the previous year. “I don't have a reference forest to grab species from.”

    Tree line.

    The border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic shows up from space.


    To find a living example of what was here, Sprenkle would have to travel more than 100 kilometers east, to the closest natural forest, in the Dominican Republic. That country occupies the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola and since 1967 has prohibited felling trees. A clear line demarks the boundary between the two nations. East of the border in the Dominican Republic, the land is lush and green. To the west in Haiti, it is brown and dry. Only 1% of the original forest remains in Haiti, making it much harder for the eroded landscape to support people and crops.

    Now, as the focus of relief efforts after Haiti's devastating earthquake begins to shift from immediate rescue to long-term rebuilding, the use of agroforestry to boost Haiti's natural resources has taken on a new urgency. Many Haitians are leaving Port-au-Prince and pouring into rural areas such as the Artibonite valley, and the buzzword in the foreign aid community is to “decentralize” services from the capital. “Food production will have to go up, pressure on the land to produce food and firewood will increase,” says Sprenkle, a native Californian who was in Haiti when the earthquake struck. Others who have also worked in Haiti for many years agree. Anthropologist Gerald Murray of the University of Florida, Gainesville, says: “Charcoal is the major cooking energy for the country. You can kiss Haiti goodbye unless you plant wood for charcoal.” Planting trees in Haiti was always urgent, says his University of Florida colleague, agroforester Michael Bannister: “Now it's even more urgent.”

    Ground zero.

    New trees sprout on eroded hills in La Rok.


    For 4 years, Sprenkle and her colleagues have been bringing trees to the poorest of the poor: the mountain people of Haiti, who have the highest rates of malnutrition and disease in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Sprenkle leads the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer (HAS) Haiti Timber Re-Introduction Project (HTRIP), which aims to teach people in the Artibonite valley how to plant and nurture trees on their own small plots. The trees will provide wood to sell for lumber and charcoal, fruit to eat, and nitrogen to improve the soil so they can grow crops for food. If they're lucky, enough trees will last long enough to improve the watershed for rivers and prevent erosion and flash floods. “Of course trees are the answer,” says Mark Ashton, director of School Forests at Yale University, noting that there is “proven evidence” that trees improve soil quality, help regulate water yields, and boost crop productivity. When it comes to planting trees, he says, “the problems are largely social.”

    Failed forestry

    Almost from the moment Columbus and his men set foot on Haiti, humans have been overexploiting the island's natural resources. The Spanish exterminated the Tainos, the native Arawak Indians, within 25 years of their arrival. When the French took control in 1697, they slashed and burned trees to clear land for sugar plantations and logged almost the entire stock of mahogany, sending it back to Europe for furniture. By the time African slaves rebelled and ousted the French in 1804, making Haiti the worlds' first black republic, trees provided the fuel for sugar mills and for cooking. By 1949, Haiti's natural resources were so depleted they could not sustain its population. A United Nations report recommended “flood control, reforestation, and both anti-erosion and soil conservation measures.”

    In the years since, many groups have tried to plant trees, but for 3 decades most efforts failed. They often tried to plant forests rather than wood for local people and failed to follow up with the farmers who received seedlings. Also, most of the early donor funds went to “predatory and mistrusted state bureaucracies,” Murray wrote in a report in Agroforestry Systems in 2004.

    In 1981, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) responded to donor complaints by enlisting Murray and other anthropologists to propose new models for tree planting. The result was the Agroforestry Outreach Project, which enabled 300,000 Haitian peasant households to plant wood trees on their land from 1981 to 2000. A key lesson learned, say Murray and Bannister, was that local people must choose the types of seedlings, plant them on their own land, and be free to cut them as needed for wood or charcoal to earn cash. Having a tree is like having money in the bank for people who have no savings. One man told Murray that he “made two philosophers with those trees,” meaning that he sent two of his children to high school with the earnings.

    A few years after that project ended in 2000, HTRIP was launched to boost the welfare of the more than 300,000 impoverished people in the Artibonite valley, says Lucy Rawson, director of Friends of HAS. The goal, says Sprenkle, who started the project in 2006, is “trying to improve the economic stability in the mountains by restoring their natural capital, which should be forest.”

    But which trees to use? For many tropical reforestation projects, ecologists strongly advocate native species because they are more tolerant of native soils, climate, and pests. In barren Haiti, however, economics must come first: The local people want the fastest growing trees, which are often non-natives, and people will neglect seedlings that don't provide wood or useful fruit. The successful USAID program was “junk tree planting” of six exotic, fast-growing hardwood species (such as eucalyptus and neem trees), with the aim of providing a cash crop of trees, says Murray. The goal was primarily humanitarian and not to be confused with ecological reforestation efforts under way in places such as Costa Rica, where a mix of native trees is planted to restore forests.

    Now Sprenkle is trying to add science to the humanitarian mission, using agroforestry to find the right combinations of species that will both appeal to farmers and thrive on the thin veneer of topsoil that gets almost no rain for half the year. She is interested in how different species of trees interact: Do some species act as nurse trees to nurture other species? Which trees help farmers move toward cropping rather than chopping trees?

    Measuring up.

    Starry Sprenkle (center) follows up with farmers, monitoring trees and helping to establish nurseries for seedlings (lower right).


    She recommends planting a mix of at least six tree species out of a list of 20 mostly native species she offers farmers; the only exotic species are fruit trees. But she is still working on the problem, collecting data with “experimental rigor and replication,” says her adviser, ecologist Truman Young at UC Davis. “Potentially, Starry's project can bring some good conceptual ecology to tree planting … in the context of people's short-term and long-term needs.”

    So far Sprenkle has found that native species do far better than exotics. For example, the exotic Paulownia from China, which might tempt farmers because it provides hardwood and may grow 4 to 5 meters in its first year, does not grow well in Haiti. In contrast, a species of mahogany, which is native to the island if not to these particular mountains, thrives. This is interesting to Karen Holl of UC Santa Cruz, who works on forest restoration in Costa Rica. “There has been a big move in Central America to screen native species, to figure out which species will provide income for people and provide certain functions of the original forest,” says Holl. “It's a balancing act.”

    Sprenkle also pays attention to the human part of the equation and how best to educate and empower locals. So far HTRIP has reached people in 35 mountain communities, who are learning how to create their own nurseries and are growing 180,000 trees on more than 900 small plots of land. The project selects a leader in each community who is responsible for a nursery of tree saplings. The project also constructs natural fences of cacti to keep goats and sheep away from seedlings, helps people build trenches to catch rainwater, and feeds those who volunteer to prepare plots and plant.

    Tree of life.

    A boy in La Rok shows off a papaya tree that is growing faster than he is.


    A key to its success so far, says Sprenkle, is a requirement that locals come to educational sessions. “We say to them, if you wait 5 to 10 years, you can have timber,” says Andre-Herbe Cleophat, who has worked with HAS. “We tell them if you cut the tree too early, you won't find money. Now, they're letting them grow.” HTRIP also follows up with farmers year after year, helping them transition to crops that thrive in the shade once their trees have grown and to market and replant their small forests.

    Sprenkle hopes that the trees will persist long enough to improve the topsoil and prevent flooding and erosion. She is also bracing for the influx of people from Port-au-Prince to the Artibonite valley, where the hospital has already been deluged with earthquake victims arriving in the back of pickup trucks. As people return to rural communities, the need to grow (and protect) wood to rebuild homes and provide fuel for cooking and food will only increase.

    Last spring, as Sprenkle measured the growth of trees in a community called La Rok, a young boy named Roosevelt tagged along, proudly pointing out trees he had helped to plant a few years earlier. As he scrambled up the bare trunk of a cedar tree, Starry noted: “Roosevelt carried the seedlings to plant here. Now the tree carries him.”

    • * Ann Gibbons visited HTRIP last year with students from her daughter's middle school.

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