Trees Of Life
The rain started to hit Jimaní, a town along the heavily deforested border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, in late May 2004. After three days and 20 inches of torrential rainfall, the surrounding water-saturated mountains suddenly released tons of debris. Flash floods swept up boulders, some weighing eight tons, and sent a 15-foot wall of water and mud down onto sleeping villagers on the night of May 24.
Within minutes, about 2,000 lives were wiped out. The dead were found lodged in trees and entombed in debris fields and sandbars throughout the impoverished border region in south-central Hispaniola, the island comprising Haiti and the Dominican Republic. On the Haitian side, the entire village of Mapou was submerged, becoming a shallow lake. On the Dominican side, the waters destroyed about half of Jimaní.
Since 1986, 12 flash floods have hit Hispaniola, and each has created similar havoc. Flash floods are problem enough, but starting about 25 years ago, peasants began using intensive slash-and-burn agricultural methods to cut down forests for fuel and charcoal. Slashing and burning significantly increases the chance of landslides, and Dominican officials began instating stringent regulations in the 1960s to limit deforestation. But on the Haitian side, 90 percent of trees have vanished across the landscape, creating a brown-green line visible in satellite photos of the island, and leaving border towns especially vulnerable during flash floods.
"People need trees," Scott Sabin, the president of Floresta, told Christianity Today. Sabin invited CT to visit Jimaní five years after the flooding disaster to witness how ministries were working with local pastors to address problems caused by deforestation.
Based in San Diego, Floresta has been planting trees in the Dominican Republic since 1984. Last December, the organization passed a milestone when it planted its four millionth tree worldwide.
"While it took us seven years to plant the first 500,000 trees, we now plant that many every year," Sabin said. His organization, whose goal is to plant a million trees each year by 2012, also works in Haiti, Mexico, Tanzania, Thailand, Kenya, and Burundi. (For a closer look at Floresta in Mexico, visit ChristianityToday.com/go/oaxaca.)
Many environmental programs focus on reforestation only, leaving other groups to address the deeper issues of chronic poverty, corruption, and harmful farming practices. Not so with Floresta. Its vision is to address the intimate, complex relationships between people and God's creation. "Plant with Purpose" is one of its newest messages to poor farmers and to partnering churches in the United States.
Floresta sees environmental problems as God-sized challenges. Its goal is not only to prevent more flash flooding, but also to make land restoration a profitable venture for subsistence farmers. If farmers gain visible benefit from reforestation and soil conservation, they will abandon traditional farming methods for ones that transform the landscape and their own lives. To break the cycle of poverty, Floresta promotes "agro-forestry"—planting trees near traditional crops to benefit both farmers and the land.
Floresta also promotes the gospel as central to any lasting cultural change. It believes that hope in Christ brings a shift in worldview and empowers the poor who subsist outside the globalized economy. It has been Floresta's experience that without Christian discipleship, some farmers are tempted to squander their new-found profits instead of investing in their communities, farms, or families. With Floresta's encouragement, 61 churches in 40 Dominican communities launched 288 Bible studies for Floresta's program participants in 2008. About 2,000 farmers attended the Floresta Bible studies, and about 500 embraced Christ as their Savior.