After years of work as a documentary filmmaker, I’ve come to see storytelling as a real privilege. Capturing images, voices and the complexity of characters interacting with the world has given me a chance to see and appreciate parts of this world I simply never would have gotten to know, if not for this job with my partner, Charlie Sadoff, at Found Object. And were it not for Timberland, I would likely never have made it to Haiti where I have visited over a dozen times to learn about and then tell stories through short films. That odyssey of exploration and experience is now culminating with our collected work of 5 years, “Kombit: The Cooperative”.
It’s a story you won’t often hear about Haiti, in that it’s happier than when it started and on a path to sustainability.
Back in 2010, where my experience begins, I had heard Haiti was 98% deforested, and indeed, that first time traveling up the coast from Port au Prince through the Artibonite Valley and finally into Gonaives – where the original Timberland sponsored tree nurseries began - I experienced the crowded roads, the roadside merchants, the choking dust of the newly graded state highway being asphalted in sections, and the rutted back roads where we kicked up clouds and bore witness to denuded hills on all sides.
Later, emerging into the first tree nursery, I realized that the challenge of reforesting these hillsides was just daunting. But that was just part of the plan. Where my instinct would be to look to the hills and focus attention there, the model Timberland envisioned was focused on a new kind of tree planting partnership with farmers in the valley. Seeds + Tools + Training in exchange for participation in tree planting. Transforming the culture would allow the humble project to reach grand aims of reforestation. This was something new.
On a subsequent trip, one of the farmers led us at magic hour into his bean field, proud of the yield that seeds from the Smallholder Farmers Alliance afforded and the papayas growing on trees planted throughout the crops. Kneeling down, the bright green filled our lens, glowing from sunlight coming sideways through leaves. As we left, the sun was setting and I walked ahead. But Chuck Moss - who filmed with me on many of these trips – stopped to film at the edge of a field. The shot he captured is of the most magnificent, tall tree.
It became The Tree. It is defiant, towering over a verdant field in a deforested country. It defies the Haitian stereotype of deforested poverty. We used this shot in our ‘update films’ to set the scene of success as Smallholder Farmers Alliance took flight in 2012, increasing crop yields and helping farmers earn money for their families as never before.
On our last trip, we all knew this tree as a kind of touch point, as a symbol, but not where it was or really what it meant. But that tree would be found and its meaning revealed: As we marched on the path from the Central Nursery to the fields with baby moringa trees ready for planting (and later harvesting for exporting as part of the sustainability plan), suddenly there it was again, strong and true. “The Tree!”
Hanging from it were big, green fruits. I ran over to the tree and got my first close up. Mango. It finally clicked - something always baked into the Timberland-SFA model, but not necessarily easy to understand: We find ways to preserve what we value. This mango tree feeds these farmers, and for that reason, perhaps, they have nurtured and preserved it. Within the model, each tree raised from seed has a different purpose, and none of them are at cross purposes with the distinct human needs of farmers: papaya, moringa, flamboyant, which afford them fruit, living fences/nutrition and shade, respectively. The model extends value beyond the immediate into the varied roles trees can play, and it makes sense within the existing understanding farmers have.
The mango tree is no anomaly. It points a way forward towards coexistence with nature.