Haiti and the U.S. forest products industry: A small town effort strives to make a very big impact

Haiti and the US forest products industry - A small town effort strives to make a very big impact180,000 homes. $2 billion. 1 billion board feet. These are more than numbers on a page. In fact, they mean a great deal to the Caribbean nation of Haiti. With over one million left homeless by the deadly 2010 earthquake that killed 230,000 people, these figures represent dignity, hope, and safety. What so many of us consider to be basic human rights are no more than a dream to the Haitian men, women and children who have lived in a sea of temporary shelters for over 2 1/2 years now. These tent cities are rife with squalor, rape and other physical assault, and a near lack of privacy. Large families live year-round in tents only meant to temporarily shelter three or four people.

One man, a nonprofit, and an idea that could change the forest products industry

Enter Gary Funk, a retired University of Montana music professor, and his passionate dream to make a difference. While it seems much of the world has moved on and forgotten the plight of Haiti, Gary and his Missoula, Montana-based nonprofit, Wood for Haiti, are working hard with the Haitian people to make a real difference in that country. And if they have their way, a better future for this impoverished nation also means a $2 billion shot in the arm to the U.S. forest products industry and a solution to the millions of acres affected by the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

Wood for Haiti’s mission is to “supply U.S. wood, materials and construction training to Haitians in an effort to build hurricane/earthquake-resistant homes and community centers.” Gary started the nonprofit in 2010 because he, first and foremost, felt a great deal of compassion for the Haitian people. But he also saw a unique opportunity (and market) for sustainably harvesting millions of acres of beetle-killed forests and bolstering the U.S. forest products industry at the same time. This win-win seemed like a no-brainer at the time, and still does.

When you break down the numbers, they go something like this. Around 180,000 homes and 500 community centers are desperately needed right now in Haiti. Building on that scale will cost approximately $2 billion and require one billion board feet of lumber. Forestry experts in the state of Montana have identified this amount of lumber available for the project on both state and private timberlands. Other states, not surprisingly, want to play a role as well. We’re talking forest restoration work on a massive scale that empowers a third-world neighbor and revives an American industry hit hard by the great recession. Win-win, indeed.

How will this effort be paid for?

Wood for Haiti has steadily built a list of passionate and powerful supporters — from business owners within the forest products industry to U.S. Senators and Representatives. It recently celebrated a major milestone when the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) solicited from it a proposal for funding. If or when the proposal is approved, Wood for Haiti will be a considerable step closer to receiving significant international funding to help in its efforts — certainly necessary for covering most if not all of the $2 billion needed to finance the 10-year project. In addition, the nonprofit is currently soliciting $2 million in financial support from outside donors to help the nonprofit build a “proof of concept community” in Haiti, which would consist of 30 homes and a community center.

Haiti and the US forest products industry - A small town effort strives to make a very big impactThe idea takes shape

Last Saturday, I was at Missoula, Montana’s Southgate Mall on a gorgeous fall afternoon celebrating one of the many Montana Forest Products Industry Week events slated to complement National Forest Products Week. This particular event caught my eye because it represents yet another milestone for the Wood for Haiti effort. Gary and a team of dedicated volunteers and sponsors were seeing the dream take one step closer to reality — a physical structure that shows the world, and the Wood for Haiti team, that their vision is more than just talk. Lovingly built one nail at a time in the mall’s north parking lot was a 526 square foot prototype demonstration home that Gary hopes will inspire donations and support to advance the dream even further and where it counts most — in Haiti.

The metal-roofed demonstration home, complete with an outdoor kitchen, will be on display at the mall through October 26. This particular model is the mid-sized version of three different homes planned for the project, with the largest at around 800 square feet. This solidly-built structure is designed with Haitian families and their unique climate and culture in mind, and is engineered to withstand powerful earthquakes and 130 mph hurricane winds. If all goes well, Gary and his team will raise the $30,000 needed to ship the disassembled home to Haiti and transport U.S. carpenters who will train Haitians to reconstruct the building there. The prototype will serve as the field office and demonstration facility for the nonprofit in that country.

Pierre Alexis, a young Haitian man who runs a 100+ child orphanage in the nation’s capital of Port-au-Prince, was in attendance at the event and gave an appreciative speech to a crowd that included Missoula’s Mayor and aids to Montana’s members of Congress. He stated that “the size of your house affects your dignity and morale” and that the demonstration home when mass-built in Haiti would be more than significant to his country’s future and the outlook of his people.

Haiti and the US forest products industry - A small town effort strives to make a very big impactThe biggest thing going

Understand that Wood for Haiti is not just another nonprofit seeking to do good work in a third world country. To the Haitians, Gary’s effort is the biggest thing going and their greatest source of hope. This is extremely powerful when you understand that, so far, not one home or community center has been built by the nonprofit in Haiti. But what sets Wood for Haiti apart from other NGOs working there is that the Missoula nonprofit is actively seeking permanent, dignified living solutions that not only meet the needs of Haitians, but are approved and endorsed by them.

Other groups, while well-meaning, often tend to embrace Band-Aid housing fixes — tiny, frail shacks, for instance — that do little to address the human need for dignity and long-term safety and are done with little to no consultation with Haitians. Theirs is the idea of doing things to the Haitian people instead of with them. On the other hand, Wood for Haiti has worked with the country’s people since day one, striving to embrace their unique needs for not only livable, but life-empowering housing. Even better, the Wood for Haiti mission would also create a new industry and economic boost in Haiti, giving its citizens valuable construction trade skills.

When Gary and his team get their effort off the ground, it’s easy to see how this may be the biggest thing going for the U.S. forest products industry as well. To learn more and to see how you can help, visit the Wood for Haiti website.

Tom Waddell is Forest Business Network’s VP of Marketing and Sales.

Top photo (search and rescue): US Navy: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Stumberg / Wikimedia Commons


  1. Doug Elliott says:

    Thanks for the article.
    Please note re similar efforts from 2 years ago in Colorado, at the following URL:
    Lyle Laverty was former USFS Rocky Mtn. Regional Forester, Associate Deputy Chief of USFS, etc.

    Also, I have worked many years in warm, humid tropics, and have concerns about the durability of these proposed structures–most wood rots really fast there. What are they proposing for preservative?
    Thanks again.

    • Tom Waddell says:

      Doug, thanks for comment and for the link to the article on the Haiti shelters. The big difference between what Lyle is doing and what Wood for Haiti is doing is that Wood for Haiti’s homes are just that, actual homes. Lyle’s structures are temporary shelters. Wood for Haiti is seeking to implement solutions that have longterm impacts on Haitians, by working with them to create dignified homes that will actually withstand earthquakes and hurricanes. I’m not sure what they’re planning regarding wood treatments. You could contact Gary at Wood for Haiti to inquire further – http://www.woodforhaiti.org

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