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The Man, the Myth, the Legend: Dr. Tawainga Katsvairo!

I knew I had to be a part of Better Universe and Citizens after Dr. Tawainga’s presentation in my IDS 2431 class. As everyone else was pretending to listen while doing homework on their computers, I found myself pulling out my sticky notes to scribble random notes. If you care about the environment, the plight of Haitian citizens or just genuinely want to know about some issues in the world—then this article is for you. 

Better Universe and Citizens is an NGO based here in Tallahassee that works to plant perennial grasses throughout Haiti, specifically on the mountainsides. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. This NGO always works to protect biodiversity, teach disaster preparedness and help create grass nurseries, to name a few. 

Tawainga Picture
Photo by Dr Penny Gilmer

Her Campus (HC): What is the organization’s driving motto?

Dr. Tawainga (DT): We believe soil erosion in Haiti and elsewhere in the world will become a story of the past! With support from the general population, we can scale up the project to plant grasses on millions of acres of land in Haiti. 

HC: What attracted you to this cause?

DT: I felt the need to help address environmental problems in Haiti, first because of my own experiences growing up in an under-developed country, and primarily because I saw a problem that was solvable from my perspective as a trained agronomist. Both experience and opportunity came together to tackle a doable project in an underdeveloped country. An agricultural solution is attractive because 60 percent of the population is Agrarian, meaning communities can be part of the solution.

HC: What would you say to someone considering getting involved in this organization?

DT: My message to anyone seeking to get involved in this organization is as follows:

There is nothing as rewarding as seeing barren lands green again and supporting wildlife. You will feel a sense of accomplishment when you get involved. 

There are many ways to get involved: it can be voluntary time, a special related talent, financial contribution or any combination of the previous categories. All amounts contributed, no matter how small, can go a long way. 

HC: With so many great organizations to support, why would others choose to support Better Universe and Citizens?

DT: Soil erosion in Haiti paralyzes the economy. It is continuously happening and will happen in the future if significant mitigation efforts are not implemented. The erosion is caused by cutting trees for charcoal and farming on steep slopes.

When we evaluated for solutions that can make a lasting impact, we determined that the planting of deep-rooted, heat and drought-tolerant perennial grasses is the most viable and a game-changer solution because the grasses will not be harvested for charcoal. The grasses are reducing mudslides during hurricanes, building soil health, providing habitat for wildlife, protecting fisheries and critical infrastructure. The grasses are protecting watersheds and groundwater and are used as feedstock for livestock. 

Supporting the Better Universe and Citizens Haiti initiative enables Haitians to reduce soil erosion and land reclamation for green and sustainable communities. Many of the problems faced in Haiti can be addressed through soil erosion control and by planting perennial grasses.

HC: Is there an achievement(s) or contribution(s) that you are most proud of? Why?

DT: When we first introduced the idea of growing grasses purely for erosion control, some locals were skeptical. We are proud that in the communities where we have planted the grasses, the locals are adopting the culture of using grasses for erosion control. 

We are proud to have introduced the first commercial grass nurseries in Haiti. 

Once we had established grasses on the eroded mountain slopes, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that the locals had started planting trees on the new grasslands. We in turn established tree nurseries for the communities. We are proud to have the largest community tree nursery in Haiti. 

HC: How is the project sustained?

DT: A significant portion of the funding for the project comes from individual donors. The project also gets funding from Rotary clubs, churches and universities. 

HC: What is the impact of environmental degradation on Haitian women?

DT: Women in Haiti are the breadwinners of their families. They assume responsibilities for the homes, raising children, as well as entrepreneurial activities in the markets to add resources to the family budget. In agriculture, women occupy the entire value chain; they grow the crops and sell them at the markets. 

Environmental degradation only means that Haitian women have to work harder to keep their families together. Loss of soil health means low agriculture productivity. The topsoil being lost takes hundreds of years to form. Most of these communities already are unable to afford inputs such as fertilizers. Erosion destroys natural water reserves, which means women have to travel further distances to fetch water. Erosion destroys fisheries, a source of food for 400 villages in Haiti. 

HC: Through my research, I found that the first female leader of the Grass Project is Andre Michelle. How does it feel to have this accomplishment under your belt?

DT: Andre Michelle, our first woman project leader, mother of three, is the primary supporter of the family, but yet finds time to manage projects as assigned in an exemplary manner. We currently have the largest community nursery of native trees and flowering plants for bees and butterflies. This nursery is overseen by Colin Joselaine, another of our women leaders. It is our intention to have half the leadership in our programs as women. 

HC: What are some aspects of Haitian culture you find the most interesting?

DT: Aspects of Haitian culture that I find most impressive is their ability to continuously hustle and move forward under very difficult conditions. 

As a music composer, I am fascinated by Haitian music. The Haitian cuisine is outstanding!

HC: Are there other regions/countries of the world that are facing similar issues to Haiti? If so, would you like to work there next?

DT:  There are other countries and regions of the world that face similar environmental issues. We intend to take the program to the other islands in the Caribbean and parts of Africa.  

Please don’t forget that Haiti is not merely a country that needs saving, but is also one deserving of immense respect. The resilience of the people should be reason enough to think so. And while I don’t know too much about Haiti just yet, I figured consulting Dr. Tawainga would be a good place to start. So, I encourage you to learn a little bit about a nation that is closer to us than you might think. Of course, Dr. Tawainga was able to tell me a little bit about that too.

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Here at FSU, I am completing a degree in International Affairs with a minor in French. When I'm not in school or working, I love to read and work out. My passions include environmental activism and learning about human rights abuses occurring throughout the world.
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