In the summer of 2010, half a year after the island nation of Haiti suffered a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that left 1.2 million people homeless, University of Montana choral professor Gary Funk gazed out on a beetle-kill stretch of the Helena National Forest and an idea took root in his mind. He'd already helped raise roughly $10,000 to help Haitian doctor Patrick Jeudy build one new hospital in Jeudy's devastated country.
"We could build the entire country of Haiti," Funk remembers thinking, "if we could get to this wood."
Funk is the founder of Wood For Haiti, a Missoula-based nonprofit formed last year with the goal of building scores of communities in Haiti using Montana lumber. The initiative has received support not just from Missoula businesses but also from state foresters, Haitian partners, United Nations personnel, former president Bill Clinton and, most recently, the Congressional Black Caucus.
Last month, Wood For Haiti announced a partnership with the Missoula-based tech company Blue Marble Biomaterials that would turn Haitian communities into thriving, economically sustainable spice and herb farms. Jobs could also encourage Haitians to move away from the densely populated and poverty-stricken capital of Port-au-Prince. "We definitely envision that being a really good economic driver for the foreseeable future," says Blue Marble market analyst Erik Berry.
Funk says the Salvation Army has even expressed interest in getting involved by building schools and hospitals. Wood For Haiti has already received title to a plot of Haitian land in the Titanyen region near Port-au-Prince. The end goal is to build 180,000 homes and 500 community centers, Funk says, all using beetle-kill timber from the western United States.
Funk sees the ever-expanding project as a win not just for Haiti but for Montana as well. The homebuilding component would jump-start the state's flagging wood products industry, creating jobs for loggers, mill personnel, carpenters and truckers. The spices and herbs grown in the new Haitian communities would be purchased by Blue Marble for use in essential oils and extracts, and with the company forging new relationships with chemical companies worldwide, the market for Haitian farm goods could expand rapidly. Ultimately, though, the clear benefactor is the struggling Caribbean nation.
"What we learned in Haiti was we can't just build houses," Funk says. "They need everything. "