Haiti’s President Michel Martelly (“Sweet Micky” to his music fans) has been urging the world to view Haiti as a tourist destination. It certainly used to be. In 1975, Hillary and Bill Clinton honeymooned in Haiti, as have countless other couples. More importantly, Haiti is, for all her heartache, simply magnificent. And it is worth reminding people that Port-au-Prince is less than a 90-minute flight from Miami or Fort Lauderdale.
In addition to the country’s extraordinary cultural, historic and artistic traditions, Haiti possesses a unique ecological situation, certainly challenged but also, sublime.
The challenges are all too recognizable. Unlike, to the northwest, neighboring Cuba’s 53 protected areas, 3 of them being World Heritage Sites, approximately 22 percent of that country being under some form of protection; and to the East, the Dominican Republic, with its 67 protectedareas including 16 national parks, a demonstrative network of eco-tourist sites and accompanying revenues, Haiti – especially since her terrible earthquake – has seen a virtual stand-still in terms of any wildlife vacations into the nation’s outback. Indeed, the majority of recent visitors to Haiti tend to be with one or other of the thousands of relief-related NGOs present in the country.
And understandably so:Haiti has suffered more than most nations, and currently must combat widespread unemployment amongst a population of nearly 10.3 million; persistent crop failures; energy outages; other resource constraints and ongoing reconstruction since the earthquake of January 12, 2010. Throughout Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital, as well as numerous other districts of Haiti, UNOPS (the United Nations Office for Project Services, based in Copenhagen) and other agencies are working day and night to re-supply basic infrastructure to the population, including seismically-engineered new modular housing units. These structures, which I had an opportunity to visit, are being built in Port-au-Prince by UNOPS and partners involving every nuance, skill set and insight attendant upon the human condition. Such endeavors, among many (including wonderful new hotels emerging throughout the country) are symptomatic of the incredible energies looking towards a bright future for Haiti.
It was UNOPS with whom I worked on a short visit to Haiti in early December 2012, and came away -as like so many other visitors to this country -deeply moved and encouraged. There is a spellbinding love that Haiti elicits in most visitors: the country’s unique history, cultural mix, profound arts and vodou spirituality. But also her wondrous ecosystems.
My goal in being in the country was to better understand the national park question and to see if a such a park could, in fact, serve as the catalyst for an entire eco-tourism revival. Revenues in the Dominican from eco-tourism have been huge. Haiti needs its own ecologically-sustainable version, a most plausible scenario: For, in addition to the complex national and international efforts to rebuilt Haiti’s economy and confidence, eco-tourism looms large.
A Haitian Revival
High value bio-cultural, historic and World Heritage destination sites existing throughout the country, particularly to the far north, the south and southwest, could, indeed, become the collective core of a vibrant economic driver for the Haiti.
In late 2012, Michaëlle Jean, UNESCO Special Envoy for Haiti, led a delegation to the country to examine the prospects for sustainable tourism.
Critical to an ecological vision of protection and tourism in Haiti is the work being undertaken in the southwest of the country, near the nation’s 2ndhighest summit – Pic Macaya. This mountain’s magnificent karst limestone formations, cloud and dwarf forests, as well as its high rate of endemic flowering plants (over 30% unique to Hispaniola – the island encompassing both Haiti and the Dominican Republic) has been one of the centers of interest of the Government of Haiti and the International Community. During my trip in this region of Haiti, I met with the biologist Antonio Perera, a great conservationist who for many years was instrumental in helping research and shape Cuban national parks. Perera is the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) Haiti Programme Manager. Together with UNOPS and in the framework of the Côte Sud Initiative, UNEP works on catalyzing the ecological potential of the region which is dominated by the biodiversity hotspot of Pic Macaya.
Countering A History of Deforestation
Pic Macaya’s inevitable standing amongst other great national parks of the world has been, to date, somewhat undermined by the Republic of Haiti’s overallecological situation. A vast majority of the nation’s primary forest has been cut down over the course of more than two centuries for purposes of human survival.
Estimates on remaining native and non-native forest canopy vary, but it is likely that more than 1.5% remains, versus the global average of between 9-and-12%, with some countries – such as Suriname and Bhutan – exceeding 60% primary canopy coverage. That 1.5% is at a near critical threshold.
The proposition is this: If 1.5% of remaining habitat in Haiti is to rejuvenate the nation’s ecological services, like fresh water, and a continuing abundance of wildlife, a new lens is required through which to better grasp this nation’s environmental possibilities. Fortunately, replenished perspectives are never implausible, in Haiti.
The “One Percent Solution”
During many hours in helicopters photographing much of the country, I examined closely Haiti’s patchwork, particularly in the southwest, where some of the best remaining large forested areas, and mangroves remain.
And while I recorded nearly 100 separate burning fires (small fires driven by the economics of charcoal production), I also witnessed, in sum, what I term “the one percent solution,” namely, an alternative version of Haiti’s ecological map: solutions, biological bounty and promise, not merely the obvious deficits.
That promise is the result of easily discernible seed source; existing stands of primary forest that afford great hope for genetic and wildlife corridors. There are, in other words, abundant remaining natural (many, native), in situ nurseries sufficient to the cause of reforestation. With reforestation will come viable watersheds, clean drinking water for hundreds of thousands of locals, and predictable waves of wildlife seeking “mainland islands” in a greater Caribbean “hotspot” that is already, in many instances, depauperate.
All of the edges and margin-lands that constitute so much of that patchwork on the ground, and seen from the air, do not take away from the fact that this Haitian hotspot within a hotspot of endangered species has the potential to become a key eco-tourism site in the Western Hemisphere.
Nature and culture coincide in Haiti on a vibrant edge of artistic, spiritual and ecological realities. What is lacking is the focal point for a significant scientific cause célèbre. That’s where the southwestern paradise of Haiti, and with it two central Massifs, comes into powerful perspective.
Paper Parks, Charcoal Burning
The cornerstone of this potential economic and environmentally sound concept is Pic Macaya herself, a roughly 150 square kilometer region that encompasses the largest quasi-pristine wilderness in the entire country, overlooking to the north, the west and particularly the south, magnificent beaches, islands and mangroves. Macaya is the largest extant biologically intact series of connected ecosystems in the country.
Pic Macaya (along with Morne La Visite) was actually consecrated as a National Park back in 1983. However, it remains a “paper-park,” one without protections.
When famed botany professor Walter S. Judd from the University of Florida at Gainesville, did his groundbreaking 1987 research at both Morne la Visite and Pic Macaya, confirming earlier reports of hundreds of rare floristic species, he described what, at that time, were considered “two recently established national parks in the poorly known mountains of southern Haiti….” Earlier researchers had been there, like Swedish naturalist Erik Eckman, but Judd escalated the scientific community’s profound interest in Pic Macaya, recognizing its extraordinary global significance.
While maps, hand-outs, brochures and documents of every persuasion have referred to two national parks in Haiti for thirty years – Pic Macaya, with its 7,700 foot peak, about 260 kilometers from the capital, Port-au-Prince; and the much smaller, 30 square kilometer Parc La Visite, which is about 22 kilometers from the capital.
Pic Macaya, in actual fact, is under threat. The National Park status is still a dream, pending government resolve to find appropriate alternatives that would counteract local charcoal burning incursions, and effectively engage the coming population boom that is likely to take up habitation of the park as the road that crosses through Macaya’s eastern fringes going over a pass from the southern to the northern peninsular coast at Jeremie, improves, which it will.
Scattered populations along the park’s eastern fringes have some of the highest family sizes in all of Haiti. Family welfare, medical and social services are needed, in addition to sustainable long-term prospects for poverty alleviation and dignified, meaningful employment that fully respects local vodou traditions, counteracting existing, seemingly intractable dilemmas.
Those dilemmas stem, in part, from vying political, economic and cultural imperatives. Each, in turn, is compounded by the fact that Haitian vodou spirituality encompasses some 80% of land investiture throughout the country. That 4/5ths figure also intimates the fact 80% of Haiti is democratically open for multi-use, even if that translates into revenue streams from unsustainable practices. This is most notably evidenced in the form of burning down patches of biomass (shrubs, grasslands and remaining forest) for the making of charcoal. For the 72% of Haitians who, on average, earn less than $US2.00 per day, $US11-to-15 per approximately 100 pound sack of charcoal is a temptation seen throughout the country, and is utterly destructive from any ecological point of view.
A Unique and Timely Opportunity
From a strictly biological standpoint, perhaps the mosttelling scientific data in Haiti emerged from a series of expeditions some 9 years ago. These “Ornithological Field Investigations in Macaya Biosphere Reserve” recorded a large number of species, including numerous natives and endemics throughout the two adjoining massifs along the southern coast, de la Hotte and de la Selle, the latter being the largest of mountainous plateau, a 5,500 hectare area at the heart of Macaya. The 2004 study found “diverse forested habitats, ranging from wet limestone forest at lower elevations to a complex mosaic of pine and cloud forest at upper elevations [which] may support the highest levels of endemism found on Hispaniola. The park’s remnant forests are also among the island’s most endangered, as deforestation has steadily encroached on Macaya’s last remote areas.”
Because Pic Macaya hosts such remarkable levels of avian, mammalian and flowering and non-flowering plant endemism (with the invertebrate diversity yet to be fully grasped) in so small an area, its global importance cannot be overstated.
Once thorough scientific baseline data is verified with seasonal regularity, it is likely to push the estimates on Haitian biodiversity and endemism far beyond existing numbers for plants, 6,500; for birds, a known 21 endemic, and 199 other avian species; as well as for important terrestrial mollusks (snails), ferns and mosses.
To add international “buzz” to this looming symphony of possibilities, six species of frogs, long deemed extinct, including the “Mozart Frog,” have been discovered in the past few years across this region, adding to the profound hopes so many Haitian biologists are now feeling.
These amphibian discoveries were “incredible,” according to lead scientist Dr. Robin Moore of Conservation International in Alexandria, Virginia, and Dr. Blair Hedges of Pennsylvania State University.
A National Park for the People and Their Children
Thousands of people inhabit the towns of Duchiti and Beaumont, along the road between Les Cayes and Jeremie, skirting Macaya. By implementation of a suite of economically sensible enterprises, including first and foremost an association of eco-tourist guides, visitor center, nonimpactful tourist opportunities and educational outreach, a Pic Macaya National Park could be the ultimate winning ticket for Haiti, at every level of governance and local community life.
This engagement would encompass seven municipalities with stakeholders who all likely share some ancestral spirits within the globally significant floristic province that constitutes the KBA (Key Biological Area) that is uniquely Pic Macaya.
Downstream from Pic Macaya are approximately a quarter-million people for whom this National Park would provide safe drinking water. And, with an anchor in Pic Macaya as the supreme destination of choice for eco-tourists longing for a true Caribbean wildlife experience, all of Haiti wins, as the rest of the country’s other biological assets can be brought into an income-generating, life-altering configuration that will assuredly benefit Haitians, and the planet.
One ecological stroke of the brush remains to be manifested if Haiti is, indeed, to embrace a powerful and productive future: the 1983 national park designation needs to be fully ratified and made operational by the Government. The road to the east of the Park needs to be completed to best international environmental standards, and donors who have already stepped up to the plate financially should forthrightly re-affirm their commitments to the project and, hopefully, offer additional and/or matching funds to inspire others to do the same – not for themselves, but strictly for Haiti. This is the kind of project that inspires the new 21st century bold and breathtaking conservation.
Recently, Antonio Perera and team climbed to the summit of Pic Macaya. Says Perera, “It was one of the greatest conservation adventures of my entire life.”
Copyright 2013 by Michael Charles Tobias/Jane Gray Morrison/Dancing Star Foundation. Special Thanks to Maria-Noel Vaeza, UNOPS; to Felipe Munevar, UNOPS-Port-Au-Prince; to Antonio Perera, UNEP, Port-Salut; to Jacqueline Fabius, UNOPS, Port-Salut, and the entire incredible Haitian teams of UNOPS and UNEP who are doing so much for this amazing country!