Hope for Haiti?

What springs to mind when you hear the word Haiti? Poverty? Environmental devastation? Political instability and corruption?

While the history of Haiti may well be marred by all of the above, it is by no means the end of the story. There is another side to Haiti that we rarely hear about.

Haiti hosts a bounty of biological riches found nowhere else in the world. The Massif de la Hotte in the southwest of the country is home to a staggering 13 species of amphibians that occur only here. This exceptional level of threatened endemism resulted in the site’s recent ranking as the number one global priority for urgent conservation action.

As Conservation International’s amphibian conservation officer, I traveled to Haiti in February 2007 to meet with local partners and visit the last remaining remnants of forest.

As I left the bustling capital Port Au Prince and traveled the length of the southern Peninsula, I could feel any sense of optimism evaporate as barren hillsides completely stripped of trees filled the landscape, where people living in abject poverty eked out a living in any way they could.

Many long hours on rocky, bone-jarring roads and six flat tires later I was treated to the sight of the Massif de la Hotte; home to the last intact broadleaf forest on Haiti. Macaya Biosphere Reserve, encompassing 5,500 hectares at the core of the Massif, provides a refuge for diverse forested habitat ranging from wet limestone forest at lower elevations to a complex mosaic of pine and cloud forest at upper elevations. An invigorating hike from 1000 m elevation to Pic Formond, at around 2200 m, confirmed that the forest is still teeming with life. Trees dripping with bromeliads in the cloud forest provided homes for an extraordinary abundance of frogs and the calls of Bicknell’s Thrush provided a thrill for the ornithologists in the group.

Despite its status, Macaya Biosphere Reserve is not immune from the degradation that has ravaged the rest of Haiti. The forest is threatened by agricultural expansion into increasingly unsuitable terrain. Major tree cover was lost in Haiti when mangoes and coffee – both environmentally important tree crops – became unprofitable and were cut down in favor of marginally profitable annual crops. In addition, park agents are losing their authority, credibility and motivation to protect the forest because most have not been paid by the government for over two years.

Environmental protection in this area is at a critical juncture. We are currently exploring ways in which we can affect a shift in emphasis away from intensive forestry and unsustainable agriculture towards preserving remnant forest, with tangible and lasting benefits to the local community. Developing incentives for local farmers to re-invest in tree-crops such as shade-grown coffee, cacao and mango all appear promising options.

The International community is hesitant to engage Haiti because the risks are too high. The real question should be; can we risk not to?

Journal Comments

  • msdebbie
  • robinmoore