Now that I have had a few weeks to reflect upon my recent trip to Haiti, I can begin to make sense of my time there, while reconciling all of the conflicting emotions that I have confronted in evaluating the purpose and scope of my trip. I traveled to Haiti in late September to spend time with some individuals that have shown early interest and dedication to our fledgling project spearheaded by Jamie Aquino under our Pier2Pier initiative. Currently, we refer to the project as the Haiti Ocean Project, but as the project grows and evolves into a coalition of experts and individuals committed to a program of education, field research and exploration of ecotourism initiatives (such as whale and dolphin watching), we may find a more perfect name for our program.
While the newspaper over the past week has detailed the cholera outbreak in Haiti, where nearly 300 people have been killed, the statistics remain daunting as Haiti faces humanitarian challenges too numerous to count or detail here. And it was only last January that the news washed over us, that another natural disaster, a massive earthquake, had hit Haiti: 250,000 Haitians dead, millions homeless, most government buildings completely demolished. With no emergency vehicles and few healthcare workers to treat the wounded, the world responded, and it continues to try to address the staggering crisis that lives and breathes in Haiti.
The statistics that describe conditions in Haiti are almost unbelievable for a country so proximate to ours: Even before the earthquake, more than 70 percent of the population lived on less than $2 per day. Life expectancy remains low at sixty-one years. HIV/AIDS rates are the highest in the hemisphere. There are only three doctors per 10,000 people in Haiti. One in twelve children dies before reaching her fifth birthday. Only 35 percent of Haitian children are able to finish elementary school. Compounding these statistics is the fact that there is widespread unemployment and underemployment; more than two-thirds of the labor force does not have formal jobs. In addition to its long and painful history of poverty and political turmoil, Haiti suffered four devastating tropical storms in 2008, bringing floods that killed more than 800 people and caused nearly $1 billion in damage.
And I was confronted with this suffering in Port-Au-Prince with my arrival to the country. But beyond the tent cities and the masses that lined the streets with their goods and wares, the color, beauty and resilience of Haiti was all around and revealed itself in so many ways: in the colorful overloaded tap-tap buses that were adorned with vibrant images and messages, in the smartly dressed young men on their way to unknown destinations dressed in their suits, in the smiles of the children in the fishing villages, and the marketplaces that swarmed with organized chaos, bringing humanity together amidst the rubble.
And I want to be very honest about my feelings and conflicting emotions before my trip to Haiti. I had many people, including my daughter, ask me how I could go to Haiti and be concerned with whales and dolphins in the midst of such human suffering. Even those around me with an understanding of how interconnected the protection of the environment is to human welfare couldn’t quite grasp the importance of this type of project to Haiti, especially now. Even though my heart and mind had already reconciled our focus on whale and dolphin protection in the midst of the humanitarian tragedy, understanding at the most elemental level that protection of the marine environment ultimately means the protection and welfare of human beings, being a strong advocate for this program took my journeying to Haiti and discovering the enduring spirit of my Haitian friends, and finding out how important this project is to them.
The extent of linkages between the ecosystem services provided by the protection of biodiversity and goals of ending poverty, hunger and disease and improving the health of children and mothers is deep and broad. For example, Haiti, a country that was once fully forested, has lost 97% of its forest cover. It is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and has the highest rates of infant, under-five and maternal mortality in the Western hemisphere (with diahrrea as one of the leading causes of death), and 90% of its children chronically infected with intestinal parasites, which they acquire from the water they drink. This tragic situation is linked to the loss of ecosystem services (rainfall, prevention of soil erosion, water purification) provided by forests. Charcoal from once-living trees is one of the main sources of energy in Haiti, and I witnessed bags and bags of it being transported on boats and dumped in the streets for trade or purchase.
The primary cause of Haiti’s environmental degradation has been caused by its need for energy. With an electricity sector that only covered 10% of Haiti’s population in 2006, chronic energy shortages have contributed to the search for alternative sources of energy. Unfortunately for Haiti’s natural environment, wood became and continues to be the principal energy source in Haiti, accounting for 70 percent of energy consumption in 2006. This resulted in the steady deforestation of Haiti, with an estimated 6,000 hectares of soil lost each year to erosion. Ultimately, there is a growing recognition that community livelihoods and well-being are intimately linked to the state of the environment, and that they have a mutual impact on each other.
As I was confronted by these realities upon my arrival and stay there, I had to reaffirm the reason that this type of project is important to Haiti, especially now. And I thank the team of committed individuals in Haiti who hosted my stay there, and the passion of a Florida teacher, who reminded me of the value of this project through their continuing belief in the project. Specifically, Max Bordey and his wife, Elizabeth Tovar, and Michele Simon, leaders in the community that have dedicated decades to improving the lives of fishermen in Haiti helped me see the importance of the project as a means to restore the vision for a hopeful future for Haiti, through the possibility of enhanced livelihoods for the local communities through the development of whale and dolphin watching and other tourist initiatives that will bring visitors back to Haiti.
And we found dolphins, hundreds of them, not too far from shore. The fishermen we spent time with told us that they encounter them all of the time. We were in the middle of a teaming pod of spotted dolphins, but also encountered the elusive dwarf sperm whale on two occasions. On past trips, we encountered sperm whales, and with the deeply sloping underwater topography of Haiti’s coastline, I am hopeful that there are deep-diving resident sperm whales here. As a result of preliminary field trips, we are confident that whales and dolphins can be readily encountered along the coastline of Haiti, but specifically off Grand Goave and Petite Riviere de Nippes where we have focused our initial surveys.
Haiti was once a thriving tourist destination, and as such, is still named the ‘Pearl of the Antilles’. Decades of political and financial instability have wrought havoc on the country, and literally wiped out any semblance of tourism, unlike its neighbor in the Dominican Republic, where tourism is a thriving and primary industry. Hispaniola, the second largest island in all the Antilles, is shared by the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with the Dominican Republic occupying the eastern two thirds. Tourists and honeymooners are drawn to the Dominican Republic and its beautiful beaches and diving and snorkeling destinations. Many travel to Samana Bay and the Silver Banks just to see the humpback whales during their annual stay on their breeding and calving grounds. Just west on the Island of Hispaniola lies Haiti, and it is natural to wonder in disbelief at the extreme disparities between the two countries that share a common island.
I was forced to confront my hopes for a project that might serve as some glimmer of hope, that might serve as a reminder of the beauty and spirit of Haiti, of its people and its natural heritage, and that might serve to move the focus of its people from day to day survival to a future where there are sustainable job opportunities built upon the protection and promotion of the environment and marine life.
And even at the most basic level, there is an even simpler reason: whales and dolphins are beautiful and awe-inspiring. This alone might be a reason to pursue the project-- to bring a smile of joy to the children of Haiti as they experience the magnificent natural wonders of their country, ones that leap and jump alongside the boat, and that represent a world of freedom, imagination and mystery. This project will hopefully draw researchers and international students to Haiti, dispelling the fear and stigma that surrounds travel to the country, and little by little the world will open up to the possibilities, and the beauty.
And maybe this is just one step to provide an alternative vision, which may in turn provide the tools by which individuals within Haiti can step outside of their condition, and focus on a brighter future for Haiti. And it is through the discovery of whales and dolphins in the unexplored waters of Haiti that might just serve as inspiration for the protection of the marine environment, respect for the natural beauty that makes Haiti so unique, and ultimately breathe life into its people searching for something positive and hopeful. Looking for whales and dolphins in Haiti is more than just a research or education project, and has revealed a precious resource that may just move Haiti, into a new era of discovery, hope and pride. And whales and dolphins will show us the way.
Wednesday, October 27. 2010