Jean Wiener should be elated. The organization he leads, FoProBim, has just won a series of grants to help protect mangroves in Haiti. In the coming months, he and his team will crisscross the country, helping replant mangrove marshes, conducting environmental workshops and training sessions, and starting alternative income projects for those whose livelihoods depend on cutting mangrove trees. The grant will allow his organization, which has been based largely in the northwestern town of Cap-Haïtien, to operate on a truly national scale for the first time. So why does he look ashen-faced and glum?
“I just got off the phone with my assistant in [the Haitian capital] Port-au-Prince,” he says, slumped in front of the camera for our first video call. “He’s got PTSD from all the gunshots outside his house.”
The grant comes just as Haiti’s growing social unrest has hit a decade-long high, making travel around the country perilous. Since the murder of President Jovenel Moise in July 2021, lawlessness has spiraled out of control. The highways leading into and out of Port-au-Prince are controlled by gangs, while the city averages seven kidnappings a day. This past July, gang violence left more than 470 people dead, injured or missing in the sprawling Port-au-Prince shantytown of Cité Soleil. None of the dozen or so staff members of FoProBim have been hurt, though their accountant recently fled to Montreal after her vehicle was shot up.
“I tell my wife, if I’m kidnapped I’ll be the worst victim they ever had,” Wiener says. “I’m going to make myself intolerable.” He laughs, though it sounds unconvincing.
Haiti’s mangroves also face grave danger. Statistics are hard to come by, but historical sources speak of mangrove forests once cloaking virtually all of the country’s coastline, sometimes extending inland as far as 6 kilometers (nearly 4 miles), and teaming with fish, turtles and caimans. Global Mangrove Watch, a platform visualizing mangrove data, shows less than 30% of the coastline with mangrove today, much of it in thin, fragmented pockets.
Threats abound. The most notorious is the charcoal market, Haiti’s second-largest agricultural-related sector. In a country where only a quarter of the population has access to electricity, carbon-rich mangrove wood is a prized source of cooking fuel. According to Dario Noel, of Haiti’s United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 10 square meters (108 square feet) of mangrove can provide a family with three weeks of charcoal.
There are other lesser-known threats. Haiti is one of the most deforested countries in the world — as little as 3.2% of its original forest may remain, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations — and silt from denuded mountains fills in swamps and smothers roots. Haiti is also urbanizing faster than any other country in the Western Hemisphere, according to data from the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Much of this urban expansion is built near or on former mangrove habitat, says Noel, who adds that mangrove forest is cut for building materials while new arrivals clear it for salt pans, farmland or housing. On the edge of Cap-Haïtien, on the country’s north coast, an entire neighborhood sits on mounds of earth in a former mangrove swamp.
Yet Haiti needs mangrove now more than ever. Mangrove forests are a crucial foot soldier in the battle against climate change. They sequester five times as much carbon as tropical rainforest. They absorb the brunt of storms — already increasing in the Caribbean as the planet warms — protecting people and inshore ecosystems from surging seas. The World Bank found that Caribbean mangroves “mitigate the disruption of economic activity caused by hurricanes.” Mangroves provide a nursery for young fish crucial to the fishing industry, such as snapper, mojarra, parrotfish, sea bass and sea bream, which hide and grow among their roots before heading out to open water. According to a 2013 report by FoProBim, a hectare of mangrove provides around $550,000 worth of ecosystem services every year.
“That value [of mangroves] is enormous,” the Global Mangrove Alliance wrote in its 2021 report, “The State of the World’s Mangroves,” “and, once understood, makes it almost impossible to make any cogent argument in support of further mangrove loss.”
You would expect Wiener to agree. After all, he fell in love with Haiti’s coasts during summer trips with his family to the beach. On the drive from their home in Port-au-Prince, they would often pass dead cows on the side of the road, signs that Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was at his cottage; the dictator’s henchmen had gone ahead to enforce an edict against untethered farm animals (“so he could drive his Ferrari at 100 miles an hour, or whatever,” Wiener says).
But his abiding memories are of the days spent exploring the waters along the coast, learning about the native plants and animals, many of which nested, fed or hid among the mangrove trimming the shoreline. He befriended the fishers, swam with schools of yellow-tailed snapper, and watched as egrets flew into the evening sun. But each year, on his return, there was less mangrove, fewer animals.
“Until there were none,” he says.
Spurred by those memories, Wiener founded FoProBim 30 years ago. Since then, it has educated thousands of schoolchildren, fishers and coastal residents about the value of mangroves. It has cleared trash from swamps, opened blocked water courses, planted seeds to fill gaps where mangroves had died or been cut down, and convinced locals to stop cutting more. It has implemented alternative income projects, such as beekeeping — mangrove honey is particularly tasty. In 2013, it helped design the country’s first marine natural protected areas, and lobbied for a law against cutting mangroves. In 2015, Wiener himself was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize.
However, despite his dedication to Haiti’s mangroves, he says conservation on absolutist terms will get you nowhere in a country where much of the populace is more concerned with earthquakes, security threats and daily survival.
“It’s easy to say when your stomach is full,” Wiener says of the Global Mangrove Alliance’s statement urging conservation prioritization. “I go into these communities and people are on edge. They just lost their homes, and I’m talking to them about mangroves.
“It’s like, ‘We have bigger issues right now.’”
There are three main species of mangrove trees in Haiti: red (Rhizophora mangle), whose arched “prop” roots straddle the water; black (Avicennia germinans), which breathes through stubby pneumatophore branches stretching up into the air; and white (Laguncularia racemosa), more shrublike than the others, with small, white, sweet-smelling flowers in the spring. The different species, mixed with a few other salt-tolerant trees, grow in bands parallel to the shore, the red furthest out, the white above the low-tide line. The exact patterns vary from locality to locality for reasons still not fully understood but likely related to differing sensitivities to salinity, water depth and soil types.
From a technical point of view, this makes restoring mangrove forests particularly difficult, because you have to know what used to be where before replanting. Wiener’s organization, FoProBim, usually begins a restoration project by questioning local elders. To avoid importing potential genetic differences, the seeds, which naturally drop into the water and drift with currents before taking root, are collected from as close to the target area as possible, often by boat.
“It’s not like you go to Home Depot and buy a bag of seeds,” Wiener says.
Restoration begins by fencing off a nursery area where seeds are placed in locally made bamboo pots, (a FoProBim innovation designed to avoid the scourge of black polyethylene planters strewn across the beach). Four or five months after they germinate, the plants are carried to the beach. There’s often a carnival-like atmosphere to planting, as entire communities, up to their knees in mud, pass plants hand to hand in a bucket brigade style. More often than not, women predominate. “I don’t know why,” Wiener muses. “Fishermen like to do what they want, when they want and maybe this is a bit too structured for them.”
Participants are paid for their time (about $4 a day) and despite the cooperative atmosphere, Wiener admits that most are there for the money. “You’re not going to find many volunteers,” he says. “People know that the NGOs have money. They know there’s money to be given.”
FoProBim’s biggest success to date is in the Trois Baies Marine Protected Area near Cap-Haïtien. FoProBim is headquartered here, and has a contract with the government to co-manage the protected area. Through its continual presence in the area, it has been able to convert mudflats, once barren to the horizon, into thick thriving mangrove forest.
FoProBim isn’t the only organization trying to save Haiti’s mangroves. The coasts are littered with the remains of mangrove restoration projects, faded memories of local NGOs that no longer exist, and international donors that have moved on to something else. But mangroves require years of oversight before they can stand on their own. Nurseries have to be watched, seeds watered, charcoal producers convinced not to return. And when the money runs out or the organizers leave, there is no one to do those things.
Sometimes bad luck plays a role, even for the well-funded. In 2016, UNEP had just finished planting 30,000 trees in the Port Salut region, part of an initiative to create ecological barriers against hurricanes, when Hurricane Matthew struck, wiping out every last plant. The organization started again, this time working in less exposed areas, and has now planted 28 hectares (69 acres) of mangrove. But changes to U.N. funding last year meant the organization no longer directly supervises the work, and has left it in the hands of local partners.
FoProBim has experienced its own share of failures, in one instance losing thousands of untended trees in a single day to foraging cows. “We can’t watch the plants all the time,” Wiener says.
Since 2013, cutting mangroves has been illegal, though the law is rarely enforced. Locals say a special brigade created to patrol protected areas is rarely seen. But UNEP’s Dario Noel says education may be as important as planting and policing because it has the power to break traditions. He cites the case of a man in the village of St. Jean de Sud on Haiti’s southern coast who was known for cutting mangroves. “The people who had participated in our projects, they understood really well the importance of mangrove, and they didn’t want him to keep cutting their mangrove. Just last week, they got together and took a complaint to the mayor. The police came, and now that man is in prison.”
Organizations like FoProBim often focus on building awareness. But can whiteboards and role-playing exercises really overturn attitudes rooted in hunger? James Josaphat says they can. He’s the dean of agricultural and nutrition science at the Central Public University, in Hinche, in Haiti’s central plateau. He’s a biologist, co-discoverer of a new-to-science species of fish in one of the country’s few lakes, and not really a mangrove specialist. But he did research the feasibility of a beekeeping project along Haiti’s southeast coastline, where he chanced on two tiny villages, so remote they could only be reached by boat. In the first, people cut mangroves with impunity. Not all the locals approved, Josaphat says, but “if you say ‘don’t do that,’ maybe they will try to kill you.”
“The mangrove there is in a terrible situation,” he adds.
In the second village, the mangrove was intact, delighting the biologist. “You see birds, you see insects, you see lizards. I saw a lot of animals.”
The reason for the difference between the two communities? The locals, he said, told of a “man who comes from another town. He has knowledge about mangrove. And he explained to them how, if you protect mangrove, that will be good. That will be nice. They help you with hurricanes. And they make an organization to try to protect what they have there. If you come and try to cut a tree, they will get mad. They don’t accept that.”
Josaphat doesn’t know the identity of the man, and no one I ask is able to shed more light on the story.
But visitors from outside a community can also leave behind distrust, as Eden Reforestation Projects discovered. The international NGO has a presence in a dozen countries, but is a relative newcomer to mangrove restoration in Haiti. When it arrived on Île à Vache, a small island just off Haiti’s south coast, it found an abandoned nursery, and few residents willing to take part in yet another mangrove replanting effort.
“People were joking about us,” says Renet Leger, Eden’s national director in Haiti. “They said so many organizations come to the country, and all do the same thing, and we see nothing.”
So Eden tried a different approach. After a six-month pilot project testing soils and different species’ tolerance to various conditions, it recruited residents in three communities along the southern coast to collect and plant seeds directly, bypassing the traditional use of a nursery. Leger says the innovation offered two advantages: it allowed seeds to adapt quickly to the stresses of different kinds of soils, and it eliminated the four- or five-month growing period in the nursery, during which community interest often wanes. By its estimate, Eden has planted close to 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) and more than a million plants to date.
Leger and his colleagues are in frequent contact with other Eden Reforestation teams as far afield as Kenya, Madagascar and the Philippines, which is how they learned the no-nursery technique. But they have never exchanged experiences with other restoration organizations in Haiti. In fact, the organizations I spoke to seemed only dimly aware of each others’ existence, if at all. How is this possible in such a small country?
One reason might be that mangrove restoration, like aid everywhere, is a competitive undertaking. NGOs vie for funds from the likes of USAID, the Inter-American Development Bank or private donors. They are understandably wary of outsiders. Wiener tells me of a “skirmish” over cultivation techniques with another mangrove restoration group working in the same areas as FoProBim. “We came across them trimming mangrove trees. You don’t do that to mangrove. We’re like, ‘Who are you guys?’” The group later moved out of the area, he says. Meanwhile, an Eden PR rep sits in on my call with Renet Leger, vetting my requests for data (none are refused).
But there may be a more sinister reason for the fragmentation within the sector. Haiti’s increasing violence has split the country, making travel by road, particularly north to south, nearly impossible.
“It’s really, really, really, really dangerous,” says Josaphat, who frequently travels south for research trips. On these occasions he takes mountain backroads by motorcycle to avoid gangs. “That’s kind of … scary. My family doesn’t know I go.”
Eden Reforestation’s Haitian team has an easier time talking to colleagues around the world than traveling domestically to meet. It’s little wonder the country’s mangrove restoration specialists rarely see each other.
It was precisely one of those trips south, taking him out of his home base on the north coast and through Port-au-Prince, that Wiener was dreading so much when I first meet him. But when I speak to him again on his return he looks chipper and optimistic. His trip was a success, he says. The villages he visited were warm and receptive, and his group was able to identify several new sites for potential mangrove restoration.
I respond that it’s hard to believe given the dire news coming out of Haiti, but time and time again, field workers tell me the same thing. While remote coastal villages have their own problems, the social unrest we associate with Haiti is not one of them. And although it has knock-on effects — rising prices, especially gasoline, among them — coastal residents don’t all view mangrove restoration is an irrelevance, a distraction, a luxury. On the contrary, Leger says, it sometimes offers a welcome respite.
“When you live in the reality [of Haiti], you adapt yourself,” Leger says. “We cannot say, ‘OK, because it is dangerous, we’ll not do anything.’ We need to keep going. We need to keep building. One thing you need to know about Haitians, even [though] they have all the problems, they know that they have to keep living.”
Banner image: Mangroves in Los Haitises National Park, Dominican Republic. Image by Anton Bielousov via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
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