- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2003

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The skeletal, rusted carcasses of long-dead automobiles litter the pot-holed roads leading down into the shadows of Habitation LeClerc, a dense, old-growth forest surrounded by slums here in the Haitian capital.

Burning piles of garbage spew acrid smoke into shafts of sunlight filtering through the treetops. An ancient stone wall surrounding the 50-acre forest has collapsed into heaps of rubble.

The steaming forest, alive with dangling vines, looks like a haunted battlefield, which, in a sense, it is.

“The forest is under siege, but there’s definitely something mystical about it because, under these conditions, it shouldn’t even be here,” said Cameron Brohman, a Canadian trying to save what may be Haiti’s most vital natural resource in a country almost completely stripped of vegetation.

Home to countless rare plants, medicinal bark and a wealth of food, Habitation LeClerc is the nerve center for the local voodoo religion. Many Haitians believe it is protected by the maitre du grand bois — the master of the great woods, a spirit.

Makeshift voodoo shrines with candles, carvings and the blood or bones of sacrificed animals are scattered throughout the undergrowth.

The forest also covers one of the capital’s only sources of drinking water in a nation where clean water is as scarce as tall trees. The ancient roots of seven giant mapou trees draw precious spring water to the surface from deep underground.

But the delicate habitat and the water supply are under serious threat of being destroyed by drug gangs, official neglect and the burden of a population so desperate and impoverished that the capital’s main cemetery is littered with open graves despoiled by looters.

Mr. Brohman, 53, has been battling for 14 years to transform the forest into a botanical garden, but Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is trapped in a social, environmental and political crisis that reverberates through the forest.

Boasting a once-opulent palace, Habitation LeClerc was originally home to Napoleon’s younger sister, Pauline, and her administrator husband during French colonial rule, which ended violently in 1804.

[Pauline is considered to have been Napoleon’s favorite sibling. Her first husband, Gen. Victor Emmanuel LeClerc, was given command of France’s army in Haiti but died in 1802, and she returned to France. The following year, she married Prince Camillo Borghese, one of the richest men in Italy, and was safely elsewhere when Haiti’s African slaves revolted against the French plantation owners.]

During the 1970s, the palace was turned into a hotel for jetsetters. Celebrities such as Mick and Bianca Jagger and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis relaxed amid the lush foliage and 12 swimming pools.

But makeshift machine-gun slots now block the windows of the hotel reception area, and the marble fountains have long since run dry. A notorious drug gang called the Red Army has overrun the place, terrorizing and extorting “rent” from hundreds of squatters who have occupied the estate’s 35 mildewed villas.

Nighttime gunfights are common, with corpses left on display in the morning.

“Life is tough here,” said Marielle Terminus, a 30-year-old squatter walking her young daughter to school one recent morning. “My husband and I have no work, but we must pay $100 ‘rent’ per year, plus protection money.”

Such profiteering by the gangs has enraged the local population.

“People are furious, the government is doing nothing to protect them, and civilians with machetes are ready to take on these armed thugs — there’s a political conflict brewing here that could eventually explode,” said Mr. Brohman.

Haiti has been sliding steadily into the abyss during two decades of political instability. International donors are withholding $500 million in aid, saying the U.S.-installed government has turned corrupt and despotic.

A U.S.-led and U.N.-sanctioned force occupied Haiti in 1994 to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He was overthrown by a military junta just eight months after being elected in 1990.

After returning Mr. Aristide to office, American officials announced an ambitious plan for rebuilding the country, where 65 percent of Haiti’s 7 million people live on less than $1 a day. But Washington lost interest and failed to follow through.

Barred by the constitution from seeking consecutive terms, Mr. Aristide transferred power in 1996 to an elected successor, Rene Preval, while the U.N. force ran the country from April 1995 to December 1997. Mr. Aristide was elected president again in 2001 and still holds office.

But these days, the troubled Caribbean nation is again beset by corruption, lawlessness and political oppression. Activists say the ruling party recruits unemployed youths and children into “chimere” units — armed squads used for drug-running, political intimidation and killings — named for the mythological monster with a lion’s head, goat’s body and serpent’s tail.

The Red Army, also called the Popular Organization for the Liberation of Haiti, is one such government-sanctioned gang. They have occupied Habitation LeClerc since 1997.

“At first, I thought this was about trees, but now I realize it’s about water politics. The crooks and the government want to be able to control the water and sell it to the poor,” Mr. Brohman said.

The United Nations ranks Haiti as having one of the worst water supplies anywhere, while the CIA estimates the capital’s sinking aquifers hold only an eight-year supply of water for the city’s 3 million people.

A 1998 satellite study put Haiti’s forest cover at only 1.25 percent, and at last year’s Earth Summit, Mr. Aristide said that little bit had dropped to 1 percent. A recent U.N. environmental report described Haiti as “one of the most degraded countries in the world.”

“Haiti is facing an environmental apocalypse, but nobody is talking about it,” said Mr. Brohman.

And yet Habitation LeClerc symbolizes a rare glimmer of hope in a destitute country.

“This place could be a symbol for survival, growth and renewal,” said Mr. Brohman, who estimates it would cost $250,000 to rebuild the wall around the cathedral of trees, pay the police and relocate the squatters.

The program now operates on $40,000 per year, a grant from property owner Katherine Dunham, the American anthropologist and dancer. Miss Dunham, 95, who lives in New York, has long promoted Haiti and its culture; she bought the estate in 1944.

The forest has been internationally recognized as a botanical garden, though two British botanists were run off the land at gunpoint several years ago.

In another setback, a $22.5 million World Bank project — its first environmental loan to the devastated country — was canceled in 2001 after Haiti’s government squabbled over the cash.

Mr. Brohman now pays local police $20 each per visit and has hired armed guards to patrol parts of the forest.

He has lately secured support from international bodies, including UNESCO and the Organization of American States, which may run a disarmament program in the forest “to demonstrate how communities can be turned around,” Mr. Brohman said.

The slum markets surrounding Habitation LeClerc are still clogged with sacks of charcoal and kindling and trucks are piled high with pine, avocado, mango and apricot wood for building and cooking.

But none of this deters Mr. Brohman from his goal to return the forest to its previous status as a magical haven for plants and people.

“The fact that it’s still here contributes to its reputation as a sacred forest,” he said. “For more than 200 years, governments have come and gone, but the trees have just kept growing.”

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