'All of Haiti is being destroyed'
KENSCOFF, HAITI-- When Victor Wynne came to Haiti, there was still plenty of shade.
In 1925, the young civil engineer found a nation that was lush, rugged and untamed. Haiti had 60 percent of its original forest cover. The mountains were thick with trees, and rivers ran strong and clear.
The beauty of the land belied its violent history. In 1915, the United States invaded Haiti after a Port-au-Prince mob tore President Vibrun Guillaume Sam's body apart in front of the French Embassy. The resulting occupation modernized the cities even as rebels battled a military authority that maintained whites-only officers clubs in an overwhelmingly black nation.
Wynne -- a soft-spoken man with the large hands of a builder and degrees
from Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- set out with
engineers to rebuild a country that had seen 102 civil wars, coups and political upheavals in a century of independence from France.
They designed thousands of miles of roads, erected 200 bridges and dug
82 miles of irrigation canals in major watersheds. Clean water ran in the
cities, an electrical
grid was established, and Haiti had the first telephone exchange in all of Latin America.
Agrarian reforms were launched and national forests were designated
as protected lands. Mahogany and pine reforestation programs were established.
conservation was taught at agricultural schools and experimental stations throughout the country. And for the first time since slaves had overthrown their plantation
masters in 1804, foreigners like Wynne were permitted to own land.
When the Marines left Haiti in 1934, Wynne stayed. He married a Haitian
woman from Gonaives, worked as a construction engineer and moved to Kenscoff
Mountain above Port-au-Prince. There, on 30 acres he called Wynne Farm, he built a botanical garden and experimented with agricultural techniques such as
Agricultural specialists from around the world visited the farm, described
as a "Garden of Eden." Wynne would serve them foods produced from exotic
plants on the
farm and expound on how soil-conservation techniques could save Haiti.
"There can be no viable long-term agricultural cropping or reforestation
on hillside or mountain slopes unless these slopes are first protected
from soil erosion in
heavy rainfalls," he wrote in one agricultural journal. "Protective measures to conserve soil must come first."
Until his death in 1994, shortly after a second U.S. military invasion
of Haiti, he was a prophet unheeded by his adopted land. He watched as
many mountain regions into deserts. He saw an elaborate irrigation system fall into disrepair. He grew frustrated after the capital city's seafront Harry Truman
Boulevard, which he had helped design, was allowed to sink, crack and flood because of erosion.
But what Wynne never saw coming was the bulldozer that plowed through
the farm earlier this year, cutting through beloved cypress and sequoia
ancient tree ferns and sending giant boulders tumbling through the glimmering green forests.
On a mist-shrouded mountain so high it's 70 degrees on a July afternoon,
a foundation has been laid for what his daughter fears will become a nightclub
or hotel at
the heart of Wynne Farm. The bottle-clinking sounds of rare tree frogs now compete with the jarring din of peasant farmers chopping down pines.
"This is a place I've known since childhood," said his daughter, Jane
Wynne, who has been fighting to save what's left of the farm. "You came
up here to listen to the
frogs, to study the plants, just to really get caught up in nature. But look at this. All of Haiti is being destroyed like this."
Wynne Farm is one of a handful of places that have remained relatively
untouched by human incursion in Haiti. As trees disappear and good farmland
valued only for their habitats are getting harder to defend.
The poor are constantly on the march for good wood and soil. And wealthy
Haitians are building elaborate homes and businesses on the high ground
Port-au-Prince, where Wynne Farm is located.
Neither group is hindered by law. Haiti's environmental laws are sporadically enforced and land ownership is poorly documented.
"What's happening at Wynne Farm is just one more example of the gangsterism
that's destroying this country," said Jean-Andre Victor, one of Haiti's
environmental researchers. "It's a natural treasure what Victor Wynne did up there. [He] introduced different species, tried to push terracing to save the soil,
preserved the biodiversity. Now it's all being taken apart by highwaymen."
A recent walk through the farm with Jane Wynne revealed a battle being
waged on several fronts. At one point she came upon a group of peasants
the land is theirs. Later, she passed cows illegally grazing on the slopes her father terraced. She also encountered freshly cut trees and chased a man with an ax off
"Oh God, this is killing me," said Wynne, who lives in a nearby farmhouse
and plant nursery with her daughter and son-in-law. "Look at what they've
done to this
place. I don't know how much more of this I can take, but I don't have anyplace else to go."
The fight over Wynne Farm is one of many land conflicts that have gripped
Haiti in the 200 years since ex-slaves declared the nation a free republic
in 1804. Its first
leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, promised to divide the captured plantations of slave owners among his soldiers, but he was assassinated by generals who wanted
The country has not surveyed land holdings nationwide in 200 years. Its last complete census was in 1971.
The few existing land surveys are often poorly maintained. It's not
uncommon for families to produce tattered deeds, dating to the early 1800s,
as their sole claim to
property. There are no clear recordings of public and private land boundaries, and many Haitians live on land granted informally as political favors by previous
Moreover, Haiti's land laws are rooted in Napoleonic law, which gives
equal rights to each child of a deceased landowner. A single brother or
sister in a large family
can prevent sale or development of a parcel, which sometimes ties up land use for generations. Large peasant families control small parcels of land through a series
of oral contracts passed down for generations.
"You show up in one of these remote regions, and they'll tell you a
very convoluted tale of who owns what, where," said Raynald Carre, director
general of the
National Office of Land Registry. "If there is a survey, our people try to retrace it and cannot figure it out."
Many surveys were originally conducted by surveyors who marked off property
lines based on the time it would take to smoke a bowl of tobacco, Carre
each generation, the land has been carved into ever smaller pieces, making it difficult to mount large-scale agricultural and conservation programs.
In most Latin American and Caribbean countries, land reform means breaking
up huge, fertile holdings controlled by powerful families. In Haiti, by
everyone seems to own -- or at least occupy -- a little bit of land.
Getting landowners and farmers to think past the next harvest and about such high-minded endeavors as soil conservation and environmental protection is difficult.
"We've been debating this question for 200 years: Should this be a nation
of large farms and industry or one of small peasant plots?" said Victor,
who has written
extensively on Haiti's environment for the United Nations and other groups. "With each revolution, rebellion, the country has to start from scratch. It's a question we
never answer, so nothing ever gets done."
The past decade has seen such political disarray that rich and poor
Haitians alike are grabbing whatever land they can. Haitians call it libertinage
-- literally a
Haiti's rich are destroying large tracts of wilderness to create formidable
homes and commercial buildings around Port-au-Prince. Squatters and street
meanwhile, have overtaken such ecological gems as the Katherine Dunham Botanical Gardens, a nationally protected site since 1999.
The Foret des Pins, the nation's largest protected pine forest, has
shrunk from 94,000 acres to about 34,000, as desperate peasants have thinned
its ranks in the last
decade. The Parc National La Visite, a forest and savanna on the Visite River, has farms illegally operating inside its protected areas, alongside makeshift logging
STAKING THEIR CLAIMS
Haitian government officials say the Wynne Farm conflict is the product
of a murky history of purchases and transfers, some of which may have been
Although the Wynne family has controlled the property for four decades, it's unclear who owns which parcels around the botanical gardens at the center of the farm.
Two other parties claim ownership of parts of the farm, including a
family with a century-old deed to back up its claim. Both families are
in court, but a third party
has begun bulldozing the botanical preserve for construction.
"As far as the botanical gardens, that belongs to the Wynne family,
but it's not at all clear to me that they have title to the land around
the garden," said Jean Max
Dimitri Norris, chief of biodiversity at the Ministry of Environment. "Now the issue is whether this land should be protected, if this building going on up there is the
best use for the land."
Brisson Toussaint, an attorney for a family challenging the Wynnes'
ownership, said Jane Wynne's citizenship also is at issue. Unless she can
produce proof to
support her claim that she was born in Haiti -- like many Haitians, she has no birth certificate -- Victor Wynne's daughter may not have legal rights to his land.
"A large part of the land claimed by the Wynnes is owned by my clients,"
said Toussaint. "They have the deeds to prove it's their land. The deed
is dated in the
1800s. It was granted to their ancestor, a captain who fought in the war of independence."
Cases like Wynne Farm's clog the Haitian justice system.
"It's a permanent, constant problem, a real mess, that you deal with
daily as an attorney," said Toussaint, whose small, musty office is a sea
of client case files.
"There's still litigation going on over the first American occupation, and the Americans even paid the peasants for use of their land. Whenever there's any opportunity
here, there's going to be a land conflict."
And there is plenty of opportunity on Wynne Farm. The view from the
mountain's summit, about 6,000 feet up, is breathtaking on a clear day,
taking in the entire
capital city of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding mountains. During the rainy season, a thick mist rolls over the valley in the afternoon, shrouding the landscape and
leaving its oldest trees stooped and dark.
Wynne Farm is a cloud forest, an oasis for rare birds, exotic frogs, plants and fruits from all over the world.
Victor Wynne poured his life savings into the property, hiring workmen
to dig a series of terraces about 4 feet wide that slope backward, toward
the mountain, to
collect water. Wynne looked to other countries for growing techniques and plants that he hoped could prosper in Haiti and improve the life of its peasants.
"He introduced many fruit trees in Haiti, many plants," said Jane Wynne.
"Because Haiti is mountainous, he studied what the Indians did in Machu
Picchu, the Incas
in Peru. So he focused on ... variations on terracing."
Wynne imported different species of wood and fruit trees to figure out
what would flourish in Haiti's climate. He tried to encourage the government
to plant bamboo
imported from Asia in the country's valleys. It would hold water, nourish the soil and provide a cash crop for the country's talented artisans.
"He always talked about nature and the soil, the soil, the soil," recalled
his daughter. "At lunch, when he sat down with the workmen, it was the
soil. And again, at
night during dinner, he would talk more about the soil. My mom used to say you're dreaming too much. You spend all of your money on paying the workmen to save
A short, round-faced woman with long, graying hair and a singsong voice, Jane Wynne is a member of Haiti's tiny middle class.
But like many people of means in this country, Victor Wynne's daughter
is trapped by her circumstances. The family's main asset is an aging, two-story
where she lives with relatives, a small plant nursery and the land that they refuse to sell or develop. Wynne cannot imagine leaving and starting life in another country.
"My dad used to tell us that in order to establish a place, try to get
it as far away from civilization as possible," she said. "Put it on the
top of a mountain so it's not
easy to get at. Because people won't climb the mountain.
"I'm sorry for my dad. It's proven not to be the right thing here. Maybe in a country where there's some consciousness of the environment."
Copyright © 2004