The New York Times
October 19, 1998
Whose Rock Is It? Yes, the Haitians Care


          By LARRY ROHTER

               PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Columbus stumbled across it in 1504 but never bothered to
               come back, and later explorers scorned it as a worthless outcropping of rock and bird dung.

          All of a sudden, though, the United States and Haiti are squabbling over the status of Navassa, an
          uninhabited Caribbean island barely two miles square that both countries claim as their own.

          The dispute, which Haiti is threatening to take to international tribunals, arose after an American
          scientific expedition authorized by the Interior Department spent two weeks on the island this
          summer. The group returned with tales of finding "biological riches unimagined," which led Interior
          Secretary Bruce Babbitt to warn of his intention to protect the island from interlopers -- with Coast
          Guard vessels if necessary.

          "If you were going to consider a system of protected areas, you'd definitely want to include Navassa
          in the portfolio," said Michael Smith, leader of the expedition, which was sponsored by the Center
          for Marine Conservation, a Washington-based environmental group.

          "Navassa has a very special and extremely healthy coral reef," he added, "and it is absolutely
          remarkable how much animal life we found there, including new species that are endemic to the

          The United States has controlled Navassa, just 40 miles off Haiti's southwest peninsula, for more
          than 140 years. But of the 24 constitutions Haiti has had since gaining independence from France in
          1804, all but one of them described La Navase, as the island is called here, as an inalienable part of
          Haitian territory.

          The basis of the American claim is the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which authorized American
          vessels to establish sovereignty on any abandoned or unclaimed island that had reserves of the rich
          fertilizer derived from bird droppings. A year later, an American sea captain, Peter Duncan, planted
          the American flag on Navassa, which was followed by several decades of phosphate mining and
          construction of a Coast Guard lighthouse that was abandoned only in the 1950s.

          Today, Navassa "is unorganized American territory, meaning that Congress has never set up or
          passed any statutes prescribing any particular type of administration," Babbitt said in a telephone
          interview from Washington. "In the absence of that, the Interior Department is traditionally the place
          where these matters are dealt with."

          Babbitt declined to comment on Haiti's claim to the island, referring the matter to the State
          Department, which has consistently claimed American sovereignty for the Island. "I'm just the head
          gamekeeper around here," he said. "My job is to administer the place and protect the coral reefs,
          and that's what we're doing."

          But he did add that he regards Navassa's legal status as no different from that of several uninhabited
          islands in the Pacific that the United States administers, including Howland and Midway Islands.

          But Foreign Minister Fritz Longchamp of Haiti rejects the notion that Navassa is American territory
          of any sort. He pointed to the 1697 Treaty of Rijswijk, in which Spain gave up sovereignty over
          Haiti and the adjoining islands to France, and dismissed American possession of the island, and
          some 4,000 square miles of seabed around it, as irrelevant under international law.

          "La Navase is Haitian and a part of Haiti," he said in an interview here. "If I own something and I
          make a decision not to use it, that does not give you the right to come and claim it because I have
          not been using it. How many islands off the coast of the United States are not inhabited? Does that
          mean anyone can come and claim them too?"

          Complicating the situation even further, William Warren, a California businessman who says he
          wants to mine Navassa for organic fertilizer, has also made an ownership claim. He has filed suit
          against Babbitt and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, citing a 1905 document in which the
          State Department said it "possessed no territorial sovereignty" over the island.

          For weeks now, the Navassa imbroglio has filled news broadcasts and talk shows here. At one
          point last month, the American ambassador, Timothy Carney, even suggested that since Haiti has
          many internal problems that need attention, the country's energies might be better directed toward
          resolving those issues, rather than focusing on a tiny island that few Haitians other than fishermen
          have ever visited.

          Since Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and has been without a functioning
          government for the last 16 months, that observation, indelicate though it may have been, seemed
          self-evident. Nevertheless, Haitians have taken umbrage at Carney's remarks and begun to spin
          extravagant fantasies about his motives in pressing the American claim to the island.

          Lafanmi Lavalas, the political party organized by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide,
          immediately condemned the American position and organized a protest late last month. Haiti is also
          awash with rumors that the United States covets Navassa because the August expedition discovered
          gold or uranium there or even, according to one version making the rounds here, a gateway to

          Those conjectures are baseless, but "there is a great dollar dividend if we are talking biotechnology"
          derived from some of the spider and insect species unique to the island, said Ernst Wilson, a Haitian
          oceanographer who has organized La Navase Island Defense Group to assert the Haitian claim.

          "La Navase is a perfect laboratory, and biotechnological and pharmaceutical companies are going to
          want to get into this because there is money there, I know it," he said.

          Smith said that in the interests of lowering the political temperature, he would be willing to include
          Haitian scientists like Wilson on future visits to the island. His goal, he stressed, is to assure that
          Navassa remains a pristine refuge for animal and plant species whose existence is endangered
          elsewhere in the Caribbean.

          "Science should be an activity that bridges diplomatic problems between countries," he said. "As an
          American organization, we are subject to the Supreme Court ruling which says Navassa was
          properly annexed. But whoever ends up with jurisdiction over the island, we would like to see them
          manage it well."

                     Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company