By LARRY ROHTER
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Columbus stumbled across it in 1504 but never
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,
uninhabited Caribbean island barely two miles square that both countries claim as their own.
which Haiti is threatening to take to international tribunals, arose after
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
in the portfolio," said Michael Smith, leader of the expedition, which was sponsored by the Center
for Marine Conservation, a Washington-based environmental group.
a very special and extremely healthy coral reef," he added, "and it is
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,
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
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.
"is unorganized American territory, meaning that Congress has never set
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."
to comment on Haiti's claim to the island, referring the matter to the
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
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
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?"
the situation even further, William Warren, a California businessman who
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
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.
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
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
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.
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