With its disappearing tropical forests and ravaged wetlands, Haiti has a reputation as a barren wasteland for wildlife. Now, ironically, the discovery of endangered corals and a rare tiny lizard along its northern coast is threatening an ambitious vision to spur economic growth.
While snorkeling in the overfished coastal area along Haiti's Bay of Fort Liberte recently, biologists encountered rich marine life that could threaten government plans to build a modern, multimillion-dollar commercial port. The government has said the port is critical to revitalizing the economy.
Ultimately, it'll be up to Haiti's government to decide whether to go forward with the project. But it is the latest conundrum confronting a nation struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake, one that once again pits environmental concerns against economic growth.
"We are waiting to see results of these studies. We will make the right decision once we have all the elements," Haiti Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said.
The discovery of elkhorn and staghorn corals, large branching reef-builders that are listed as threatened species by the United States, comes on the heels of a bleak study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The group's research found coral reefs across the Caribbean are on the verge of collapse, under attack from global warming, overfishing, disease and pollution an assault that has left just 8 percent of reefs with living coral growth.
"Turning this natural resource into a port is a really bad idea," said Gregor Hodgson, executive director of Reef Check Foundation, which has surveyed the eastern end of the north coast of Haiti including the bays of Fort Liberte, Caracol and Acul.
"Dredging and filling will be required during construction and during operation," Hodgson said in an email. "Additional pollution from large boats, diesel spills etc., will be damaging to this unique environment. Corals are very sensitive to all of these types of pollution."
Hodgson called a fringing reef of endangered corals at the mouth of the bay part of the "unusual habitat inside the bay." In addition to finding the corals in two separate expeditions, U.S. government experts also discovered a tiny, typically unseen lizard called a skink that could also be an endangered species. U.S. officials say additional environmental surveys are under way. Divers are also exploring other parts of the coastline.
"The United States is providing economic, environmental and other sector experts to help the [government of Haiti] assess its options for modern container port services that spur economic growth and preserve the culture and environment of the region," U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Pamela A. White said.
Both the U.S. and Haitian governments have been collaborating on the construction of the northern port as part of an overall development of the region. No price has been assigned to the project, though President Michel Martelly, a big backer of the project, has said it will cost $179 million. U.S. officials have said the port would have to be a public-private partnership that involves an international bidding process by Haiti and possibly several foreign partners pooling resources to help with construction.
Fort Liberte was chosen during the previous administration for a port over two other northern locations. The area received the highest scores in a 2010 International Finance Corporation study because of its proximity to the sea, a new highway and industrial parks in the area, said Ary Naim, IFC country representative for Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
"The north needs a port to sustain the huge investment opportunities that comes with the new park," Lamothe said.
Envisioned before the January 2010 earthquake, the 600-acre industrial park is a $300 million job creation package financed by the U.S. government and Inter-American Development Bank. Supporters have championed it as a model for rebuilding post-quake Haiti while environmentalists have criticized the current and previous Haitian governments for locating it on prime agriculture land at the mouth of the nearby Bay of Caracol, an endangered marine and mangrove-forest ecosystem.
"As with the industrial park, there must be some place better for its location," Haiti environmentalist Jean Wiener said.
Wiener heads one of Haiti's oldest and only environmental groups that focuses on coastal and marine resources management and protection. He has been pushing for the entire area that includes Fort Liberte and the Bay of Caracol to be turned into a protected marine area. He isn't surprised by the bay's rich biodiversity of turtle grass, corals, mangroves and marine species.
Agreeing with Hodgson that the area with its old colonial French and Spanish forts is a "unique environmental and cultural habitat," Wiener said Fort Liberte bay would be better served as a tourism attraction and managed costal and marine reserve.
The environmental issues confronting leaders are not unique to Haiti.
In Florida, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are relocating small endangered corals as part of a settlement with the state Department of Environmental Protection, Miami-Dade County and the Corps.
The efforts are part of a settlement agreement with environmental groups, which contend that blasting and silt from the dredging in the Port of Miami will harm corals, sea grass beds and other marine life.
Experts say the park's success doesn't hinge on the construction of a new port. But with the current underutilized, underfunded Cap-Haitien port barely capable of handling more than a few hundred containers a month, Haiti would benefit greatly from a modern port capable of receiving tankers for a much-needed fuel depot in the region, and larger vessels with the ongoing expansion of the Panama Canal.
Haiti also stands to benefit economically by a new port's multiplier effect. Currently, the country is losing desperately needed revenue as the industrial park's main tenant, Korean manufacturing firm Sae-A, ships out of the neighboring Dominican Republic, whose nearby Port of Manzanillo is being pushed as an option if plans for the northern Haiti port falls through.
Fort Liberte was once the site of a thriving sisal plantation. But as demand for the fiber declined, the industry died. To survive, unemployed residents turned to the land, fishing barely matured fish out of the bay's narrow channel and cutting the mangroves for charcoal and construction material.
"If you don't build a port, you will come next year and there still will not be any lizards or coral reefs," said Gregory Brandt, a Port-au-Prince businessman.
Since 1995, Brandt has been advocating for the area to be transformed into a special economic zone with a modern port built on the bay's western bank.
"Putting Haitians to work is the first thing to do to protect the environment," he said.
Economist and Oxford University professor Paul Collier, who made headlines arguing that rebuilding Haiti's garment assembly industry was a key to rebuilding the country, said: "You've got to see the environmental gains as well as environmental losses."
"We know who is endangered in Haiti without looking under the stones to find the shy lizards. It's the people," said Collier. "It's imperative to relocate as many Haitians by developing new centers of economic activities."
Collier said "it's hypocritical" of people living in cities in the United States and elsewhere to expect Haiti to not build cities where people are productive.
"There is massive environmental degradation across Haiti because too many people are desperately trying to get a living out of the country," he said.