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17439: Burnham : Toronto Star article Habitation Leclerc (fwd)
From: thor burnham <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Nov. 23, 2003. 01:00 AM
Scarce water, sacred trees
Ancient forest `under siege' in Haiti's water war
Canadian trying to restore haven for plants and people
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
Port-au-Prince—The skeletal, rusted carcasses of long-dead automobiles
litter the potholed roads leading into the shadows of Habitation LeClerc, a
dense, old-growth forest surrounded by urban slums here in Haiti's capital.
Burning piles of garbage spew plumes of acrid smoke into shafts of sunlight
filtering through the treetops. An ancient stone wall surrounding the
20-hectare forest has collapsed into heaps of rubble.
The steaming refuge, alive with dangling vines, looks like a haunted war
zone. In a sense, that's what 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," says Cameron
Brohman, a Canadian trying to save what may be Haiti's most vital natural
resource in a nation virtually stripped of vegetation.
Home to countless rare plants, medicinal bark and a wealth of food,
Habitation LeClerc is the nerve centre for the local voodoo religion.
Many Haitians believe it is protected by the maître du grand bois — the
master spirit of the great forest.
Makeshift voodoo shrines with candles, carvings and the blood or bones of
sacrificed animals are scattered throughout the undergrowth.
The forest also sits atop 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 its 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 unearthed by looters.
Brohman, 53, is a development consultant who has been working in Haiti on
various projects since the mid-1980s.
He first came to Haiti in the early days of the video medium and was working
in the area of educational video when he founded VideoTwins, a video
exchange program between high schools in Port-au-Prince and Hamilton.
Supported by a private grant supplied by the elderly American woman who has
owned the Habitation LeClerc property for decades, Brohman has been battling
for 14 years to transform the ancient forest into a botanical garden.
But it's a rough go in the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, which
is trapped in a social, environmental and political crisis that reverberates
through the forest.
Habitation LeClerc boasts a once-opulent palace, originally built for
Napoleon's sister, Pauline, and her administrator husband during French
colonial rule, which ended violently in 1804.
The palace was later turned into a hotel for jetsetters during the 1970s.
Celebrities such as Mick and Bianca Jagger and Jacqueline Onassis frolicked
in the lush foliage and the hotel's 12 swimming pools.
But makeshift machine-gun slots now block the windows of the hotel reception
area and the elegant fountains have long since run dry.
A notorious drug gang called the Red Army has overrun the place, terrorizing
and extorting illegal rent from hundreds of squatters who have occupied the
estate's 35 mildewed villas.
Evening gunfights are common, with corpses left on display in the morning.
"Life is tough here," says Marielle Terminus, a 30-year-old squatter walking
her young daughter to school one recent morning.
Terminus says she and her husband have no work but must pay the Red Army an
annual rent equivalent to $130, 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," warns
`Crooks and government want to be able to control the water and sell it to
Cameron Brohman, forest manager
Haiti has been sliding steadily into the abyss during two decades of
The international community is withholding $500 million (U.S.) in aid,
saying the American-installed government has turned corrupt and despotic.
The United States occupied Haiti in 1994 to replace an army junta that had
overthrown President Jean-Bertrand Aristide eight months after he was
elected in 1990.
American officials proclaimed an ambitious plan for rebuilding Haiti, where
65 per cent of the 7 million population earns less than $1 a day. But
Washington lost interest and failed to follow through.
Now, the troubled Caribbean nation is beset by corruption, lawlessness and
political oppression. Aristide's ruling party recruits unemployed youths and
children into chimere units — armed squads that activists say are used for
drug-running, political intimidation and killings.
The Red Army, also called the Popular Organization for the Liberation of
Haiti, is one such gang. Its members have occupied Habitation LeClerc since
"At first, I thought this was about trees, but now I realize it's about
water politics," says Brohman, who was recently joined in Haiti by his wife,
former Random House Canada executive director Sarah Davies.
"The crooks and the government want to be able to control the water and sell
it to the poor."
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 per cent and
Aristide told last year's Earth Summit that the cover had dropped to 1 per
A recent U.N. environmental report described Haiti as "one of the most
degraded countries in the world."
Warns Brohman: "Haiti is facing an environmental apocalypse, but nobody is
talking about it."
But Habitation LeClerc symbolizes a rare glimmer of hope in a dispossessed
"This place could be a symbol for survival, growth and renewal," says
He estimates that $330,000 is needed to rebuild the wall around the
cathedral of trees, pay off police and relocate the squatters.
The program now operates on a meagre annual budget, equivalent to $53,000,
supplied by Katherine Dunham, 95, a retired anthropologist and dancer who
lives in New York.
Dunham, who bought this slice of Eden in 1944, enlisted Brohman's help after
meeting him in 1989.
So far, Brohman has succeeded in having the forest internationally
recognized as a botanical garden, though two British botanists were run off
the land at gunpoint several years ago.
A $22.5 million (U.S.) World Bank project, its first environmental loan to
the devastated country, was cancelled in 2001 after Haiti's government
squabbled over the cash.
In September, Canada promised $1.15 million to Haiti for rural water and
agriculture management. Brohman pays local police about $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 he says is considering a
disarmament program in the forest "to demonstrate how communities can be
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 Brohman in his bid to return the forest to its
original 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 says. "For more than 200 years, governments have come and gone,
but the trees have just kept growing."
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