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Developing an In-Country Capacity for Biodiversity Conservation in Haiti: The Haitian Botanical Foundation

Volume 2 Number 9 - December 1997

Suzanne Michal & Peter Wyse Jackson

The establishment of the Haitian Botanical Foundation in 1996 is described. The mission of the Foundation is to work for the protection of the biodiversity of Haiti and to promote environmental education.

Haiti and its Environmental History

The country of Haiti occupies one third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. It is bordered on the east by the Dominican Republic. The first Europeans arrived in Haiti at the end 1492 and in during its French colonial period it developed a rich agricultural economy with great plantations especially of sugar cane, indigo, coffee. Vast numbers of slaves were imported from Africa to work these plantations. After many years of unrest and political turmoil, independence was declared from France in 1804. Having few natural resources, the economy remained largely rural based and agricultural into the 1900s. Forest exploitation increased. Fine woods such as mahogany and lignum-vitae were exported. Pine and mahogany were harvested. Much timber was used for fuelwood and charcoal and further clearance took place for agriculture.

Haiti has a land area of 27,750 The climate is broadly subtropical but varies with the topography. Agriculture is carried on by three-quarters of the present population. The most recent population figures number around seven million of which 30% live in Port-au-Prince. In 1960 Haiti's population was 3.7 million. By 2025 it is expected to have risen to 11.5 million people. The population growth rate is 1.88% per annum. Population density is 2.3 people per ha.

Land holdings in Haiti are small: 91% are less than three hectares and 88% of the rural population is located on these small holdings. Today less than 2% of Haiti is covered by natural vegetation. Much of the cleared land has been severely eroded of its soil cover and the total of productive land declines annually. Many of the small farm plots are used for mixed agriculture or horticulture. The majority of Haiti's people live in great poverty and nationally Haiti is unable to produce sufficient food to feed its population. Only one third of Haiti is suitable to agriculture because of its topography.

The flora of the island of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti) is the second most diverse of the Caribbean islands; only Cuba has a larger vascular flora. Of the estimated 4,500-5,000 species of flowering plants and conifers in Hispaniola, about 30-33% are considered endemic. The flora of Haiti is poorly known. Although many species are certainly on the verge of extinction little work is presently being undertaken to locate, record or conserve them. Some species survive as isolated individuals or tiny populations in otherwise degraded and deforested areas.

Few countries are more seriously threatened by environmental crisis than Haiti. This, and the reliance of Haiti's economy on mixed agriculture and horticulture make the development of an in-country capacity for biodiversity conservation, natural-area protection and management, environmental education and plant resource development a vital and urgent necessity.

Establishment of the Haitian Botanical Foundation

In 1993, Botanic Gardens Conservation International began work in Haiti, first of all in planning the development of a national botanic garden in Port-au-Prince and subsequently broadening its approach to support the development of greater in-country capacity for biodiversity conservation.

In 1995 a BGCI Field Officer in Haiti, Suzanne Michal, was appointed to lead in the development of BGCI Programmes in that country. Her primary task became the establishment of a new Haitian non-governmental organization, the Haitian Botanical Foundation to lead in the development of biodiversity conservation programmes and to establish a broadly based grass-roots organization capable of initiating and implementing independent projects as well as supporting and enhancing governmental capacity for conservation.

In September 1996 the Haitian Botanical Foundation was formally established and formally registered with the Haitian Government as a non-profit foundation.

Suzanne Michal was appointed as its first full-time Executive Director and an Administrative Board and Executive Committee were created. Its Board includes leading and influential Haitian and international professionals and has already been successful in developing its position as a respected and influential new body with expertise on the Haitian environment.

General Objectives of the Foundation

The mission of the Foundation is to work for the protection of the biodiversity of Haiti and to promote environmental education. Its general objectives are to:

  • Establish, develop and maintain permanent botanical establishments in Haiti, including botanic gardens, arboreta and herbaria
  • Promote plant species conservation in Haiti by preserving the widest possible genetic diversity and to focus on its conservation in natural sites throughout the country
  • Promote ecosystem conservation of natural habitats to conserve the flora and fauna they contain
  • Participate in the development of a broad range of activities that contribute to the protection of the environment
  • Promote collaboration between national and international scientific endeavors studying the Haitian flora and participating in its conservation
  • Undertake and support activities in the area of environmental education in order to enhance public understanding of the importance of biodiversity and the need for its conservation
  • Directly respond to the needs of the urban and rural populations by the improvement of the environment and the utilization of renewable plant resources

Recent Activities and Achievements


Close links have been made with the Haitian Government and the Foundation has already acted as an advisor to the Ministries of Environment, Agriculture and Education. Agreement has been reached with the Minister for Environment that the Foundation will develop its role as project implementation agency involved in:

  • Management of existing protected areas in Haiti
  • Development and designation of new protected areas
  • Establishment of botanical institutions, including botanic gardens
  • Developing databases on biodiversity information and sources concerning the Haitian biota
  • Public information relating to national biodiversity

The Foundation participated and contributed to the 1st National Workshop on the Management of Protected Areas and the Financial Management of Biodiversity Conservation in Haiti (convened by the Ministry of Environment and the World Bank, Feb 1997).

Good working and cooperative links have also been made with other Haitian and international non-governmental organizations including BGCI, Fairchild Tropical Garden, Miami (Chuck Hubbuch of Fairchild is a member of the Foundation's Board), University of Florida, Miami, and several individual botanic gardens and other environmental organizations and institutions in the Caribbean region. The Foundation has been successful in developing a strong network of associated international advisors on scientific, educational and development issues, particularly those with a good background and knowledge of the Haitian environment, its flora and on botanical institutional development and management.

The Foundation has been active in regional planning for biodiversity conservation, particularly focused on botanic gardens in the Caribbean Islands. It has been closely linked and has actively assisted in the formation of a Caribbean Islands Botanic Gardens Working Group which has met in Grand Cayman (June 1996) and Barbados (July 1997) and participated in the preparation of a new Action Plan for Caribbean Island Botanic Gardens currently in draft and due to be published in 1998.

Financial and other forms of support have been received by the Foundation to assist in its establishment and in the development of its programmes. The major donors to date have been Cable and Wireless plc, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Fairchild Tropical Garden, Miami, Haiti Solidarit‚ Internationale and British Airways.

Some current and proposed activities

Public awareness: Agreement has been reached with UNDP in Haiti to receive support to initiate a public awareness programme concerning biodiversity conservation in Haiti.

Palm recovery: A new programme has begun to study and assess the status of Haitian palm diversity, including germplasm collection, propagation and conservation.

Germplasm collections: Work has been initiated to collect germplasm of Haitian native plants, especially palms and woody plants for cultivation in the new botanic gardens in Port-au-Prince and protected secure privately owned sites throughout the country.

Resource library: A resource library on the Haitian flora, environmental education, conservation techniques and processes, botanic gardens, maps, photographic images, especially of native flora, development plans etc. has been created and is available for use by individuals and organizations working in Haiti on biodiversity conservation.

Conservation meetings: A monthly workshop open forum is held in Port-au-Prince on various topics and subjects related to biodiversity, conservation and environmental education. Such meetings have helped considerably to broaden the network developing amongst conservation and education ngos in Haiti and to establish priorities for the Foundation.

Field studies: A programme of regular site visits and expeditions throughout Haiti to areas of particular or potential interest to biodiversity is being undertaken to gather information on their situation and current status.

Publicity: Gaining publicity in the media in Haiti on the Foundation and biodiversity conservation concerns is a high priority for the Foundation. Several articles about the Foundation and its work have already been published in the national press and other articles are being prepared.

Establishment of the National Botanic Garden: The Foundation has led the planning of a National Botanic Garden for Haiti, proposed for Habitation Leclerc in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince. A Development Plan for the Garden was completed and on-going negotiations for the hand over of this land, currently in private ownership, are being undertaken. The establishment of such a botanic garden has received very wide support and endorsement from many public bodies and private individuals in Haiti.

Protected areas: The Foundation is in the process of accepting land donations for the establishment of plant propagation facilities and a nursery.

Herbarium: Work has begun on establishing a reference herbarium of native and exotic plants and the rescue of the existing historical herbarium collections made by Eckman.

Future Priorities

Biodiversity database: The Foundation will seek resources to support the development of a national Biodiversity Information Database System.

Protected area management plans and assessments: In association with the Ministry of Environment, projects are being established to formulate Protected Area Management plans for the key surviving areas of natural vegetation and plant species diversity, namely:

  • Foret des Pins
  • Parc la Visite
  • Parc Macaya

The Foundation will subsequently become involved in the implementation of these management plans.

At present only 0.3% of the land area of of Haiti is included within the existing protected area system. A national target is to increase this total to 2% of national territory. The Foundation will participate in the assessment and information gathering required for other proposed protected areas.

Botanic garden establishment: The creation of the new botanic garden and its facilities and collections will be a priority for the Foundation. This will involve:

  • Development of exploration, collection and rescue of endangered native plants, including propagation and cultivation of ex situ material in secure locations
  • Public information programmes on biodiversity conservation

Plant Species Recovery: The development and implementation of a series of species recovery programmes for threatened native plants will be undertaken.

Natural History Museum: The collaborative project for the creation of a first ever Haitian Natural History Museum in Port-au-Prince is being undertaken.

Newsletter/information bulletin: New information bulletins in French/Creole will be issued providing briefing materials for the general public in Haiti on biodiversity issues.

Genetic resource project: Plans are being made to develop pilot projects to assess and distribute germplasm of species appropriate for use in fuel wood plantations, fruit tree introduction and suitable species for the development of local industries - crafts, medicinal species, fibre plants, horticultural crops. Genetic resources for such projects are being sourced from the international botanic garden community.