Sowing the Seeds of Ecotourism in Haiti’s Rugged Terrain

After last year’s notorious earthquake, Haiti’s recovery has been slow and riddled with setbacks, worsened by an allegedly preventable cholera epidemic. Fortunately, Gainesville hosts a variety of organizations that actively support Haiti, whether by raising money or sending medical volunteers. Jeff Depree, a doctoral candidate in Computer Science at UF, thought he could help in his own way.

Depree traveled to Haiti this year with nothing more than a backpack and some bare essentials. His goal, without the aid of an organized group, was to explore the landscape and interact with locals. He kept a detailed log of logistical issues that could be encountered by travelers and mapped out hiking trails in hopes of encouraging other ecotourists to follow his lead and visit the country’s rugged terrain.

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as a way to travel responsibly to natural areas while respecting the environment and local culture. It’s not a novel idea, but in Haiti, it’s uncharted territory. Haiti’s tourism industry consists of isolated resorts, providing foreigners with private beaches and bars but no glimpses into the rest of Haiti.

Despite the obstacles presented by deforestation and widespread poverty, DePree hopes ecotourism will eventually become a viable option for travelers, as well as a source of income for locals and an incentive to protect Haiti’s resources.

Depree’s journey began in Port-au-Prince, where he saw the reality of the earthquake’s devastation: a tent city had replaced the main square and most of the buildings were in ruins.

He continued, focused on reaching Haiti’s untamed landscape, and hopped onto a tap-tap, a brightly colored bus or pick-up truck used as a common form of transport.

After spending his first night in a church rectory in the southern town of Furcy, DePree awoke early to begin hiking. Markets and vendors lined segments of the ridgeline to the southern coastline. He picked out a lady with pots in the dirt alongside the trail and bought a cheap and filling meal: a hodgepodge of fried spaghetti, onions, tomatoes, ketchup, and mayonnaise. For the rest of the trip, DePree mapped out up to 50 miles of hiking trails.

“Haiti is one of the last places I would imagine as a destination for ecotourists,” said Dr. Gerald Murray, professor emeritus of anthropology at UF. Murray designed and directed an agroforestry project in Haiti over a 20-year period and conducted research on the country’s culture and religion. Murray attributes his lack of optimism to Haiti’s high population density and rapid deforestation.

The government protects only two patches of land: Pic Macaya in the southwest and La Viste in the south, both national parks. Throughout the country, Haitians clear forests and use the resulting wood and charcoal for energy. The land is subsequently used for subsistence farming until overuse triggers soil erosion, creating a vicious cycle of resource depletion. In the past two decades alone, roughly 13 percent of Haiti’s forest cover has been eliminated.

“Haiti’s environment has been sidelined to deal with more pressing issues,” said Dr. Paul Monaghan, an assistant professor at UF’s Department of Agricultural Education and Communication.

Monaghan worked with the US National Park Service on an assessment of Pic Macaya over a decade ago. Aside from the deteriorating landscape, he encountered human rights issues, including a lack of clean water and no viable economic opportunities. The Haitians he came across on the outskirts of the park had no choice other than clearing the forests to survive.

Although Monaghan doesn’t imagine ecotourism in Haiti would ever replace conventional tourism, he foresees its development as an incentive for Haitians to take the preservation of natural resources into their own hands, reversing the current cycle of deforestation and soil erosion.

Travelers like DePree hope to plant the seed from which ecotourism could expand from the ground up. As of now, ecotourists in Haiti are virtually on their own. Throughout his entire trip, Depree ran into one wilderness guide, an English-speaking Haitian who advised Depree on where to go, despite his inability to afford the guide’s price of $40 per day. He appreciated any monetary help he could get from DePree, explaining that he needed the money to buy bread for his children.

Unlike DePree, the vast majority of tourists in Haiti flock to resorts operated by foreign businesses. Labadee, one of Haiti’s most popular tourist destinations, is exclusively for those traveling with the Royal Caribbean cruise line. The 600,000 tourists who pour into Labadee annually enjoy an assortment of commercial attractions, surrounded by a 12-foot fence.

Haitian locals are not allowed into the fenced property, with the exception of those employed by the cruise line and a couple hundred others who sell trinkets at a small flea market. Aside from these 530 Haitians who receive monetary benefits, the Guardian reported last year that other Haitians lament the loss of one of their country’s most pristine natural areas to foreign enterprise.

“Haiti is beautiful,” said Getro Naissance, a Haitian student at UF. “There’s no place like it.” Born and raised in Haiti until the age of 14, Naissance makes a point to visit bi-annually and explore his homeland. He mentioned that the media focuses too much on the negative without showcasing the unique culture and landscape Haiti offers.

Naissance travels by means of local transportation, getting by with the help of people he meets along the way. Dr. Monaghan encourages Haitian émigrés, already well-versed in the country’s language and culture, to set an example for foreigners and revisit their homeland.

DePree will continue to promote a self-sufficient Haiti and hopes to go back again, next time with more camping gear and a small group of fellow travelers. He and others will build upon previous efforts, exploring uncharted areas and recording their trip in hopes of guiding future ecotourists.

“At present, Haiti has a bit of an image problem,” DePree said. “But the Haitian people are passionate about improving their country and, with a little direction, I think they could create a really enticing ecotourism industry that could put Haiti high on the list of adventure travel destinations.”

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Above: Photos taken Dec. 2010 in Haiti by Jeff DePree while hiking between Fermathe, Quest and Depot, Sud-Est. Others taken Jan. 2010, hiking from Baissins Bleu, Sud-Est to Jacmel, Sud-Est.