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7356 Haitian garden struggles to thrive (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
By Trenton Daniel
PORT-AU-PRINCE, March 14 (Reuters) - Charlemana Lecenat, an unemployed
23-year-old, retreats to the calm of a tropical garden in Haiti's
overcrowded capital every chance he gets.
"I come here because I can find silence and I can read," Lecenat said,
taking a break from a book about sociology. "You can't hear the cars pass
here and there's a lot of shade."
Located in the bustling Martissant slum of Port-au-Prince, a hot,
crumbling city of 1.5 million people, the 50-acre (20-hectare) Katherine
Dunham Botanical Garden is an oasis of Caribbean plant life: stately palms,
sky-high ferns, bamboo, and several sacred mapou trees.
It also has a rich history. Buildings in the garden known as the
Habitation LeClerc, reputed to have been a residence for Napoleon
Bonaparte's sister Pauline, were a hedonistic hotel for the likes of Jackie
Onassis and Mick and Bianca Jagger in the 1970s. Now they belong to U.S.
folk dancer, choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham, whose
seven-decade romance with Haiti began when she visited the country to study
local dance traditions in the 1930s.
But the garden might be a metaphor for the environmental problems
besetting the poorest country in the Americas: Squatters, territorial
gangs, mountains of trash and roaming pigs have eased their way up to and
over the walls, thwarting plans to create a proper botanical garden.
A team of lawyers, architects, botanists and university faculty, and
the owner herself, are trying to raise funds and awareness to convert the
private estate into a public institution that would protect its trees and
plants and educate people about Haiti's natural assets.
But such plans have faltered in the past.
"You cut the trees, the water goes away. It begins a cycle," said
Cameron Brohman, the garden's project director. "The project had fallen
into neglect and suffered from the climate of lawlessness in certain areas
The property, overseen by six caretakers, fell into rapid decline
after armed gangs forced two botanists working there out in 1997. Although
the government declared it a "national protected site" in 1999, it has
fallen prey to slum dwellers, who have moved into abandoned buildings, and
It is not uncommon to hear gunfire at night, said a nearby resident.
If they can get the support of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, just
sworn in for a new term, and the police force to work to relocate squatters
and combat the gang warriors, the team plans to open an office for Quiskeya
University's School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences in the
"It's of paramount importance to save that forest," said Georges
Michel, who teaches radiology at Quiskeya University and is working with
Brohman on the project. "It's an invaluable asset to Haiti. It's a rare
tropical, coastal forest. Many of the trees are 200 years old."
Also significant is that the tropical garden houses an artesian
spring, known as Source Leclerc, that provides water to about 1 million
Port-au-Prince inhabitants, said Brohman.
Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican
Republic, has a population of 7.8 million, most of whom live in abject
poverty and have little or no access to potable water or electricity.
The sinking economy has contributed to widespread hunger and massive
All of this -- the garden's decline, the invasion of gangs and
Aristide's recent return to office -- has prompted Dunham, an honorary
citizen of Haiti and a high priestess mambo, to plan one of her periodic
visits to her estate, which she bought in 1944.
She first traveled to Haiti in 1936 to study dance and fell in love
with the culture and the people. A long-time supporter, she staged a 47-day
hunger strike in 1993 to protest U.S. policy of repatriating Haitians
fleeing political oppression.
"I think it's about time that the garden got under way," Dunham said
from her home in New York. The 91-year-old dance legend intends to return
in the next three or four months and hopes to meet with her friend
Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, became Haiti's first
democratically elected president in 1991 only to be ousted in a coup seven
months later. He was restored to power in 1994 with the help of the U.S.
Dunham sees the garden as a way to educate people about Haitian plant
species and to attract tourists, who have steered clear of Haiti since the
fall of dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986.
"I would like to work with the tourist bureau since places like this
one aren't available anywhere," she said.
"It will entice people to learn about plant life in Haiti and will
bring tourists who have not been here. It will get people to come to