Effort to preserve threatened rain forest also means a better life for peasants

January 06, 1991|By Cox News Service

FORMOND, Haiti -- Perched high on a misty mountaintop, the dense jungle of the threatened Pic Macaya rain forest is home to endangered plants and animals found nowhere else in the world and a winter refuge for birds from North, South and Central America.

Concerned by deforestation, conservationists from Florida and Haiti are working together to save the jungle from impoverished peasants, who survive by hacking through the wilderness to chop down the majestic tropical pines for timber.

"It is one of the unique places in the Americas, a crossroads of species. It is a terribly important area," said Paul Paryski, head of the project, who comes from the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) of the University of Florida at Gainesville.

The five-year project began in 1988, financed by $15 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Pic Macaya National Park has been protected by a ban on logging since 1983, but peasants east and west of the park often ignore the prohibition.

If it is destroyed, its numerous unique species -- including hundreds of varieties of delicate, jewel-colored orchids -- will be lost forever.

For many U.S. birds, the 34,500-acre park in southwest Haiti, 180 miles from Port-au-Prince, is a seasonal lifeline.

Among the birds that fly in from Florida in the winter are warblers, scarlet tanagers, sparrows and ducks, Mr. Paryski said.

Grebes, avocets and other waterfowl come from the Everglades, he said.

"Many North American birds winter in Macaya, and if their habitat is destroyed, the species will disappear," Mr. Paryski said.

For the dirt-poor Haitian peasants who chop away at the skirts of Pic Macaya, one good-sized pine tree can bring them $500 -- more than most Haitians earn in a year.

That windfall can mean survival for a family in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

But the disappearance of the forest would have disastrous consequences for the peasants themselves, since the seven rivers that supply southern Haiti with water flow down from the jungle.

Without this fountain, the fertile farmland of the coast would become a sunbaked arid plain, as incapable of sustaining cultivation as other severely deforested areas of the country.

To halt the damage, the IFAS team has begun a multifaceted program for 20,000 families in 15 neighboring communities aimed at restoring the forest while providing the peasants with a new source of income.

At the IFAS field station near the village of Formond, the team is planting trees on a barren mountainside. That will contain erosion and, eventually, repair the rain forest all the way to Macaya, a few peaks away.

"That was once pristine tropical forest," said Sharon Hart, a Peace Corps volunteer from Seattle, pointing to a grassy mountainside at Formond and shaking her head. "If we can get those 10,000 trees planted, it will be pretty nifty."

To replace the peasants' timber livelihood, the team has shown them more productive farming methods and brought in superior strains of beans, a major cash crop in Haiti. High-quality carrots and cabbage are also being raised.

"They must be given another occupation," said Edisson Chevalier, an Agriculture Ministry agronomist who works with local farmers.

"Helping them switch to agriculture is our challenge."

The team also has a new breed of the black hog that was an important source of animal protein for Haitians until the animals were slaughtered, at the advice of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to contain a swine fever epidemic in the early 1980s.

Formond peasants say they are satisfied with their new livelihood.

"Before we cut the wood. Now we plant the land," said Boniface Casti, in his early 20s.

Among the park's endangered animals are the zaguouti, a rabbit-like rodent that looks like an overgrown guinea pig, Mr. Paryski said.

Another, the nez longe, or "long-nose" in Creole, is a meter-long insect-eater that looks like an anteater. The only other animal in the world that resembles it lives in Madagascar, he said.

There are 19 endangered birds, including the Hispaniolan Trojan parrot, known in Creole as "red underpants" because of its flamboyant coloring.

Some, like the palm tanager and an albatross-like bird known as the "black cat," are found only in Pic Macaya.

Others, like the peregrine falcon, are endangered worldwide but have found a safe haven -- so far -- in Macaya, Mr. Paryski said.

He said 12 species of native giant sloths have disappeared from Pic Macaya in the past 50 years. A monkey vanished before it could be

named, and a great stygian owl is also gone.

The forest of Pic Macaya, a 7,041-foot-high peak, is a mixture of its native tropical pines, which are harder than other varieties, and thick canopies of jungle plants.

Long vines crisscross over 10-foot ferns nourished by the abundant rainfall.

Mr. Paryski said visits from birds from North, South and Central America make the forest a crucial laboratory of genetic diversity, since birds often carry seeds.

Haiti, once a jade-green paradise known as the "Pearl of the Antilles," was still 50 percent forested in the 1950s.

Decades of slash-and-burn agriculture and logging have reduced forests to less than 2 percent, AID officials say.

"Macaya is the last truly forested area of Haiti. It's an area of tremendous natural beauty," Mr. Paryski said.

"If those rivers dry up, a lot of agriculture will decrease in Haiti. This is the last stand."

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