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Jean Wiener is the Executive Director of the Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversité Marine.
While certain areas of Haiti remain picturesque, it’s hard to find a place within the beleaguered island nation untouched by the trifecta of violence, pollution, and corruption.
Serving as executive director of the Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversité Marine, or FoProBiM, Jean Wiener is considered by many to be Haiti’s foremost environmentalist, and the expert in all matters concerning the Haitian coast.
But Activism is not something that happens in a vacuum. Jean’s decades-long efforts to clean, restore, and preserve the fragile ecosystem, is a constant balancing act between the country’s environmental issues and the basic survival needs of its impoverished population. How do you convince a fisherman struggling to put food on his family’s table that it’s within his own best interest to engage in sustainable practices?
This important conversation between Jay and Jean deals head-on with some of those challenges – challenges that are both unique to Haiti but hold relevance for any kind of activism and advocacy.
Listen to the latest episode of All About Change as Jean discusses his efforts to clean, restore, and preserve the fragile ecosystem in Haiti.
To learn more about the FoProBim, click here.
We want the ocean to be able to rest. And every minute that there isn’t a fisherman in the water actively fishing is an added minute that the ocean can rest and produce fish and grow.
Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman, and welcome to All About Change, a podcast showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.
This is all wrong.
I say put mental health first because if you don’t-
This generation of America has already had enough.
I stand before you, not as an expert, but as a concerned citizen.
Yes we can!
This week on All About Change, Jean Weiner, the executive director at FoProBiM, the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Diodiversity.
I don’t think you can go anywhere in Haiti now and not find some type of plastic somewhere, even on the furthest reaches of certain mountains where you think it would be pristine.
Jean was born and raised in Haiti. Over the years he saw his country transformed by conflict and also by pollution. But addressing the problem has been easier said than done.
At first, we were really met with a lot of anger and disdain.
Despite gaining ground with local governments and establishing himself as the nation’s most acclaimed environmentalist, the fight to clean up Haiti is confronting Jean with some impossible dilemmas.
I would never expect someone to come up to me and say, “Okay, you have to stop doing your job for just simply a month or two,” because it’ll be, how am I going to feed my family? How am I going to send kids to school? And all of that.
Thank you so much for joining us on All About Change. I’m very excited to speak to you. I’ve learned a lot about your work. First, let me start off by asking you, you grew up in Haiti. Can you tell us what that was like?
In Haiti, we were not really one of the poorer families in the country to put it simply. I was able to grow up and go to private school, have a really good education. The situation while I was growing up was very different clearly than what it is now. For me growing up things were not bad. I mean, we had a good life with the family. We participated in community activities, growing up went to the beach a lot, and that’s where my love for the environment and for the coastal marine ecosystems came in.
Can you, Jean, talk a little bit about the natural beauty of Haiti for most of our listeners who probably have never been there, and perhaps go back to when you were a child and you visited the ocean and what the country looked like then and what is the situation ecologically now?
Well, we’ll start when I was a kid. To me being a kid growing up in Haiti was just amazing. The treat of being able to go to the beach all the time with my parents practically every weekend was just something which really guided my future. That led me to talking to local fishermen, talking to sailors, talking to everyone working in the coastal and marine environment. Back then, at least I know that things had already begun to deteriorate, but beautiful nonpolluted beaches; incredible seafood, conch, lobster, snapper, and all things you can think of; beautiful mountain forests, and everything you can think of as an idyllic Caribbean country.
But slowly over the years, even in the short timeframe of up until I was probably 17 or 18 years old, even in that timeframe, the realization that less fish were becoming available to the fishermen, seeing marine debris wash up on the shores, plastics, toothbrushes, and sandals, and plastic bags, and all of that type of trash starting to wash up on the beaches. I don’t think you can go anywhere in Haiti now and not find some type of plastic somewhere, even on the furthest reaches of certain mountains where you think it would be pristine. We’ve tried to do beach cleanups in certain areas where almost the entire beach is just plastic. We kept on digging down and removing trash, and the deeper we’d dig, the more trash we’d find. There are places where the beaches are just entirely made of plastic debris now.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still a lot of places where beaches are beautiful, sandy, water is great, but we do have a lot of the normal problems which are developing now around the world which should not be normal with a lot of plastic waste everywhere.
I’ve heard you talk about the snapper, the fish that was caught when you grew up, and now seeing fish the size of your pinky. What is the situation of marine life in Haiti right now?
Haiti, at least in the Caribbean, is probably the most overfished country in our region. That has a lot to do with the extreme poverty which Haiti is going through, which it is experiencing. People who may not normally have taken up fishing as a part of their normal work life have now entered the fishing community, if you will, and are using methods and fishing techniques which are unsustainable and are causing damage to the marine environment, and therefore reducing the fish.
The biggest problem of course starting with the poverty issue is that as fish become more and more scarce, the methods for catching them become more and more extreme. So just a quick example, if you had a fishing, net for example, which had a five-inch mesh and there are less and less fish, your natural processing is going to be, “Well, if I can’t catch fish because the mesh is five inches, I’m going to make it smaller.” Then you make it smaller and you catch a little bit more fish. And then that becomes a little bit less, and that cycle repeats itself and repeats itself. And now people are fishing in many places with mesh sizes about a quarter of an inch to a point where it’s often joked about that they’re fishing with bedsheets because the mesh sizes have gotten so small.
So that is causing serious issues in which fish that would normally be allowed to grow to a marketable size, depending on the species of course, but to a nice marketable size are now being harvested at, as you said, pinky size. You can’t even clean those fish to be able to put them, for example, on a plate with rice. What is primarily done is that they’re almost used just as seasoning. They’re putting a sauce in a gravy whole. It’s almost like flavor cubes or something. We’ve seen buckets and wheelbarrows full of this type of catch where if those fish were left to grow to adult size instead of selling for maybe the equivalent of 10 US dollars, you would have easily four or 5,000 US dollars worth of fish if those fish were allowed to be able to normalize.
It becomes a question of, again, the poverty. How do you tell someone not to catch something that they’re going to eat for that day, or just going to be able to provide for their family for that day, or to send a kid to school, or to pay a medical bill?
I know that you’ve said in the past often when you approach people who are involved in fishing, you’re approaching with a full belly and they’re on an empty belly, and that’s a very difficult conversation. People have to survive, and I believe that the average income in Haiti is a dollar a day. How do you approach people who are overfishing and say, “If you hold back on the fishing for a while and let the fish grow, that will benefit you,” when at the same time, as you said, they have to feed their families?
Yeah, that’s our biggest problem, of course. I would never expect someone to come up to me and say, “Okay, you have to stop doing your job for just simply a month or two,” because it’ll be, how am I going to feed my family? How am I going to send kids to school? And all of that. You’re dealing with a situation in which you can’t even ask for a delay of one day. So what we try to do is on one hand try to provide the fishers, the fishing communities, with alternative methods of fishing, which are more environmentally friendly and sustainable so that they can catch larger fish and hopefully less of them so that the fish can reach reproductive age and grow to a decent size, while also, on the other hand, providing them with other methods, what we call alternative income generating methods such as breadfruit flour, apiculture, beekeeping, and hopefully we’re going to be able to get into mariculture, which is seaweed farming soon as well.
Being able to provide the alternatives is key. One of our biggest issues, even along those lines, is that we’re dealing almost entirely with peer pressure. Because of the weaknesses in the government, there’s no law enforcement available whatsoever, so it’s left to us to try to convince the fishers that this is a better way to do what they’re doing without relying on any type of penalties whatsoever from the government if they don’t abide and participate in this type of change. You really, really have to take a holistic approach to all of this, taking everything which is happening into consideration. Because if you just try to pick out one component here and there, it’s not going to work. The rest is going to fall apart.
So to the extent that you feel comfortable, Haiti’s going through potentially the worst time in its history right now, can you talk a little bit about that?
Sure. For the past few years, we could say probably three, four, or five years even, the security situation in the country has continued to deteriorate. This culminated a couple of years ago, actually July 7, 2021, with the assassination of our president, and from then gangs have taken over large swaths of the capitol, Port-au-Prince, and have engaged in extortion, kidnapping, rapes.
If the gangs come to invade us, we will defend ourselves. We have our own weapons, we have our machetes. We will take their weapons. We will not run away. Mothers who want to protect their children can send them elsewhere.
We must remember also that 99.99% of the people who are in Haiti right now have nothing to do with this. They just want to get along, get on with their lives, take their kids to school in peace. It’s really a tough situation. I’m always extremely saddened whenever I think about it. When I’m doing my field work, it’s in my face all day long. We’re just hoping for some type of outcome in which peace can be reestablished.
When you’re in the field and your organization is working, does the political situation infringe upon your work at all?
In a lot of what we do, the situation has begun to deteriorate in terms of our ability to interact and even to trust a lot of the local government officials. Again, we try to work with them as best as we can, but there is a lot of corruption at many different levels. It’s our ability, I think, to be able to determine when we’re being the target of a shakedown, if you will, because we are often in that position where local government officials will hedge and haw and ask us, “Can you help us out with this? Can you help me out with that? Can you provide a ‘participation’ from FoProBiM to undertake this or that activity?” For which they can get credit and gain brownie points with the local communities.
So it’s a delicate dance in trying to not participate in the corruption and yet being able to undertake our work and keep everybody happy at the same time. It’s already an extremely difficult situation working in Haiti, and having this added to it is really making work very, very difficult. And on top of that, the logistics that we have to go through now to move things around the country to do our work, to move people from one location to another, to be able to undertake, for example, educational activities, is complicated by the gangs that block the roads, that kidnap people, and can be extremely violent and take your stuff, take your equipment out of your car, or even take your car if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It sounds extremely challenging for your staff, and I’m sorry for the situation that your country is going through and hope that things will get better. So Jean, can you talk about how you came up with the idea and founded your NGO FoProBiM? Was the focus of your work trying to influence legislation in Haiti, or trying to change facts on the ground through operations?
FoProBiM started as a purely scientific research organization with the goal of working to try to protect and manage coastal and marine resources because, again, I was friend with fishers and they kept on telling me about how bad the fishing was becoming. It quickly became obvious that we were not going to be able to protect and manage the coastal and marine environment as we would like without beginning to engage those who were, for lack of a better word, exploiting the resources. So we began entering into more collaborative agreements with the fishermen, with the fishing associations, fishing cooperatives, trying to really engage these stakeholders, these fishermen in working on trying to better their livelihoods.
At first, we were really met with a lot of anger and disdain even to a certain level, but we explained, we have the question for the fishermen. “What do you want?” They say, “We want better and more fish, and we want to have good and sustainable livelihoods and to make a good living for our families.” And we tell them, “What do we want at FoProBiM? We want better, bigger fish so that you can have more sustainable livelihood for your families.” So we’re actually coming at the issue from two different ends, perhaps, but the end goal is the same. We are not an organization that enters a community and tells them what their problem is. We enter the communities and we ask, “What do you need in terms of fisheries?” Since that is our domain in terms of protecting the coastal and environment, and work with them to provide income generating activities, gear swaps, educational activities, and things along those lines.
Jean, can you talk about a success story where you’ve gone into a community and the community has been able to change their situation? And as a juxtaposition, what NGOs do wrong, and how to effectively work in a country like Haiti and how not to effectively work there?
So for us, let’s say our favorite success stories are the stories in which the local communities were provided with a certain amount of training and equipment, and took that and really ran with it. One of the communities which we work with, we had undertaken certain small mangrove restoration activities with them. We had provided them with training and beehives so that they can start a apicultural activities for the communities. We recently provided them with a couple of kayaks so that when they have their local annual village party, they could use them, and at other times, but they could use those kayaks to generate a little bit of income, renting them out to local tourists to generate a little bit more income for the community.
That community actually doubled the amount of hives that we had provided with them initially, and are now one of the larger honey producers in the area where we work. They had taken some of the money that they made from helping us undertake some of the mangrove restoration and took a previously defunct fish pond and restarted the fish pond and were able to generate income from fish grown in that fish pond. They expanded their activity with the kayaks that we had provided them and included even other fishers’ boats because there was demand for some of the now ecotourism activities that they were undertaking and were generating more money from that.
Just have to remember something which I had put in my mind from the very beginning, is that we want the ocean to be able to rest, and every minute that there isn’t a fisherman in the water actively fishing is an added minute that the ocean can rest and reproduce fish, and produce fish and grow. So being able to provide some of these coastal communities with alternatives, as you said before, the apiculture, the ecotourism, and other types of activities. What we really look for often is just that, the ability of the local communities to not depend on us 100% for new activities and for their survival.
Whenever we undertake activities, we always ask local communities for a counterpart input. So if we provide them with beehives, for example, we ask that they provide the land where the hives can be installed, that they clear the land and manage the beehives for themselves, so that they have skin in the game. For the kayaking, for example, we ask that they develop a place and develop a method and a system where they can store the kayaks and generate enough income so that they can upkeep the kayaks so that they can continue to use them. Some other organizations, in many cases we know that they’re just there to check the box.
We are 100% against just giving things away. There’s a saying in Haiti that if you don’t need it, I certainly don’t need it. So if you just give things away, it’s never appreciated. If you provide people with leg up and they have to provide some skin, they have to put some skin into the game as well, they will appreciate it more. They will work more to be able to grow it and expand it and use it versus if you just give things away.
For the boats and the motors, for example, that activity, we warned that organization not to do it because that’s not the way things work in Haiti. Project lasted, I mean, they gave boats to organizations probably over the course of a year. This was probably 10 or 12 years ago maybe. So right now there are no boats left. There are no motors left. Either they broke down and/or were sold to people for a quick buck because the people again did not have any skin in the game.
Can you talk a little bit about why mangroves are important to the environment, and what is the threat to mangroves in Haiti right now?
Sure. The mangroves in Haiti help protect the coastline, and the coastal communities importantly, from the frequent hurricanes that we have. They break the waves. It helps to keep houses from being blown away when you have that line of mangroves along the shoreline. And critically they serve as fish nurseries. A large majority of the fish that the fishermen are catching have at least part of their lifecycle within the mangrove forest and the mangrove roots. So they are, for coastal communities at least, incredibly important.
The issues that we’re having in Haiti is that they unfortunately also make very good charcoal, and Haiti has a fuel issue. We’re still using pretty much just wood, either raw wood or wood transformed into charcoal in order to provide fuel for tinting primarily. We’re losing, I think estimates are anywhere from two and a half to 5%. We’re losing that amount of mangrove forest cover every year in Haiti as it’s being converted into charcoal. We are replanting mangrove forests. I think we’re probably up at about 2 million trees at this point over past couple of decades.
But we don’t want either to be planting mangrove trees just to have them cut down and turned into charcoal, so we undertake educational activities, and again, provide with alternatives and really try to explain to the local communities the importance of the mangroves to protecting their lives when there’s an event such as a big hurricane.
Let’s talk about one of the successes that your organization has had in creating the first marine conservation area in Haiti, the Three Bays Protected Area. How did that become a reality, and what does that mean for the country?
Well, as we’d like to say, we’re an overnight success. It only took us 30 years to succeed in doing that. Haiti has had protected areas on land for decades, I think back into the 1930s even. I had always found it weird that we were a tropical Caribbean island, and at that point, the only island in the Caribbean that did not have a marine protected area, and were not managing or trying to manage or protect our coastal and marine resources, which are an absolutely critical part of our country and always has been. We’re an island, so we have the ocean, we have beaches, we have coastline marine resources, which need to and should be protected.
So a lot of lobbying, if you want to call it that, begging and pleading was more like it, to government officials over the years. And finally I think the stars aligned and we ended up with a government that was open to being able to develop marine protected areas, as well as at that time I think a lot of the international donors were also behind being able to develop Haiti’s first marine protected areas. So a lot of preparation, a lot of research, a lot of documents in terms of why they should be done, where they should be done, and just moving forward with that was really probably the capstone of what we’ve been able to do and the legacy that we’ll be able to leave behind.
Our outlook on that was kind of the saying, “If you build it, they will come.” What we felt was that if we were able to establish the protected areas and show that there was not only government interest, but other local interests from NGOs and other stakeholders to develop a protected area, a marine protected area, that the support would follow, whether it be from local communities, whether it be from local organizations or the international organizations, and that has certainly been the case. We’ve been able to draw in support from a lot of different sectors to be able to engage with local communities inside the protected areas and to be able to move forward with a lot of the initiatives which we’ve been doing for the past decades.
How can people get involved with your organization, and what can our listeners do who are motivated to try to do something to improve the situation in Haiti?
Well, for us, we do take donations at FoProBiM.org, F-O-P-R-O-B-I-M.org, and that does help us move forward with a lot of our activities. But there are so many people, and I’ve spoken to so many Haitians, both inside and outside of Haiti who want to help but don’t really know how, and others who are really moving forward with a lot of their initiatives and trying to get things going, whether it be businesses to help local people, education activities for schools, health activities and those types of things. Everyone has a skill, and if you could, tap into that skill and put it to work. If you can’t, on the other hand, join a group which is helping out. And you can pick which sector you’d like to help the most in. We know right now that the situation in Haiti is very difficult. A lot of people would like to go down and help, but are afraid to. And if you can’t, then again, all of these different organizations are there and have people on the ground and are doing really, really good stuff.
Jean, I want to thank you so much for being my guest on All About Change. Thank you for all the work that you’ve done over the course of your life to protect the marine environment in Haiti. Thank you so much, and I really appreciated our discussion.
Thank you, Jay.
Jean’s work is unique, but he shares a lot in common with other activists I’ve spoken to. The strive for change often collides with basic human survival needs. The situation in Haiti is complicated. What do you think should be done? Tweet us at @JayRuderman and let us know what you think.
That’s our show for today. Come back in two weeks. We’re going to stick with the oceans for another episode. Emily Penn, who’s an ocean activist, will teach us about the surprising link between microplastics, pollution, and female health.
Today’s episode was produced by Kim Huang with story editing by Yochai Maital and Mijon Zulu. To check out more episodes or learn more about the show, you can visit our website AllAboutChangePodcast.com. If you like our show, spread the word, tell a friend or family member, or leave us a review on your favorite podcasting app. We would really appreciate it.
All about Change is produced by the Ruderman Family Foundation. Special thanks to our production team at Pod People, David Zwick, Grace Piña, Morgan Fouse, Bryan Rivers, and Aimee Machado. That’s all for now. I’m Jay Ruderman, and we’ll see you next time on All About Change.
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