Fighting Gangs to Save a Port-au-Prince Forest

Haiti continues to struggle with security issues in the run-up to presidential elections in January. Gangs decide the fate of city residents in many densely populated slums. One neighborhood is battling not only the infighting of gangs, but the preservation of the last remaining forest in the capital. From Port-au-Prince, Amelia Shaw reports.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Farai Chideya.

In a few minutes, how cupcake frosting, "Narnia" movies and Google Maps make up the ingredients for a hugely popular rap song.

But first, this report form Haiti, where there's a presidential election next month and a continuing struggle with security issues. Street gangs hold sway in many of the poorest, most densely populated parts of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. One neighborhood is battling not only the infighting of gangs, but the preservation of the last remaining forest in the capital. Reporter Amelia Shaw has our story.

AMELIA SHAW reporting:

It is another busy morning in the office of Lorraine Mangones, a social activist and administrator of a large cultural center in downtown Port-au-Prince.

Ms. LORRAINE MANGONES: (French spoken)

SHAW: `You mean the body is still there? They haven't picked it up yet?'

This is the third call this morning about the body of a man lying at the entrance of Habitation LeClerc, a seven-acre tropical forest in the sprawling neighborhood of Martissant. The body has been there for two days now.

Ms. MANGONES: Apparently during the weekend, there was so much shooting that this guy, who was in his 70s--he had a heart attack and he died.

SHAW: People say the land once belonged to Napoleon's brother-in-law, whose army was defeated by slaves in Haiti's independence. Renowned American choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham later bought the property, and in the 1970s, built a chic ecological resort among the mahogany and breadfruit trees. Dunham intended to use the property as a retreat for artists and anthropologists interested in studying Haiti's voodoo traditions.

The hotel later closed in the early 1980s, and today the small island of green is swallowed by a massive shantytown. Armed gangs patrol the grounds, cut down the trees and hide weapons, stolen cars and the people they kidnap among the sagging bungalows of the old hotel. For Lorraine, protecting this last bit of forest is crucial, not only for the residents of Martissant, but for the entire city.

Ms. MANGONES: It's a very critical place because the water main that brings drinkable water to Port-au-Prince goes through that property.

SHAW: The forest sits on the last remaining aquifer in the city. The trees protect the neighborhood from floods and mudslides, which claim more Haitian lives every year. This small forest enclave is also home to hundreds of plant species, some of which, like the kyami tree(ph), are facing extinction in the Caribbean. Lorraine belongs to a group of fellow activists who are fighting to reclaim the land and turn it into a nature preserve. Under their pressure, Haiti's interim government has proclaimed the property a National Heritage, but this changes little.

Ms. MANGONES: We need to have the security issue resolved, otherwise nobody can go in and start working there. Nobody can start cleaning the place if they're going to get shot.

SHAW: Since the exile of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, killings and kidnappings have dramatically increased in Port-au-Prince. Despite the presence of more than 7,000 UN troops--known locally by their acronym MINUSTAH--a few hundred armed thugs continue to terrorize many poor neighborhoods. A year ago, MINUSTAH began a program known as DDR, to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate armed groups into civil society. DDR Chief Desmond Molloy says that the gangs in Martissant are one of MINUSTAH's four targeted DDR zones, but he says they've had little success in getting the program off the ground there.

Mr. DESMOND MOLLOY (DDR Chief): Martissant, particularly Gran Ravin area, has been difficult, where there are several gangs opposing one another, there are some gangs that wish to come into the DDR program and join us, but they are threatened by other gangs when they attempt to do that. This is a major problem.

SHAW: He says part of the problem has been a failure to build up trust with gang leaders in the area, but Martissant resident Pierre Richard Gerrar(ph) says he thinks the UN troops just don't try hard enough.

Mr. PIERRE RICHARD GERRAR (Martissant Resident): (Through Translator) On Sunday, when we were on our way to church, these two heavily armed thugs were dragging a man with a cord through the street. The guy had a black bag tied on his head; he was handcuffed. And don't ask me where they found handcuffs, but you could see he wasn't dead yet. And they dragged the guy right in front of MINUSTAH, who just watched and didn't do anything.

SHAW: Back in her office, Lorraine continues to field phone calls about the body lying at Habitation LeClerc. She says the police won't pick it up because they're waiting for the UN to come. This is a bad sign.

Ms. MANGONES: If nothing is done, maybe this time next year, the forest will be reduced by half. there will be 20 times more garbage in the property and there will be 20 times more dead bodies in the neighborhood. And people will be more demoralized about it and it will appear like an impossible thing, and then it will be done.

SHAW: She says if the government and the international community can't figure out how to collect a body, then how are they going to collaborate to save an aquifer, a forest and the country's political future? For NPR News, I'm Amelia Shaw in Port-au-Prince.

CHIDEYA: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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