Day 9 Blog Entry

Everything in Haiti takes at least twice the effort. The lack of adequate infrastructure, poor road systems, and lack of proper government support to say the least, means that everything here will cost you more, will take longer and might not come out right on the first try. This may sound wrong, but is a reality that all Haitians have come to accept and live with. An intensive course in adaptive management and proper risk aversion techniques are needed in order to plan for the unknown. An effective support system that acts as your awesome team is crucial for the success of any project in this country. Fortunately, I have all of that with me.

Joel and I set out on Wednesday morning to pick up Maxon Fildor on our way to Université

A taptap bus, one of the many cultural icons of Haiti. These public transportation vehicles come in all shapes and sizes and are usually modified small truck vans modified with benches that fit anywhere from 10 to 30 people. Every taptap is covered by interesting and colorful art, oftentimes depicting black and Latino Hollywood and music icons juxtaposed with catholic messages, bible verses, Haitian sayings and icons of American patriotism along with an advertisement on the back specifying who was the artist and how to reach him.

 
The scenery as we headed up the mountains in the south.
Quisqueya to gather all of our field equipment. Maxon is Sociètè Audubon Haiti’s main amphibian biologist and will join us on this trip. Then we went to the car rental place near the Port-au-Prince airport. We’ve been driving around the city on a small SUV-like crossover that has somewhat high clearance, but is no match for Haiti’s road. We needed a rugged, off-road vehicle, 4x4, high clearance, and with a turbo diesel engine. The route we plan would take us toward the mountain town of Thiotte, and it meant days of off-road driving going through mountain trails hours away from the nearest gas station. We arrived at the rental car place only to learn that I was unable to use my credit card to rent the vehicle. There are so many accidents and car breakdowns in Haiti that all car rental agencies ask for a $2,000 hold as a safety deposit ‘in case something happens’. It took us a while to figure that one out, but thanks to a few phone calls and an awesome support team at the zoo I was able to rent the car in less than an hour. The rental itself was much cheaper, but I had to leave my account open, just in case. After sorting out that little detail, Joel, Maxon, and I headed east and picked up Evanita Sanon, our field technician, on our way out of Port-au-Prince.

Leaving the city is an adventure by itself. Cars, bikes, taptaps and pedestrians come out in all directions and you need to make sure you avoid hitting them and avoid being hit, all while trying to not fall in one of the many potholes that line the roads. We continued our journey east and left the city sooner than expected and the road improved greatly. I was impressed by the number of goods coming in from the Dominican Republic in large semi’s and eighteen-wheelers. There were by far more imports coming in than goods being exported out of the country, a clear sign of the economic and environmental reality of Haiti. Soon, Lake Azuei and Sierra de Neiba (in the neighboring Dominican Republic) were materializing in front of us. This area is one of the many natural marvels of the island. A series of mountain chains cross right to through Hispaniola from west to east forming x distinct mountain chains. Geologists found that these were once different islands called ‘paleoislands’ that collided with one another as they all travel east/northeast at different speeds atop the Caribbean Tectonic Plate. Slowly, they’ve formed the present day island creating the tallest mountains along with the deepest valleys in the Caribbean. The area is still geologically active, and one of these collisions caused the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010. We were driving right through the middle of the two ‘paleoislands’. The valley in front of us, flanked by Massif de la Selle and Sierra de Neiba on either side, is what remains of that inland sea that divided the South Island from the North Island millions of years ago. It is below sea level and include Lake Azuei in Haiti and Lago Enriquillo in the DR, home of many endemic fish that share these wetland with American crocodiles, rock iguanas, flamingos and jutías.

As we continue driving we see Department Route 102 in front of us, a large, winding white wound cuts south right up through the mountain and runs parallel to the Solie River’s dry riverbed that is also white. The South Island is mainly limestone, very ancient limestone, and wherever the topsoil is removed the earth looks a blinding shinny white as it reflects the light from the scorching Caribbean sun. Once weathered by the elements, the rock turns dark or gets covered by red topsoil. We start climbing this white dirt road up from sea level deep in and over the mountains as we continue south on the Foret-des-Pins pass on Route 102, which is over 1,600 meters (5,200 feet) above sea level along Massif de La Selle east of La Visite National Park. Now I am reassured that we did the right thing by renting a 4x4 vehicle!

Holdrige first conceived the concept of the ecological life-zones as he traveled through these mountains in the 1940’s. The Solie River flows mostly underground, an active plate tectonics, unstable soils, and massive deforestation all contribute to a dry rocky riverbed clogged by a river of rocks. Full grown mango trees can be seen dispersed through the riverbed, taking advantage of the water flowing underground
To say that the scenery is beautiful is an understatement; it was the basis for one of the most comprehensive studies on how climate, specifically the relation between how elevation and latitude predicts different temperature and humidity regimes, dictates biodiversity or ‘ecological life-zones’. Almost 70 years ago, an American botanist and climatologist by the name of Leslie R. Holdridge took this same route as he worked in Haiti with the US Forest Service prior to WW II. In his journeys up and down the pine forests he realized that the vegetation changed abruptly as elevation changed and he developed an ‘ecological life-zone’ scheme, where different types of vegetation and forests can be adequately predicted according to temperature, rainfall and elevation. The Holdrige life-zone system, which applies to all of the land biomes of the world, was created here in Haiti and it revolutionized how evolutionary biologists understood life. More importantly, it helped explain why mountains are such hotspots of endemism. In1947, Holdrige published his Ph.D. dissertation on ‘The Pine Forest and Adjacent Mountain Vegetation of Haiti, considered from the Standpoint of a New Climatic Classification of Plant Formations’ and proved that many plants and animals evolved to live in specific ecological life zones, these plants, and the animals associated to them were adapted to the specific conditions found at each elevation and thus, unable to survive outside of these areas.

The paradise-like beauty of the scenery was quickly shadowed by the sheer poverty of the small
Fonds-Verretes.cemetery sprungs practically out of nowhere among the green foliage.
 towns we passed through. Small houses, donkeys with cargo, convoys of women, and men working the land dotter the landscape and we quickly arrived at Fonds-Verrettes, a sort of ghost town nested in a narrow valley between the mountains. All of a sudden the road took a turn and a dip and the new road seemed whiter, glossier and wet. The gravel turned it quickly into large pebbles and polished river stones with a swift stream of water running through the ‘road’. We were actually driving on the river! A small but busy market sprung in front of us on the dry bed the Solie River. Eight years ago, one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ flood swept through Fonds-Verrettes. The Solie River had been choked to death due to the erosion caused by a hundred years of deforestation and now runs mostly underground. People seemed to forget, or never realize that the fertile valley and flat areas near this riverbed was the flood plain main causeway of a once mighty river. At least 1,200 people died in this town and twice as more on other towns downstream when nature claimed what is rightfully hers and the entire watershed of the Solie River became flooded. A large cemetery, also in the flood plain, stands a silent witness of this catastrophe.

We are still going up the mountain on our first day in the field and are not even in our final destination yet. Will we ever get to the town of Thiotte?

… to be continued