Jean Wiener
Jean Wiener

Jean Wiener

2015 Goldman Prize Recipient
Islands and Island Nations

  • Haiti
  • Marine Conservation

In a country plagued by extreme poverty and political instability, Jean Wiener led community efforts to establish the nation’s first Marine Protected Areas by empowering Haitians to see the long-term value in sustainably managing fisheries and mangrove forests.

Haiti is home to an incredibly diverse array of marine life, housed in mangrove forests and coastal reefs. It is also the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 80 percent of the population living in poverty. Natural disasters and political instability have further hampered the nation’s ability to create meaningful economic opportunities for its citizens.

Driven by extreme poverty, many Haitians have resorted to overfishing. Fish stocks have been further decimated as locals cut down mangrove trees—key habitat for young fish—to illegally make and sell charcoal. Others have turned to harvesting coral reefs, which also provide protection and shelter for fish, for construction material such as rocks and lime.

The deforestation of coastal mangroves brings more cause for alarm: The trees are known to sequester carbon at a rate five times greater than tropical rainforests and protect coastlines from storm surges, making their destruction a further threat to the future of an island nation already vulnerable to climate change.

Growing up in Haiti, Jean Wiener relished family trips to the beach, which would typically end with his parents struggling to pull him away from the water when it was time to go home. To the young boy, swimming in the Haitian coast felt like swimming in an aquarium, with beautiful coral reefs and vibrant colors.

Wiener’s parents had plans for him to become a doctor and sent him to pursue a medical education in the United States. During his studies, he reconnected with his childhood love for the ocean and ended up with a degree in marine biology instead.

He returned to Haiti in 1989 and began working in the science department at a local school. While Wiener had seen signs of the damaged marine wildlife during his visits home, he now fully realized the serious extent of the toll the ecosystem had taken from unchecked exploitation. He frequently heard stories from local fishermen of how much harder it was to find fish. “We used to be able to fish for a half day and feed our family for two weeks,” they said. “Now we fish for two weeks and feed our family for a half day.”

Determined to restore the marine wildlife of his childhood and bring sustainable economic opportunities for the people of Haiti, Wiener started the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Biodiversity (FoProBiM) in 1992.

Wiener immediately set out to create opportunities for communities to help themselves. Core to FoProBiM’s work was for villagers to see beyond the short-term gains from overfishing and mangrove harvesting. Wiener not only created tools to help communities create promising livelihoods through small-scale enterprises such as tree nurseries and beekeeping; he engaged them in paid research work and mangrove restoration and helped them see that protecting fisheries, coral reefs and mangrove forests today will strengthen their future and the country’s long-term sustainability.

Recognizing that Haiti was the only country in the Caribbean without any official Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), Wiener brought together coastal communities and government officials to identify key areas for protection while supporting local needs. He trained local people to conduct biodiversity assessments, which ended up being essential in identifying boundaries and priority locations for MPAs. His work paid off in July 2013, when Haiti’s government announced the country’s first MPA on the island’s southwestern coast, followed by a second in December that year on the island’s northeast coast.

In doing so, Wiener had to overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenge of conducting outreach and building support in a constant stream of changing government officials. He would pour weeks and months into building relationships with key ministers and officials, only to have office holders change months later.

Wiener is now working to involve local communities in the successful implementation and management of the two MPAs to ensure they don’t end up as “paper parks.” He also hopes to develop a broader system of Marine Protected Areas throughout the rest of the country by assisting other communities with MPA proposals. Key to his success will be securing funding for the MPAs’ implementation and enforcement of marine protection laws.

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