February 16, 2022
Colorful fish dotted the walls of Jean Wiener’s home office as he logged on to our interview. Outside in Washington, D.C., it was a high of 27 degrees Fahrenheit. Just a few weeks earlier, snow had blanketed the ground, giving the capitol city a white Christmas. It’s a far cry from the tropical climate of Haiti, where average February temperatures are in the high 70s.
Jean, who won the Goldman Prize in 2015 for his work on coastal conservation, has been splitting his time between Washington and Haiti. Known lately for its natural disasters, political and gang violence, and extreme poverty, Haiti can be a challenging place to work as an environmental advocate.
Jean grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where frequent family trips to the beach piqued his interest in the ocean. Although his family hoped that he would become a doctor in the United States, he instead elected to pursue a career in marine biology. Today, as the founder and executive director of the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Biodiversity (FoProBiM), Jean is working diligently to build local conservation initiatives that support communities and protect Haiti’s coastal and marine ecosystems.
Haiti: A Short History
The history of Haiti is tumultuous and unique. A nation of firsts, the country declared independence from France in 1804 after a 13-year slave rebellion and bloody revolutionary war. It was the first Black republic in the world and the second nation in the Western Hemisphere to declare independence from a European power (the first was the United States).
Following the revolution, Haiti was deeply indebted to France, forced to pay “reparations” to compensate for France’s loss of property (slaves). Worried about similar slave rebellions on their own shores, other nations shunned Haiti’s requests for economic help and trade partnerships. The country would shoulder crippling debt for nearly a century.
Today, as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is plagued by lack of infrastructure, endemic political corruption, rampant gang violence, and extreme environmental degradation. Most recently, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021 stunned the world.
Vulnerability to a Changing Climate
Layered on top of Haiti’s economic challenges is its lack of climate security. It may be no surprise that Haiti is the most vulnerable country in Latin America and the Caribbean to climate change.
From Jean’s perspective, the entire country is at risk. 80% of Haiti’s population lives in low-lying coastal zones, making more than eight million people particularly vulnerable to storm surges and floods. Increasing temperatures will cause heat-related health issues. Rising ocean temperatures are already threatening coral reefs, depleting fisheries and decreasing food security. The degraded landscape will have no natural defenses. Already reeling from the 2010 earthquake, 2016 Hurricane Matthew, the Covid-19 pandemic, and another earthquake in 2021, the cumulative effects of climate change are predicted to be even more painful.
Marine Protection and Mangroves
Armed with an “if you build it, they will come” philosophy, Jean decided that he had to start somewhere. In 2013, he helped to create Haiti’s first marine protected areas (MPAs), one along the northeast coast and the other along the southwest coast. There are now seven MPAs across the country, in which Jean and his team are working to replicate comprehensive management plans that will formalize protections. Their model has proven to be a great success, attracting interest from the national government as well as international donors.
Within the MPAs, Jean’s focus is on “environmentally friendly and sustainable, income-generating activities.” It’s a mouthful that can be explained by his work with mangroves.
Mangroves are a key component of tropical marine ecosystems. They support rich biodiversity, acting as nurseries for numerous fish and shrimp species that provide both food and economic livelihoods for locals. Mangroves are also a bulwark against sea-level rise, storm surges, and other extreme weather events expected to increase with climate change, especially for Haiti, which is located in “Hurricane Alley.”
Unfortunately, mangroves are under attack. They are cut down to increase agricultural production, build salt pans, and construct landfill for real estate developments. It is also common for local communities to cut and burn mangroves to make charcoal, used for cooking and sold for income.
Jean’s goal is to increase the valuation of the mangrove. If he can reposition mangroves as not just a source of charcoal but as a source of regenerative income, then he can persuade communities to protect them. With this motivation, FoProBiM has launched apiculture (beekeeping) projects in nine communities along the northeastern coast of Haiti. The projects, supported by the Goldman Prize grantmaking program, have been successful, with mangrove honey already leading to sustainable economic growth in those communities.
FoProBiM tries to keep everything as local as possible, from the park rangers hired to the sourcing of bamboo baskets for mangrove seedlings. Jean continues to innovate on sustainable projects that benefit both the community and the environment—the newest being seaweed production, a source of income and a carbon sequestration tool.
Understanding Sustainable Development in Haiti
Despite the successes he’s had so far, Jean is mindful to under-promise and over-deliver. “It’s hard to bring people on board,” he shared. It’s a tug-a-war between sustainable development and survival; most of the population in Haiti lives on less than US $3.00 a day. Jean elaborated: “If the only way to put food on the table for my family were to chop down the last mangrove tree on the planet, I’d be the first person gnawing at it with my teeth. It’s a really important situation to understand.”
These feelings were echoed by another Caribbean Prize winner, Kristal Ambrose (The Bahamas, 2020), who once explained that she would never shame someone for using a plastic water bottle if it were the only potable water available.
Jean summed it up: “There are no hungry conservationists.”
Reflecting on his work as a conservationist and Goldman Prize winner, Jean noted that “it’s been an incredible ride so far, and I don’t think it’s close to finishing at any point.”
Despite his many achievements, Jean is sometimes overwhelmed by the enormity of the work ahead. The sum of human activity—from pollution to over-exploitation of resources—has caused profound harm to the planet. Like the trophic food chain, our actions are all interconnected and interdependent.
At the same time, Jean believes that our collective individuality is our strongest tool in fighting today’s environmental crisis. “Everyone has something to do and not everyone can do the same thing,” Jean shared. “It’s critical to be aware, to identify your role in the climate crisis, and to summon the will to engage wherever and however you can.”
Follow Jean’s work and support the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Biodiversity (FoProBiM). You can also contribute to FoProBiM through your purchases with Amazon Smile.
This blog post is part of the Prize Winners Today series, a monthly installment that reports on the latest news and projects from past recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. From reflections on the Prize to updates from the field, we’ll answer the question—what are these extraordinary individuals doing today?
About the author
Ellen is excited to elevate the stories and amplify the impact of Goldman Prize recipients around the globe. She manages the Prize’s digital presence, produces written and visual content, and contributes to strategic communications planning. Prior to joining the Prize, Ellen held various roles in the solar industry, from marketing to education program management. She holds a BA in Geography and Environmental Studies, with minors in Spanish and Environmental Systems and Society from the University of California, Los Angeles. She joined the Prize in 2020.