Uncharted Territory

Posted by Henry Taksier, December 26, 2011

Sowing the Seeds of Ecotourism in Haiti’s Rugged Terrain

By Aleks Bacewicz

After last year’s notorious earthquake, Haiti’s recovery has been slow and riddled with setbacks, worsened by an allegedly preventable cholera epidemic. Fortunately, Gainesville hosts a variety of organizations that actively support Haiti, whether by raising money or sending medical volunteers. Jeff Depree, a doctoral candidate in Computer Science at UF, thought he could help in his own way.

Depree traveled to Haiti this year with nothing more than a backpack and some bare essentials. His goal, without the aid of an organized group, was to explore the landscape and interact with locals. He kept a detailed log of logistical issues that could be encountered by travelers and mapped out hiking trails in hopes of encouraging other ecotourists to follow his lead and visit the country’s rugged terrain.

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as a way to travel responsibly to natural areas while respecting the environment and local culture. It’s not a novel idea, but in Haiti, it’s uncharted territory. Haiti’s tourism industry consists of isolated resorts, providing foreigners with private beaches and bars but no glimpses into the rest of Haiti.

Despite the obstacles presented by deforestation and widespread poverty, DePree hopes ecotourism will eventually become a viable option for travelers, as well as a source of income for locals and an incentive to protect Haiti’s resources.

Depree’s journey began in Port-au-Prince, where he saw the reality of the earthquake’s devastation: a tent city had replaced the main square and most of the buildings were in ruins.

He continued, focused on reaching Haiti’s untamed landscape, and hopped onto a tap-tap, a brightly colored bus or pick-up truck used as a common form of transport.

After spending his first night in a church rectory in the southern town of Furcy, DePree awoke early to begin hiking. Markets and vendors lined segments of the ridgeline to the southern coastline. He picked out a lady with pots in the dirt alongside the trail and bought a cheap and filling meal: a hodgepodge of fried spaghetti, onions, tomatoes, ketchup, and mayonnaise. For the rest of the trip, DePree mapped out up to 50 miles of hiking trails.

“Haiti is one of the last places I would imagine as a destination for ecotourists,” said Dr. Gerald Murray, professor emeritus of anthropology at UF. Murray designed and directed an agroforestry project in Haiti over a 20-year period and conducted research on the country’s culture and religion. Murray attributes his lack of optimism to Haiti’s high population density and rapid deforestation.

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Continued via The Fine Print: Uncharted Territory