When are toilets the best way to save endangered fish? When the needs of humans and aquatic species – and the best methods to save them – are one and the same. One test case in Haiti showcases just how closely linked human health and species survival can be.
Conservation International (CI) has spent twenty years fighting to prevent extinctions around the world and, in every case, CI’s actions are both specific and complex. To protect a species that is limited to a single habitat and locale, the steps required must be informed both by a larger context and driven by site-specific needs. Much as a community can only be lifted out of poverty through work in that community, the effort to save a single species must start where the species lives.
“In a world with such intense human needs,” says Michael Leonard Smith, CI’s Research Scientist focusing on Freshwater Biodiversity issues, “protecting species must be shown to complement, rather than hinder, the welfare of people.”
One such example is Haiti’s Lake Miragoâne.
An endorheic lake (one without any known surface outlet), Haiti’s Lake Miragoâne collects everything that falls, washes, or is dumped into it. When the rains arrive, as they do regularly in this part of the world, all the water that falls is washed directly into Miragoâne’s waters. The people who live near the lake are dependent on whatever water resources the lake is able to provide.
READ MORE: Freshwater access for people is fast becoming a global priority. Find out what CI is doing to safeguard freshwater.
Fish rely entirely on the lake as well. Lake Miragoâne has eight endemic species, including the Haitian mosquitofish (Gambusia beebei) and seven species of titis (the Haitian name for Limia fish), that scientists have found to meet the criteria to be considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN Redlist (although they have not yet been officially assessed for the scientific record).
The lake is located on Haiti’s southern peninsula, near a historic port town that was a shipping center for the export of hardwood lumber from the forests that once blanketed the island. Much of Haiti has lost its forest cover, and people, water and many animal species are feeling the impact. Today, the land surrounding the lake – its watershed – is almost completely deforested. According to Smith, “only a little bit of green” remains.
The Fish for the Trees
Unfortunately, that nearly treeless landscape is only one cause of the lake’s dirty water. Although the threatened fish are not a food source for the local community, they are affected by the waste products of that food. In an area with almost no treatment of human waste, Lake Miragoâne exhibits the highest coliform counts measured in Haiti. This is a human health issue and a threat to the fish: Whether you are an advocate for people, fish or both – fresh, clean waters must be restored in Lake Miragoâne.
Due to its impoverishment, the local community depends too much on the lake to ignore it once waste has washed in. Drinking water comes from the lake. Laundry is washed in the lake. Gourds filled with water and even freshly laundered clothes carry bacteria into people’s homes.
Mutual Solutions, Multiple Benefits
CI‘s goals encompass the eight fish species and the people who live near them. In fact, the conservation actions mesh; people need a continuous supply of safe water, a clean place to do their laundry and a practical way to keep their own waste out of the system. So, every action that restores a clean water supply and protects fish – from reforestation to sanitation programs to providing safe, clean laundry facilities – also provides means for meeting basic human needs.
In short, helping people automatically protects the fish.
Making the Case
Lake Miragoâne is a specific, controlled environment – a case that shows, as Smith puts it “how species conservation and alleviating human misery are not only compatible, they are the same.”
Across the planet, CI is identifying similar cases in different places, preparing to even more fully marry the promotion of thriving human lives with the diverse and valuable ecosystems on which they rely.
LEARN MORE: CI works with local communities all over the world. Read about what these unique partnerships have done for both humans and species.