Capturing Photos, Hearts and Minds in Haiti’s Remnant Forests

Since 2007, CI Amphibian Conservation Officer Robin Moore has been working with local partners in Haiti toward the protection of the country’s unique frogs and their threatened habitat. Recognizing that one of the biggest challenges to achieving CI’s mission in Haiti is a growing disconnect between people and nature, Robin — who is also an award-winning photographer — co-founded Frame of Mind to empower the youth of Haiti to connect with their natural and cultural worlds through photography and visual storytelling, and to foster a sense of ownership and pride in the nature upon which they depend.
Few places reflect the mirrored fortunes of the environment and people as poignantly as Haiti, where thin topsoil washes into the ocean in dirty red plumes from hillsides once cloaked in verdant forest.
Protecting the last remnants of cloud forest — believe it or not, there is still forest — is beyond challenging when people go to bed hungry every night. However, if the last remnants of forest are not protected and Haiti’s environment restored, the situation will only worsen as the country teeters on the brink of ecological collapse.
I first visited Haiti in 2007 after it was identified as a global priority for amphibian conservation, harboring unrivaled numbers of species classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. A staggering 92% of Haiti’s 50 frog species are threatened with extinction. In 2010, CI embarked on a three-year project supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to work with local partners to protect the last forest remnants in Haiti, adopting amphibians as an indicator group for the well-being of the forest.
After spending some time in Haiti it started to dawn on me that, while each and every Haitian suffers the repercussions of environmental degradation in some form, whether through infertile soil, drought, floods and landslides, very few people — from government officials to farmers — have seen trees dripping with orchids, breathed in the cool, humid air of the cloud forest or enjoyed being lulled to sleep by a soothing symphony of frogs.
And so I started to ask: How can we expect anyone to fight for the protection of something with which they have no meaningful connection? What would happen if Haitians were empowered to connect with nature and see their forests and its unique inhabitants through new eyes?
It was with good fortune that, during a workshop convened by the MacArthur Foundation for its grantees in Haiti in early 2011, I met Indi McLymont-Lafayette, the regional director of Community, Media & Environment at Panos Caribbean. This organization was working locally to empower youth to tell their stories, but was keen to integrate conservation into its workshops and open to the idea of using photography as the medium. I brought in CI’s existing partner, Société Audubon Haiti, and we started planning.
Six months later, armed with 20 digital cameras and as many promising Haitian youths, we embarked on a crash course on biodiversity, conservation and hands-on training in photography and visual storytelling, before sending the kids out to capture and compile photo essays on themes of their choosing. They chose charcoal, water, plants and life in Haiti.
I was excited by the concept but truly blown away by the results. Through the kids, I learned more about local perceptions of wildlife and conservation than I had in my previous half-dozen trips to Haiti. I found an incredible openness to learn and an infectious enthusiasm and sense of pride.
The most rewarding experience was taking the kids into Parc La Visite — the closest national park to their coastal hometown of Jacmel — for the first time. “Before coming here, I thought it was a very ugly area,” says Wolnique, a 15-year-old student, “but it’s actually very beautiful.”
This sentiment was echoed by many of the kids, who seemed energized by the beauty of the park, giddy with excitement at the images they were capturing of flowers, birds and mist-shrouded forest. The connections between the health of the forest and the quality of their lives downstream were brought out in images and stories that captured the good, the bad and the ugly sides of the park. They appeared genuinely saddened and concerned about the continued loss of trees.
And their images and stories turned out to be a surprisingly powerful conduit for an important message. A photo exhibit and book launch at the municipal library attracted a diverse audience as the kids turned out in their Sunday best to lead proud parents around their creations. When Lovely, a bright and energetic 11-year-old, challenged the region’s minister of environment on his reforestation policy for Parc La Visite, it forced answers to some of the most difficult — but important — questions about the future of Haiti’s forests. The next generation was given a rare voice in the future of its country.
And so, the initiative Frame of Mind was born, to empower youth to connect with their natural and cultural worlds through photography and visual storytelling. With another workshop and traveling photo exhibit in the pipeline, the initiative is set to continue and to grow. We will try to get as many people into the forest as we can; as for everyone else, we will bring the forest to them through images, video and stories told through the eyes of their children and peers.
As people become increasingly disconnected from the natural world, I believe it is our responsibility to rekindle a meaningful bond that will energize people to fight for the protection of a dwindling treasure and ensure a brighter future for Lovely, Wolnique and the next generation of optimistic Haitians.
Robin Moore is CI’s amphibian conservation officer, an associate of the International League of Conservation Photographers and the co-founder of Frame of Mind.