Environment : A Tree Grows in Port-au-Prince: The Birth of a Garden : A celebrated American dancer and a Canadian native are determined to build a botanical retreat in one of the world’s worst slums.
The estate sits in the middle of Haiti’s largest slum, a 30-acre, down-at-the-heels Eden that has served as a connection to a lost continent, a mad princess’s castle, a slightly naughty resort and a voodoo shrine.
It’s called Le Habitation LeClerc, built in the early 19th Century as the home of Pauline Bonaparte, the sister of Napoleon and the wife of Gen. Victoire-Emmanuel LeClerc, the French governor of Haiti.
The estate today is largely a grand ruin, its massive trees and plants surrounded by crumbling walls. The streams are fetid and polluted with trash, its few structures almost empty.
The surroundings are even worse, far worse. Carrefour is a sprawling shantytown of tin huts scattered helter-skelter from the sea to a rutted, eroded mountain. Nearly half a million people are jammed into the stinking--literally--town, which abuts Port-au-Prince and is one of the poorest and most desperate sections of the poorest nation in the hemisphere.
When it rains, the rubble-strewn streets turn into impassable paths of gooey mud and boulders. When it’s dry, the slum is choked with dust.
In the midst of this sort of squalor, Habitation LeClerc is an oasis, the last remaining coastal forest in Haiti, an area spared complete degradation because of its status among Haiti’s voodoo followers as a sacred “community of spirits.”
In its day it was glorious, one of the Caribbean’s most magnificent forests. And if its current owner and some of the world’s most important botanists have their way, Habitation LeClerc will thrive again, resurrected as an impressive scientific garden.
“It will be a legacy for the people of Haiti,” says Cameron Broham, 44, a Canadian who represents the owner, American folkloric dancer Katherine Dunham.
The idea will be to turn the still-verdant and valuable (about $7 million) estate into a botanical garden. “This will be a working laboratory,” Broham said. “It will have working trees--fruits and plants that can be the basis for restoring Haiti’s ecology and economy.
“Everything will be of commercial value,” he continued, “mangoes, gourds and plants for medicine.” In addition to the estate itself, the long-range plans call for adding two more parcels in other parts of Haiti for a total of 85 acres.
That isn’t much in a country where 96% of what Columbus called “the Emerald Island” has been deforested by centuries of land-clearing plantation owners, wood-gathering villagers and consequent erosion. But, said Broham, “it will be a significant start in turning Haiti into a food-exporting nation.”
It is no pipe dream. Dunham, who first came to Haiti in 1935 to study voodoo dancing and anthropology as part of a doctorate program at the University of Chicago, has allied her project with the most important organizations in the world of botany, including the prestigious New York Botanical Garden and the British Royal Botanical Gardens, otherwise known as Kew Gardens.
She bought the land in 1944 for $75,000 and, after nearly two decades of using it as a home, Dunham turned much of the land into a spectacular resort, with a small hotel and private villas with swimming pools. The rooms were decorated with exotic, often erotic art.
Habitation LeClerc attracted the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Mick Jagger and other jet-setters who found the luxurious setting and the licentious ambience of Haiti the equal of the Riviera.
“It’s not fair to call it a bordello,” said Cathy Booth, an American journalist who vacationed at Habitation LeClerc with her husband in 1981, “but it certainly was hedonistic. It was special.”
The forest was extraordinary. It was originally called “the Source” because of its sweet springs which, local legend has it, rose in the lost continent of Atlantis. The inhabitants of Haiti had always attributed mystical powers to the Source, and when Spanish and French colonialists brought African slaves to the island, the Africans added their spirits to the mystical forest. It has been a religious shrine ever since.
Under the French, who ruled colonial Haiti until its successful revolution and independence in 1804, Habitation LeClerc was known for the eccentric behavior of its mistress, Pauline Bonaparte, and the bloody and brutal methods of the governor general. After the revolution, the estate was used for the next century and a half as the residence and playground for various oligarchs and by the voodoo community for rites. More recently, the hotel, beset by changing international tastes, the unstable conditions of Haiti and the outbreak of AIDS, was shut down in 1982.
Dunham had left LeClerc to move to Africa and then back to the United States, and the estate began to deteriorate. In 1984, she asked Montreal native Broham to find some use for the property. He looked into several possibilities, and finally, in 1989, he and Dunham settled on a botanical garden.
The inspiration was the discovery of two large snakes in Dunham’s bathroom in the house she built for herself in the 1960s. Dunham and Broham are voodoo initiates, and snakes, which represent Damballah, a powerful voodoo god, had special significance. “It has been 25 years since Damballah visited madam’s boudoir,” one of the caretakers told Broham.
This led to the idea of restoring the estate in the spirit of the voodoo gods by returning it to “the community of spirits” represented by trees and water.
Even for skeptics, the forest as it now stands is special. There are eight mapau trees, soaring members of the cottonwood family that grow hundreds of feet high. The aroma of the mango trees, ginger bushes and the hundreds of species of flowers fills the air.
Dunham, through a foundation, has raised about $2 million for the project, Broham said. He said the money is now in escrow because of an international economic embargo imposed after Haiti’s military overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991.
“Once the sanctions are over,” Broham said, “I think we will be successful. It’s going to happen.”