In a country plagued by extreme poverty and political instability, Jean Wiener led community efforts to establish the nation’s first Marine Protected Areas by empowering Haitians to see the long-term value in sustainably managing fisheries and mangrove forests. Haiti is home to an incredibly diverse array of marine life, housed in mangrove forests and coastal reefs. It is also the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 80 percent of the population living in poverty. Natural disasters and political instability have further hampered the nation’s ability to create meaningful economic opportunities for its citizens.
Driven by extreme poverty, many Haitians have resorted to overfishing. Fish stocks have been further decimated as locals cut down mangrove trees—key habitat for young fish—to illegally make and sell charcoal. Others have turned to harvesting coral reefs, which also provide protection and shelter for fish, for construction material such as rocks and lime.
The deforestation of coastal mangroves brings more cause for alarm: The trees are known to sequester carbon at a rate five times greater than tropical rainforests and protect coastlines from storm surges, making their destruction a further threat to the future of an island nation already vulnerable to climate change.
Growing up in Haiti, Jean Wiener relished family trips to the beach, which would typically end with his parents struggling to pull him away from the water when it was time to go home. To the young boy, swimming in the Haitian coast felt like swimming in an aquarium, with beautiful coral reefs and vibrant colors.
Wiener’s parents had plans for him to become a doctor and sent him to pursue a medical education in the United States. During his studies, he reconnected with his childhood love for the ocean and ended up with a degree in marine biology instead.
He returned to Haiti in 1989 and began working in the science department at a local school. While Wiener had seen signs of the damaged marine wildlife during his visits home, he now fully realized the serious extent of the toll the ecosystem had taken from unchecked exploitation. He frequently heard stories from local fishermen of how much harder it was to find fish. “We used to be able to fish for a half day and feed our family for two weeks,” they said. “Now we fish for two weeks and feed our family for a half day.”
Determined to restore the marine wildlife of his childhood and bring sustainable economic opportunities for the people of Haiti, Wiener started the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Biodiversity (FoProBiM)in 1992.