La Navase Island Is Ours
Ile de la Navase lies 40 km southwest of the town of Jeremie, Haiti, and 60 km off the Cap des Irois on the western tip of the island of Hispaniola. The 5.2 square km island is claimed by Haiti, Cuba, and the United States, and it has even been used by Great Britain.
The issue of sovereignty first arose in 1858 and then again in 1998.
Under the Guano Act, the U.S. Congress had declared in 1856 that any uninhabited island containing guano (mineable quantities of bird droppings) would be made a U.S. protectorate. After Captain Peter Duncan discovered in 1856 that the bird droppings on La Navase were a high-quality fertilizer (this mixture of nitrate and phosphate was also used from 1865 to 1898 as a powder in armament), he recommended that the island be taken under U.S. tutelage.
The only problem with this recommendation was that several early Haitian Constitutions, starting in 1801, had noted the islands adjacent to Haiti as being an integral part of the country. According to the Constitution of Haiti, a Haitian territory is deemed to be Haitian even if it is uninhabited. The constitution of 1874 is more precise on this point, because the second paragraph of Article 2 refers to the name La Navase.
Returning to the quarrel of 1858. It began with a communication dated March 10th from the British and French consuls stating that U.S. citizens had stepped foot on La Navase, declared it a U.S. territory, and planted their flag on it.
Around the same time, some British citizens argued that the island fell between the Haitian and Jamaican coasts and wondered to whom it belonged. The British government responded that La Navase was clearly a Haitian possession.
Haiti’s ruler at that time, Faustin Soulouque, responded vigorously to the U.S. threat by dispatching two warships in April 1858 with instructions to expel the settlers by force. The operators of the Navase Phosphate Co. were informed of the Haitian objections to the claim by U.S. authorities. The intervention unfortunately came to nothing because of Soulouque’s overthrow by Geffrard.
In 1917, the U.S. installed its coastguard on the island.
In 1989, the Haitian military government dispatched a team of radio amateurs there by army helicopter. They planted the Haitian flag into the ground and an inscription of Haitian sovereignty. For several hours, they issued radio messages from “Radio Free Navase.” On September 8, an advocacy group for La Navase wrote to U.S. authorities that the GPS system there obviates a need for U.S. coastguards. According to Familypedia:
“On August 29, 1996 the U.S. Coastguard dismantled the lighthouse light, and on January 16, 1997 the coastguard transferred La Navase to the U.S. Department of Interior. By Secretary’s Order No. 3205 of January 16, 1997, the Department of the Interior Department assumed control of the island and placed it under its Office of Insular Affairs. La Navase was initially grouped with the ‘U.S. Miscellaneous Caribbean Islands;’ it is now grouped with ‘U.S. Minor Outlying Islands’ along with other islands claimed by the U.S. under the Guano Islands Act.”
The territorial conflict re-emerged strongly in 1998, and La Navase remains a point of contention between Haiti and the United States. The arrogance of Ambassador Timothy Camey did not help matters any when he said that the 1857 law put La Navase under United States sovereignty because the island was uninhabited and rich in fertilizer.
Notwithstanding the geographical position and Constitutional Law that undoubtedly make La Navase a Haitian territory, it is regrettable that maps of Haiti have not traditionally noted La Navase.
Familypedia informs us again that:
“By Secretary Order No. 3210 of December 3, 1999, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service assumed administrative responsibility for ‘Navassa,’ which became a National Wildlife Refuge Overlay, also known as ‘Navassa Island National Wildlife Refuge.’ Access to the island requires permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office in Boquerón, Puerto Rico.”
The issue now is not about guano, which is no longer used, but about the incredible biodiversity of the island and its fantastic biological wealth.
A 1998 scientific expedition led by the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington D.C. described La Navase as
“A unique preserve of Caribbean biodiversity.”
and reported that the island’s land and offshore ecosystems had survived the twentieth century
Indeed La Navase enjoys an exceptional seabed with varieties of fish, scorpions, and spiders unknown elsewhere. Scientists from the 1998 and 1999 U.S. “Quest” expeditions reported:
- Discovery of 90 species of spiders, including 25 previously unknown to science.
- Identification of 227 species of fish including five new species.
- Species of plants unique to the island, such as the palm Pseudopheonix Sarget saonae, and two endemic species of lizard Cyclura nigerrima and Leicocephlus erimitus thought to have disappeared.
According to the Journal of Biological Conservation,
“The shallow reefs of Navassa (<23m) have high live coral cover (20–26.1%), a high degree of architectural complexity (rugosity index range 1.4–1.9), and moderate abundance of the keystone grazing urchin, Diadema antillarum, at all sites (mean 2.9±0.9 per 30 m2). Thus, Navassa reefs appear to be trophically intact with fish populations relatively ‘unexploited,’ presenting a conservation challenge and a research opportunity”
Interestingly, although Haitians do not live on the island, they have fished sustainably along its coasts for centuries. The Journal of Biological Conservation grudgingly notes that:
“Despite its remoteness, an unregulated, artisanal fishery (primarily using traps and hook and line) carried out by Haitians is the primary mode of human impact on Navassa reefs.
“Even so, reef fish communities exhibit high density (range 97–140 fish per 60 m2) and retain representation by large snapper, grouper and herbivores, which are mostly lacking in nearby Caribbean locations with high fishing pressure.
“The regulation and conservation of the fishery will be difficult, due to the international nature of the situation. However, given the apparently small impact that artisanal fisheries have yet had on its reef communities, Navassa presents a possibly unique opportunity to study the ecological functioning of a relatively trophically intact Caribbean reef, and represents a strong imperative for conservation, monitoring, and research.”
Indeed. But these scientists missed a valuable opportunity to go one step further and recommend returning the island to Haiti and learning a thing or two from Haiti’s fishermen about wildlife conservation. DC
Alliance Haiti text translated and expanded, and images added, by Haiti Chery.
Copyright © 2011-2013 by Dady Chery. All Rights Reserved. Dady Chery is a journalist, playwright, essayist and poet, who writes in English, French and her native Creole. She is the Editor of Haiti Chery.
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