A 30-acre swath of old-growth trees, cloistered in the middle of one of the city's biggest slums, has become a symbol of Haiti's budding conservation movement and its seemingly overwhelming challenges.
Amid the forest are the ruins of a historic estate and luxury resort first built in the early 19th century. Once an opulent paradise for the very wealthy, it is now a gathering place for residents of the nearby slums.
For 50 years, Habitacion LeClerc has been the residence of the renowned Haitian dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham. She is determined to make its botanical garden and surrounding forest another of her legacies. But the property has recently caught the attention of commercial developers keen on rebuilding the resort into a lucrative hotel, says Cameron Brohman, a Canadian anthropologist who is working to preserve the enclave as Haiti's first botanical garden.
That would be harmful, not only for the forest, but for nearby residents who rely on an artesian spring underneath it for water, he says. It's a scenario that has been repeated all too often in Haiti, where forests cover only about 3 percent of the land, compared with 80 percent when Columbus visited here in the late 15th century.
''If the forest is cut down, that spring will go back down, will descend into the earth,'' says Mr. Brohman. ''Haiti has a water problem because it has a deforestation problem. So, an ecological disaster begins with the cutting of trees, especially in a country like this, which is mountainous. Cut the trees, the topsoil washes away. This has disastrous economic effects.''
The effects of deforestation here, especially on agriculture, have been severe. Nevertheless, while President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's latest reforestation initiatives have been slowed by economic concerns, fuel shortages, and political infighting, Haiti's growing conservation movement makes small steps of progress.
It has been a slow process. One reason, the president says, is that environmental protection and agricultural development are inseparable in Haiti.
''If we don't develop our agriculture, how can we protect our ecology?'' President Aristide said during a recent interview at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince. ''Because otherwise, people will not be motivated to plant trees. And we have to plant trees.... Nobody, if that person has good sense, can be against this move.''
Fuel shortages caused by the international trade embargo against the military regime that ousted Aristide in 1991 intensified an already vigorous Haitian tradition of cutting down trees for charcoal. For many Haitians, especially those in rural areas without electricity, charcoal has been the cooking fuel of choice for decades.
''During the embargo we saw trees with fruits being cut down, because the farmers did not have a market or the means to transport their product to a local market,'' says mango exporter Jean Buteau. As unpicked fruit rotted in the branches, fruit trees became attractive as fuel trees.
To stop the cutting, Mr. Buteau got permission under the embargo's humanitarian provisions to keep exporting mangoes, and he helped set up a transport network to pick up fruit from farmers, often in remote areas.
But as the embargo wore on, Buteau was forced to close down his processing plant, which is located near the Port-au-Prince airport, and he had to turn away fruit growers.
''They came to the plant and they asked, 'What is going to happen to the fruit?' It was very difficult to tell them we just cannot take it,'' he says.
The links between farming and trees are the basis for the biggest reforestation project in Haiti, led by the US Agency for International Development, CARE, and the Pan American Development Foundation.
Under the project, millions of mango, citrus, and avocado trees have been planted to give farmers a new source of income, increase local food production, as well as to expand tree cover. The strategy includes planting large numbers of fast-growing indigenous trees that can be used for lumber and posts.
The project ''intensifies land use on a portion of people's land, so that they don't have to use it all for agriculture and so they leave some of it for trees,'' says Andy White, a Haiti-based forestry expert for the World Bank.
International agencies came to the realization several years ago that reforestation efforts in Haiti would be futile unless, at the same time, they removed the financial incentive to cut down trees for fuel.
And now, an economic windfall has helped to promote the project. Kerosene has recently become cheaper than charcoal in Haiti, which should spare more trees from the hands of rural residents.
But because the Haitian landscape is now almost entirely carved into farms of myriad shapes and sizes, it will be an uphill struggle to restore anything but a fraction of the ''closed canopy'' forest that once covered Haiti. What is possible over the next 50 years is that by planting trees in ''degraded forests'' that have undergone extensive cutting, 30 percent of Haiti's mountainous terrain could return to forest cover, from the current 3 percent, Mr. White says.
In addition to the economic realities, reforestation in Haiti must be also carried out on the slippery slope of Haitian politics. Parliamentary debate over a new budget has delayed funding for Haiti's environment and agriculture ministries. Many lawmakers oppose conditions placed on the 40 percent of the budget that comes from foreign lenders - including the United States government, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund - who insist that Haiti privatize its state-owned industries.
A fluid political situation could further bog down reforestation efforts. The new prime minister, Claudette Werleigh, was sworn in earlier this month, replacing Smarck Michel, who resigned after Aristide refused to publicly back privatization plans.
These obstacles are one reason the organizers of another major initiative called Foret Solidarite, or Solidarity Forest Project, decided to rely on grass-roots support and independent funding. The project's goal is to designate and preserve a national forest in each of Haiti's nine provinces. Currently, only three small national forests are in the country.
''What's become clear in the dire circumstances here in Haiti is that multiple efforts on many fronts are needed,'' says the Rev. Tracy Bruce, an Episcopalian priest from Cincinnati, who is one of the directors of Solidarity Forest Project.
The project, officially launched in a pine-forest ceremony outside Port-au Prince today, is modeled after a successful reforestation effort in Israel earlier this century, which attracted contributions from millions of Jews living outside Israel. Similarly, Mr. Bruce is hoping to enlist many Haitian emigres in a sponsor-a-tree program here. It is estimated that as many Haitians reside outside Haiti as within the country.
The Solidarity Forest Project also involves a plan to teach schoolchildren about conservation.
''The whole idea of forests is still in the memory of those who are oldest here in Haiti and they ... lament that the young people don't even know what a forest is because there are so few now,'' says Bruce. ''So it's almost like reinventing the dream and bringing back the possibility.''