For nearly a century, the little-known island of Navassa floated all but abandoned in the Caribbean Sea. Little attention was paid to its two square miles except for the occasional stopover by fishermen.
A recent revelation changed all that. In July, an American-led team of scientists found hundreds of rare plant and animal species there - a biological treasure trove.
The groundbreaking find has reignited a century-old dispute over the island's ownership. Haiti has claimed Navassa, 40 miles to the west, since its independence from France in 1804. But as far as the United States is concerned, Navassa is a US territory.
Some in Haiti charge that what naturalists consider "green gold" worthy of study may in fact be coveted more for its potential as gold of the traditional kind.
There are "a lot of possibilities for biotechnology and the transfer to pharmaceutical products," says Ernst Wilson, a founder of the Navassa Island Defense Group and director of Haiti's Institute for Research and Oceanography. "We are talking about a lot of profits."
The US became interested in Navassa after the discovery of large deposits of guano there in the mid-19th century. The bird droppings are a natural agricultural fertilizer, which was highly valued before synthetic fertilizers were manufactured. In 1857, the US annexed Navassa under a law called the Guano Act, which allowed the country to claim any uninhabited island with guano.
Navassa had 1 million tons, which the US exploited until 1898. In 1956, a resolution was presented to Congress to recognize Haiti's sovereignty over the island, but it was rejected.
The recent discoveries - and a subsequent announcement by the US Department of the Interior about Navassa's biological treasures - have set off a flurry of protest in the Haitian media. The government is threatening to take the territorial dispute to an international court.
Considering Haiti's own environmental degradation, a biological treasure such as Navassa would be safer in American hands, some observers say.
Mr. Wilson disagrees. "The issue isn't if Haiti has the capacity to care for the island," he says. "The issue is that Navassa belongs to Haiti."
Responding to the outcry, US Ambassador to Haiti Timothy Michael Carney was quoted in the local media as saying that instead of expending energy on the old dispute, "the Haiti authorities would do better to resolve the political and governmental crisis." Haiti has been without a prime minister or full Cabinet for more than 15 months.
To an international court?
Now the two governments are trying to calm the dispute. "We understand that the government of Haiti will take this up in an appropriate regional forum and is refraining from further public commentary," says Mary Ellen Gilroy, US Embassy spokeswoman. "We believe it would be inappropriate for us to make a public comment at this time." To resolve the dispute, some propose Navassa should be turned into an international park.
Experts say the real value of Navassa lies in the research potential offered by its flora and fauna. "The island is a true gem," says scientist Nina Young of the Washington-based Center for Marine Conservation, which led the two-week expedition.
Its inaccessibility has enabled Navassa to become a refuge for several West Indian species. Navassa also may possess some of the Caribbean's most pristine coral reefs, "These [marine] habitats are relatively untouched by the threats of overfishing, pollution, and coastal development that plague other parts of the Caribbean," Ms. Young says.
Scientists found more than 250 species unique to the island, including spiders, crickets, scorpions, butterflies, and flowers. Researchers also uncovered a vibrant population of black spiny sea urchins, which died off throughout the Caribbean in the 1980s.
Profit potential grows
Some medicines today use extracts of plants, fungi, or marine life. This green gold is also being used in an increasing number of personal-care products.
Throughout Latin America, the laboratories of US or international companies have extracted raw materials and registered the medicinal properties of thousands of plants used in indigenous practices without paying for patent rights.
"Biodiversity permits all kinds of innovations - in technology, pharmacology, medicine, and other areas," says Jean-Andr Victor, an agronomist in Port-au-Prince. "It's obvious that [the US] has the technology to develop that, while Haitians don't," he says. "We understand this, but on the question of national sovereignty, Haiti is indivisible. This is the basis on which we defend Navassa."