It is known to voodoo priests as the Valley of the Serpents, an appropriate name for a rainforest clinging to life in the heart of one of Haiti's most hellish slums. The priests regard the forest as sacred, and environmentalists have lately been inclined to agree. In fact, a worldwide movement is now under way to turn the forest into an internationally protected botanical garden.
"You could call it horticulture in hell," says Cameron Brohman, the 44-year-old Canadian leader of the project. The 30-acre paradise of trees and medicinal plants lies in the heart of Carrefour, a concrete slum of 400,000 people on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. It contains 32 species of trees, including mahogany, avocado, and breadfruit, as well as dozens of plants and shrubs.
"Its treasure is not so much the rarity of the trees and plants," said Brohman, "but the simple fact that it exists at all in a country that is 96 percent deforested."
Brohman has garnered international support for his conservation efforts through the London-based umbrella group, Botanical Gardens Conservation International, which recently added the forest to its list of 400 garden projects. In addition, several other botanical gardens are backing the project, and Brohman has even gained the cooperation of the island's voodoo priests: Since April 1994 he has been supervising voodoo rites the locals say will protect the forest.
For over 40 years the property has been owned by Katherine Dunham, the legendary American dancer, choreographer, voodoo high priestess, and anthropologist. The 85-year-old Dunham lived on the property until Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in the military coup of September 1991. In 1992 Dunham went on a 47-day hunger strike at her American residence in East St. Louis, Illinois, to protest the Bush administration's policy toward Haitian boat people. She has since been actively working to preserve the forest and create the Katherine Dunham Botanical Gardens.
The forest has a long and checkered history. In Haiti's glory years, the property was once home to Napoleon Bonaparte's sister Pauline. In the late 1960s it was converted into an international jet-set playground, with villas, swimming pools, a casino, and a hotel. Today, says Brohman, the gardens serve the people as a natural escape from the concrete jungle of the slums.
Support for the preservation project has come from botanical gardens around the world, including the Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Miami, which helped raise funds by hosting a photo exhibit of the area in 1994. …