October 19, 1998
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Columbus stumbled across it in 1504 but never bothered to come back, and later explorers scorned it as a worthless outcropping of rock and bird dung.
All of a sudden, though, the United States and Haiti are squabbling over the status of Navassa, an uninhabited Caribbean island barely two miles square that both countries claim as their own.
The dispute, which Haiti is threatening to take to international tribunals, arose after an American scientific expedition authorized by the Interior Department spent two weeks on the island this summer. The group returned with tales of finding "biological riches unimagined," which led Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to warn of his intention to protect the island from interlopers — with Coast Guard vessels if necessary.
"If you were going to consider a system of protected areas, you'd definitely want to include Navassa in the portfolio," said Michael Smith, leader of the expedition, which was sponsored by the Center for Marine Conservation, a Washington-based environmental group.
"Navassa has a very special and extremely healthy coral reef," he added, "and it is absolutely remarkable how much animal life we found there, including new species that are endemic to the island."
The United States has controlled Navassa, just 40 miles off Haiti's southwest peninsula, for more than 140 years. But of the 24 constitutions Haiti has had since gaining independence from France in 1804, all but one of them described La Navase, as the island is called here, as an inalienable part of Haitian territory.
The basis of the American claim is the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which authorized American vessels to establish sovereignty on any abandoned or unclaimed island that had reserves of the rich fertilizer derived from bird droppings. A year later, an American sea captain, Peter Duncan, planted the American flag on Navassa, which was followed by several decades of phosphate mining and construction of a Coast Guard lighthouse that was abandoned only in the 1950s.
Today, Navassa "is unorganized American territory, meaning that Congress has never set up or passed any statutes prescribing any particular type of administration," Babbitt said in a telephone interview from Washington. "In the absence of that, the Interior Department is traditionally the place where these matters are dealt with." Babbitt declined to comment on Haiti's claim to the island, referring the matter to the State Department, which has consistently claimed American sovereignty for the Island. "I'm just the head gamekeeper around here," he said. "My job is to administer the place and protect the coral reefs, and that's what we're doing."
But he did add that he regards Navassa's legal status as no different from that of several uninhabited islands in the Pacific that the United States administers, including Howland and Midway Islands.
But Foreign Minister Fritz Longchamp of Haiti rejects the notion that Navassa is American territory of any sort. He pointed to the 1697 Treaty of Rijswijk, in which Spain gave up sovereignty over Haiti and the adjoining islands to France, and dismissed American possession of the island, and Some 4,000 square miles of seabed around it, as irrelevant under international law.
"La Navase is Haitian and a part of Haiti," he said in an interview here. "If I own something and I make a decision not to use it, that does not give you the right to come and claim it because I have not been using it. How many islands off the coast of the United States are not inhabited? Does that mean anyone can come and claim them too?"
Complicating the situation even further, William Warren, a California businessman who says he wants to mine Navassa for organic fertilizer, has also made an ownership claim. He has filed suit against Babbitt and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, citing a 1905 document in which the State Department said it "possessed no territorial sovereignty" over the island.
For weeks now, the Navassa imbroglio has filled news broadcasts and talk shows here. At one point last month, the American ambassador, Timothy Carney, even suggested that since Haiti has many internal problems that need attention, the country's energies might be better directed toward resolving those issues, rather than focusing on a tiny island that few Haitians other than fishermen have ever visited.
Since Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and has been without a functioning government for the last 16 months, that observation, indelicate though it may have been, seemed self-evident. Nevertheless, Haitians have taken umbrage at Carney's remarks and begun to spin extravagant fantasies about his motives in pressing the American claim to the island.
Lafanmi Lavalas, the political party organized by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, immediately condemned the American position and organized a protest late last month. Haiti is also awash with rumors that the United States covets Navassa because the August expedition discovered gold or uranium there or even, according to one version making the rounds here, a gateway to Atlantis.
Those conjectures are baseless, but "there is a great dollar dividend if we are talking biotechnology" derived from some of the spider and insect species unique to the island, said Ernst Wilson, a Haitian oceanographer who has organized La Navase Island Defense Group to assert the Haitian claim.
"La Navase is a perfect laboratory, and biotechnological and pharmaceutical companies are going to want to get into this because there is money there, I know it," he said.
Smith said that in the interests of lowering the political temperature, he would be willing to include Haitian scientists like Wilson on future visits to the island. His goal, he stressed, is to assure that Navassa remains a pristine refuge for animal and plant species whose existence is endangered elsewhere in the Caribbean.
"Science should be an
activity that bridges diplomatic problems
between countries," he said. "As an American organization, we are
subject to the Supreme Court ruling which says Navassa was properly
annexed. But whoever ends up with jurisdiction over the island, we
would like to see them manage it well."