Three years after a devastating earthquake left much of Haiti in ruins, a new effort has been launched to help the long-suffering island nation — an effort based in Howard County and spearheaded by a well-known Haitian with close ties to Columbia.
Raymond Joseph, whose opposition decades ago to then-dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier forced him to flee Haiti and eventually settle in Columbia, last month launched a campaign to reforest his home country, which has been denuded by decades of natural disasters and using trees for fuel and construction.
"Haiti is becoming a desert," Joseph said. "We have to do something about it."
Joseph's ties to Haiti remain strong. He returned to Haiti in the 1990s after Duvalier's son and successor, "Baby Doc" Duvalier, left power, and eventually became Haiti's ambassador to the United States. After the 2010 earthquake, he even filed to run for president but, in a controversial decision, was disqualified — as was his nephew, Grammy-winning recording artist Wyclef Jean.
Joseph kicked off his A Dollar a Tree for Haiti campaign last month with a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and an official launching at a church in Bowie.
The former ambassador, 81, said Haiti is losing trees at the rate of 23 million per year, a loss that is ruining the country's farmland, damaging its fragile economy and contributing to the country's already grinding poverty.
According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, the percentage of Haiti that is forested has plummeted from 60 percent to 1.5 percent in the past 90 years.
Joseph said he is hoping to plant one tree in Haiti for every dollar raised through the nonprofit venture.
The Dollar a Tree for Haiti foundation is based in Highland. The treasurer is Highland businessman Frantz Kenol, also a Haitian-American.
Kenol noted that many Americans and others suffer from "Haiti fatigue," and are tired of the seemingly endless and fruitless efforts to help Haiti, often cited as the poorest country in the western Hemisphere. But Kenol said the new effort gets at the root of the problem and will be scrupulously transparent.
"This is why Dollar a Tree for Haiti is going to succeed," he told parishioners and others at Greater Mount Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bowie last month. "We are going to reinvigorate people, to regain their trust. … We are going to make Haiti a better place."
Joseph, meanwhile, pledged to make the reforestation his top priority.
"I will dedicate my life to work for this venture," he said.
It's a life that has seen many twists and turns, and more than a few ups and downs; and a life that has had two touchstones: Haiti and Columbia.
Raymond Joseph was born in 1931 in Les Cayes, Haiti. He moved to Chicago in 1954 to attend the Moody Bible Institute and remained to earn a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology at Wheaton College.
He returned to Haiti in 1959. But two years later, when his opposition to Duvalier's brutal regime put he and his family in danger, Joseph fled his native country and returned to the United States.
It was a harrowing escape. On a Monday, Joseph explained, he got a telephone call from a friend high in the government, warning him that he had to get out of the country. The following Friday, he left for Chicago with his wife and infant daughter.
"And on the following Monday, the Tonton Macoute (Haiti's notorious paramilitary forces, who killed many of Duvalier's opponents) were at my house (in Haiti)," Joseph said.
In Chicago, Joseph organized opposition to Duvalier, then resettled in New York's Long Island. There, he worked as a journalist and continued his opposition to Haiti's dictator in a series of regular radio broadcasts sent to his home country.
Because of his opposition and criticism, Joseph was tried for treason in absentia in a Haitian court in 1968. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.