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.
Finding a home in Columbia
In 1973, Joseph followed the lead of a friend and moved his family to Columbia. His wife was white, Joseph explained, and they were looking for a community where such couples were accepted.
"My friend lived here and he told me, 'Ray, you should come down here and take a look at the place, the way the city is being built, not destroying the fauna, and also the diversity of it,' " Joseph said in a recent interview at his son's house in Columbia.
"We wanted our children not being stigmatized because we were an interracial couple. I felt that we could have that here. And we did. The children just fell in love with the place.
"I consider myself and my family among the pioneers in Columbia," he added.
Joseph and his wife remained in Columbia for nearly two decades, raising their four children in Long Reach. Two of those children — son, Paul; and daughter, Jackie Patrick — still live in Columbia.
In Haiti, meanwhile, the regime of Duvalier's son collapsed in 1986, and Joseph's death sentence, like many others at the time, was lifted. Four years later, he was named Haiti's charge d'affaires in Washington.
In 1991, he returned to Haiti as a journalist. In 2005, he was named Haiti's ambassador to the United States.
Joseph was still ambassador when the devastating earthquake hit Haiti in January of 2010, killing as many as 300,000 people and leaving another 1.3 million homeless.
As the country's representative in the United States, he was deeply involved in the international recovery efforts. News reports at the time called Joseph the face of the earthquake response efforts in Washington, working with U.S. and Haitian officials to come up with a recovery plan.
Joseph returned to Haiti shortly after the earthquake and, in July 2010, resigned as ambassador to run for president. But in a controversial decision, the country's Provisional Electoral Council ruled his candidacy invalid, along with those of more than a dozen other candidates — including Joseph's nephew, Jean.
Although he still lives in Haiti, Joseph spends much of his time in Maryland, including the past several months, during which he has worked to get his reforestation project off the ground.
"My father still loves Columbia," said son, Paul.
In fact, once his reforestation plan takes root, Raymond Joseph said he hopes to tackle a semi-related project: selling his native country on building villages that would be modeled after planned communities like Columbia.
"Having seen how Columbia grew, with the ideas of James Rouse, and having seen the devastation of Haiti in 2010, I believe the time has come to decentralize Haiti," Joseph said. "I think it would be good to have new towns in Haiti like Columbia — planned communities, where we do not destroy the forests to build them."
For now, however, the former ambassador is focusing his energy on Haiti reforestation.
"We're not starting from scratch," Joseph said at the Washington news conference, noting that other political figures and organizations, both local and international, have joined the effort.
Support from Haiti's government
Indeed, Bernice Fidelia, a representative of Haiti President Michel Martelly, was at Joseph's news conference to express the government's official support. She said the reforestation campaign dovetails nicely with the country's new Keep Haiti Green and Beautiful initiative, which she heads.
Also present at the news conference was Gustave Louis, a Haitian congressman whose campaign to plant 20,000 trees in his district inspired Joseph.
"I saw what he was doing and I said, 'You've given me an idea. I'm going back to the United States to get this started,' " Joseph said. "We don't want to see, after every little rain, the soil washing down the land."
Other supporters contend that Joseph's stature and reputation could help his effort succeed where others aimed at lifting Haiti out of poverty have failed.
"When he told me about this organization, I told him I wanted to be there for him," said the Rev. Jonathan Weaver, the pastor at Greater Mount Nebo A.M.E. Church. Weaver said he got to know Joseph 20 years ago when he was with the A.M.E. Service and Development Agency, which works to improve the quality of life for African and Caribbean countries.
"This is a man that epitomizes integrity," Weaver said of Joseph. "He can galvanize all sorts of people, in this country and in Haiti."
Dr. Judy Ann Fisher, executive director of the Maryland-based Mercy Outreach Ministry, which is focused on providing technology and sustainable development to countries like Haiti, agreed that Joseph could be the right person to make the reforestation of Haiti a success. Fisher said she worked with Joseph when he was ambassador, to help bring solar cookers to Haiti.
"Haiti gets a bad rap, but there are people like the ambassador who are good, honest people," Fisher said. "He can get this done."
Bob Anantua, director of the Columbia-based Build Haiti Foundation, said he was familiar with Joseph, whom he said was "very much respected in Haiti," and his new campaign.
"I think it's a very good idea," he said. "I go to Haiti on a regular basis, and you look at the mountains and they're very, very bare. Anything that can be done to help Haiti reforest, it's a welcome proposition."
Rebuilding Haiti, he added, "is a long, arduous road" that requires a multifaceted solution.
"Haiti is not a short-term project," Anantua said. "It's a really long-term project."
Information on the Haiti reforestation campaign can be found at http://www.replanthaiti.org.