Haiti Biodiversity Conservationist Wins 2022 Stanford Bright Award

(Originally published by Stanford News on September 12, 2022)

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Stanford’s top environmental prize, which recognizes unsung global sustainability heroes around the world.

When Anderson Jean volunteered to assist visiting researchers with a biological inventory of Haiti’s Macaya National Park, he had no idea that it would lead to a remarkable period of professional accomplishments that would result in protections for the country’s most elusive plant and animal species. That experience in 2006 set him on a path to become a leading environmental conservationist in Haiti, working with local communities to safeguard the country’s biodiversity.

“There is much value in what endures, as well as hope for species in the most tenuous circumstances. My dream is to make people understand the biological richness of this country … and how we can make things better for Haiti,” said Jean.

In recognition of his conservation work, Jean will receive the 2022 Bright Award, Stanford’s top environmental prize, presented to an individual or group for their outstanding work in preservation and sustainability.

The Bright Award winner is selected each year from one of ten rotating regions worldwide based on recommendations from regional consultants and a nominating committee comprised of Stanford Law School faculty and students, and led by Stanford Law’s Barton H. Thompson, Jr., the Robert E. Paradise Professor in Natural Resources Law and the former director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. The award was created by a generous gift from Raymond E. Bright, Jr., JD ’59, in memory of his late wife, Marcelle, and was first awarded in 2013.

“We are thrilled to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of this generous gift from Ray and the Bright family that has provided much-needed support to environmental heroes from around the world as well as an international platform to showcase their critical, earth-saving work,” said Jenny Martinez, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and dean of Stanford Law School.

Haiti’s native species are gravely threatened in part by habitat loss due to widespread deforestation, which dates to the Colonial era when land was cleared for the coffee, sugar, and timber industries, but has continued in recent decades. One study estimates that less than 1% of Haiti’s original primary forest remains intact.

Saving Haiti’s biodiversity – one bird at a time

Haiti Biodiversity Conservationist Wins 2022 Stanford Bright Award

While completing a Bachelor of Science degree in Agroforestry and Environmental Sciences from the American University of The Caribbean in Les Cayes, Haiti, Jean, volunteered with U.S. researchers who were surveying plants and animals across Haiti, including in Macaya National Park. Jean, who was born in Haiti, soon found himself officially working for the group – helping them locate one of the most critically endangered species in the Caribbean: the Ridgway’s hawk. Once widespread in Hispaniola (the Caribbean island that is divided into two separate nations: the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic to the east and the French/Haitian Creole-speaking Haiti), the bird had been documented in the Dominican Republic but was feared eradicated in Haiti.

Jean spent grueling months in the field searching the hawk’s historical range but found no sign of it in his home country. “I wasn’t discouraged because I was passionate about the science,” said Jean. “And I thought, someday, I will find this bird in Haiti … if it is still here.”

In August 2019, Jean and a colleague, Maxon Fildor, rediscovered the Ridgway’s hawk on Haiti’s Petite Cayemite island – nearly 13 years after his first effort to locate it – a turn of events that he describes as the pinnacle of his career. This year, they found eight breeding pairs or 16 individual hawks. “This work takes time, but finding the hawk was the biggest part of my career and continues to motivate me every day,” said Jean.

While continuously keeping an eye out for additional Ridgeway’s hawks, Jean turned his attention to other avian species and honed his skills in bird identification, entering them into databases and gaining visibility as an expert in the field. After training with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, he served for three years as the field biological survey coordinator with Société Audubon Haiti (SAH). In this role, Jean led efforts to locate and protect Haiti’s tree ferns, migratory birds, endangered reptiles, and the island’s last remaining land mammals.

But he is perhaps most involved in work to survey an endangered seabird, the critically endangered black-capped petrel, that nests high in the rocky crags of Haiti’s mountain ranges, known as the Massif de la Hotte and Massif de la Selle. The birds leave their nests around 4 a.m. every morning to fish in the ocean and return at night to feed their young with their catch or incubate the single egg they lay every year. The birds are threatened by carnivores such as dogs, cats, and mongooses, and also by unnatural sources of light from cell phone towers or agricultural burning, which can disorient them during their nighttime travels.

Jean founded and organizes a festival centered around the black-capped petrel, which is known locally as “the Diablotin bird.” The annual event takes place near its nesting range and has generated interest in Haiti’s endangered birds among locals and students. As a result, people will often contact him to report various bird sightings, providing valuable details and motivation for his research. He also serves as a project coordinator with EPIC (Environmental Protection in the Caribbean) where he has continued his work with the black-capped petrel while guiding farmers toward more sustainable land use practices.

In March 2017, Jean founded Action pour la Sauvegarde de l’Écologie en Haiti (ACSEH), which loosely translates to “taking action to save Haitian ecology.” One of the few conservation groups operating entirely in Haiti, it has become a leading voice in Haiti’s conservation movement. Like Jean’s career to date, ASCEH underscores the importance of Haitians’ involvement in local environmental issues.

“The more people on the ground who are versed with the culture and can talk the language of the farmers and who can speak with the people of Haiti, the more information we’ve got,” Jean said.

Conservation in the face of adversity

However, Jean’s work has faced multiple obstacles. Conservation is difficult everywhere, but it is particularly difficult in a country that has endured major disasters and political upheaval and where poverty rates are high. In summer 2021, Haiti saw the assassination of its president and suffered a devastating magnitude-7.2 earthquake, which was quickly followed by a direct hit from tropical depression Grace. In recent years, gang violence has also hindered travel as crime and kidnappings have risen.

Jean said Haiti is sometimes excluded from research grants due to fears that projects will face too many logistical hurdles. With so many other pressing needs around the world, it can be a challenge to convince people, even academics, that his work in Haiti is critical. And some long-time research collaborators have recently made the decision to work elsewhere.

Even though he has opportunities to study and work overseas, Jean sees his work in Haiti as essential.

“Haiti’s environment has secrets,” he said. “Everything is not already gone, and we still have a very rich biodiversity that needs to be preserved.”