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U.S., Haiti Claim Island Ownership

September 10, 1998 GMT

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Mountains of bird droppings glistening on the rocks caught Captain Peter Duncan’s eye. Inspired, he claimed the stony outcrop off Haiti for the United States.

That was 141 years ago, when ``guano,″ as the droppings are politely called, was a popular fertilizer. Guano mining has stopped, but a low-level dispute has simmered ever since.

Now, the quest for biodiversity has made the uninhabited island of Navassa, declared by U.S. scientists to be ``a marvel of biological treasures,″ fashionable again.

An expedition, organized by the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington, last month announced the discovery of unique animal and plant species on the two-square-mile island.

That sparked a response from Haiti, which has claimed the ``Isle de Navase,″ 40 miles off its southwestern peninsula, since its independence from France in 1804.

Prominent Haitian scientists immediately formed the Navassa Island Defense Group. ``Navassa island belongs to Haiti. It is only fair that Haitian scientists be included in discovery expeditions,″ said oceanographer Ernst Wilson, a group member.

The scientists plan an expedition this month to the island. Haiti’s Ministry of Environment also announced an expedition.

Haitian sensibilities were further injured by reports that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt had warned that the U.S. Coast Guard would shoot at any boats approaching the island.

Babbitt actually said that as a joke during a news conference in Washington, where the discoveries were announced. His lighthearted threat was aimed at possible U.S. ecotourists or divers eager to explore Navassa’s flourishing Coral Reefs.

Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1504. But interest came after phosphate- and nitrate-rich bird droppings were prized as fertilizer and used to make gunpowder in the 19th century.

In 1856, Congress passed the U.S. Guano Act, which allowed any uninhabited, guano-rich island to be claimed as a U.S. territory. Captain Duncan did just that a year later, during the reign of Emperor Faustin Soulouque.

He sent an expedition to Navassa in 1858 to inform the guano-mining company that he objected to the U.S. claim. Haiti sent an official protest to Washington, which supported the U.S. company.

In 1956, a resolution proposing that Haiti’s claim to Navassa be respected was presented to the U.S. Congress.

That went nowhere, but Haiti was undeterred. In 1989, the former military government dispatched radio amateurs there in an army helicopter. They planted a Haitian flag in the ground and erected a pillar asserting Haitian sovereignty. Then, for a couple of hours, they broadcast messages from ``Radio Free Navassa.″

On Sept. 8, the Navassa Island Defense Group wrote to U.S. Ambassador Timothy Michel Carney, inquiring on what grounds the United States claimed Navassa.

Meanwhile, the U.S. scientists plan more visits to the disputed island. Their two-week expedition last month, the first by scientists in three decades, yielded the discovery of 250 animal and plants species.

They found 15 endemic species, including two lizards, Cyclura nigerrima and Leicocephlus erimitus, previously thought to be extinct.

``We never dreamed that on a single visit the team would so greatly increase our knowledge of the number of species,″ said Roger McManus, president of the center. ``Uninhabited islands like Navassa are the very best chance we have to understand and protect the diversity of life in the Caribbean.″