The Life Aquatic

Jean Wiener on how he became a defender of the environment, and why he’s dedicated his life to giving back to his home country of Haiti. By Stefan Marolachakis. Photographed by Kate Warren.

As a child growing up in Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, Jean Wiener couldn’t wait to leave the confines of town and head to the beach. He’d spend long days exploring the Caribbean, face down in the water with his snorkel mask on, marveling at what lay beneath the surface till his parents would summon him back to shore.

It was there, in the waters off Haiti’s western coast, that Wiener was able to witness firsthand the erosion of the coastland marine ecosystem, and where he felt the first sparks of inspiration that would lead him to his life’s work: the establishment of the Foundation pour la Protection de la Biodiversite Marine (The Foundation for the Protection of Marine Biodiversity—or FoProBim, for short).

“Seeing the degradation of the resources in front of me was the main reason I started the work with FoProBiM,” Wiener explains. “Seeing the coral reefs being overrun by algae; the fish that I used to see in schools slowly diminishing until there were none. From my house in Port-au-Prince I would see flocks of hundreds of egrets at dawn and at dusk, and those, too, slowly diminished till there were none—all within a 10-year span.”

These alarming discoveries drove him to study marine biology at university in the U.S. before returning to Haiti to launch the NGO that’s now been in operation for 27 years. One of the first areas he wanted to tackle was marine pollution, so he promptly landed a job as a one-man science department at one of the American schools on the island, rounded up some students and local fishermen, and organized his first beach cleanup. “We collected all the trash, did the triage, figured out what came from where, and published the results in the biggest national newspaper,” Wiener says. “From there, we started gaining more attention from everyone in Haiti for the work we were doing.”

Now, as director of FoProBiM, Wiener works with coastal residents to protect and manage coastland marine resources like coral reefs, fish, beaches, and the region’s invaluable mangrove trees. A big part of his work is ensuring that the local residents understand the importance of the environmental work FoProBiM is doing, and feel genuinely included in the process. “When we enter various communities, we tell the people we’re going to be working with that we cannot be more interested in helping them than they are in helping themselves,” Wiener says. “We’re not just bringing in resources and funding—we want their participation.”

His work with FoProBiM has caught the attention of environmental groups around the globe—like the Goldman Environmental Foundation, which awarded him their highest honor in 2015, and the Whitley Fund, which gave him their Gold Award that same year—which means that he now has videos about his work narrated by the likes of Robert Redford and Sir David Attenborough.

Despite the growing renown his foundation is garnering, his work continues on as ever. These days, Wiener has to split his time between doing the fieldwork he loves in Haiti, and managing the foundation from his home office in Bethesda, Maryland. Despite the ever-present cause for concern, Wiener has good reason to maintain a healthy sense of optimism. “I really never thought that in my lifetime Haiti would have marine protected areas, and through our work, Haiti now has eight, and we’re working on two more,” he says. “So we’ve been able to convince the powers that be that this is something which is critically important for Haiti.”

Twenty-seven years in, his motivation has not wavered. “It’s basically everybody’s responsibility to try to give back,” he says. “I can sum up my life philosophy in just a few words: What are you waiting for? People are in need, we have resources to do the job. Let’s get to it.”