Haiti sinks hopes in treasure hunters

Marketplace Staff Jan 9, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Steve Jobs did a demonstration of the iPhone up at the MacWorld Expo today. He made prank call to the local Starbucks at the convention center. And he played scenes from the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean 2.”

A more modern day reenactment of that film might be set off the coast of Haiti. Sunken ships dot the waters. And treasure hunters dive on the wrecks hoping for bounty. But it’s one thing to bring a haul up from the depths. It’s quite another to weather corruption and political instability. Reed Lindsay reports from Haiti.

GREG BROOKS: Well, put it to you this way. . . . Pretend you was a captain of a ship, a pirate ship or somethin’. And you were out here. Where would you go?

REED LINDSEY: Greg Brooks is in his skiff crisscrossing the teal waters of the Caribbean just off Haiti’s southern coast near the island of Isle a Vache. He’s eyeing the magnetometer, a device that detects bumps on the ocean floor.

BROOKS: And if there’s any nonferrous metal in this whole bay, we’ll pick it up and know exactly where it is. And then we can send our divers down to look to see whether it’s modern-day debris or ancient shipwreck.

Over there, says Brooks, is a cove where legendary Welsh pirate Henry Morgan might have sought refuge.In the other direction, he says, there’s a reef that might have sunk a 15th century Spanish galleon loaded with gold and emeralds.

BROOKS: Some of the most well-known, richest wrecks in the world sank here. All throughout this whole region here, it’s never really been touched or surveyed or any recoveries done properly. And it’s a golden opportunity to find out what’s under the ocean here in Haiti.

Brooks promised he would find the booty when his Maine-based company Sub Sea Research signed a deal with the Haitian government two years ago. The profits were to be split 50-50. Billions of dollars in returns, he said, for his investors and for the cash-starved Haitian government.

But after two years of on-and-off searching, there has been no gold — just a lot of headaches.Last year, rumors about corruption and stolen artifacts hit the headlines, and the government suspended his right to search.

His two 100-foot ships remain stuck in the bay of Isle a Vache. Brooks admits he agreed to grease the palms of some Haitian bureaucrats, but blames the looting of artifacts on other less reputable American treasure hunters whose only assets were links to Haiti’s former military dictator and a post office box in Nevada.

Jean Daniel Geneste is a Haitian congressman who represents the Isle a Vache area. He wants Brooks’s two ships forcibly removed from Haiti.

Geneste says treasure hunting by foreign companies is a form of neocolonialism and he’s pressing newly elected Haitian President Rene Preval to impose strict controls on shipwreck salvage. Some experts say that Haiti should steer clear of treasure hunters unless they can be closely supervised.

Victor Mastone is an archeologist who supervises underwater exploration for the state of Massachusetts.

VICTOR MASTONE: They can’t advance them the money. They’re just selling Haiti on the idea that they might make some money, and it won’t cost Haiti anything. But in reality what it’s costing Haiti is its own heritage, its own property.

Mastone says treasure hunters rarely turn up lost loot, and are just as likely to steal or destroy Haiti’s shipwrecks and squander an opportunity to transform them into a tourist attraction.

MASTONE: I think what people tend to get sold on is this quick riches, this idea of, you know, in a minute you throw a dollar down and you’re coming back with thousands of dollars, and we know that that’s not the case. If it’s too good to be true, it’s got to be fake.

Greg Brooks warns that shunning professional treasure hunters like himself would open the doors to modern-day pirates.

GREG BROOKS: If we don’t do it, and if they don’t allow us to do it, there are going to be a lot of unscrupulous people here, just taking it out of the country for their own greed.

Brooks says he is still holding out hope of signing another deal with the newly-elected Haitian government. But, so far, its policy on treasure hunting hasn’t been made public.

In Isle a Vache, Haiti, I’m Reed Lindsay, for Marketplace.

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