MILOT, HAITI -- Sitting on the steps of the ruins of the once-magnificent Sans Souci palace, Jean-Francois Bujoux pointed out the growing bare patches on the surrounding hills of what was one of Haiti's most prosperous regions.
"The coffee trees are being cut, because there is no one to buy the coffee," said Bujoux, an unemployed tour guide. "The same is true for cacao, and people are even cutting their mahogany trees. They sell the wood for charcoal. That is all we have left that brings money."
With a complete economic embargo in place since May to force the nation's military rulers to step aside and allow the return of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the economy here has crumbled.
One of the richest areas in Haiti, this town and the nearby city of Cap-Haitien thrived on the coffee, cacao and sugar trade. It played a key role in making Haiti, in 1804, the hemisphere's second independent nation and first black republic after a successful slave revolt.
Sans Souci, with its wide arches, sweeping staircases, sprawling gardens and domed church that is still in use, was built to rule the northern part of Haiti, once the richest land in the French colonies.
The palace was sacked by rebellious soldiers in 1820 and today sits in decay.
Patrick Delatour, a historian and architect who has worked extensively on the restoration and preservation of Sans Souci, sees the ruins of the 28-building masterpiece as symbolic of Haiti's political and economic crisis.
"This is the essence of the dichotomy of Haiti," Delatour said. "Here, they tried to do their best, they brought in the best of Europe. But when it fell, it was completely destroyed... . The nation has a history of building then destroying. A philosophical question for me is, do I accentuate what the palace was, or what it is now? It is a difficult question."
Now, like the palace, the region is facing ruin. Haiti can no longer export coffee or cacao because of the embargo, so the processing companies no longer buy the products, causing the prices to plunge by 80 percent.
The tourists who used to visit Sans Souci cannot come even if they wished because flights to Haiti are banned under the embargo.
Local residents said they had two choices left to make money: either cut the trees that have provided a livelihood for decades and burn them into charcoal, or migrate illegally to neighboring Dominican Republic to seek menial jobs.
Newly cleared patches of land on the mountainside appear almost daily. While deforestation has been a constant problem for Haiti in recent decades, foreign relief workers said the process has greatly accelerated. It is especially damaging, the workers said, because the region contains most of what little tree cover is left in Haiti.
"Things were already bad, but what we have done in the past year would have taken six to 10 years to happen under normal circumstances," said a relief worker assigned to the area for two decades. "The economics are simple. Charcoal brings in money and nothing else does. How can you think about the future when you don't know if you will survive today? People will have to worry about tomorrow when tomorrow gets here."
While the price of produce has fallen, charcoal, used for cooking in most parts of the country and ever more scarce, now sells for five times what it did before the embargo. In an effort to slow deforestation, the United Nations exempted propane gas, also used for cooking, from the embargo. But it is almost impossible to get.
Because there is so little to do, people selling fruit and antique coins and military buttons dug up on the grounds of the palace swarm around visitors to Sans Souci.
The palace was built by Henri Christophe, who crowned himself king of Haiti and ruled from this mountain city from 1806-1820. The palace -- which was begun in 1806 and is made of brick and lime mortar -- the adjacent Queen's Palace and gardens were watered by a complex system of aqueducts. The palace even had flush toilets, a rarity for that time.
In the middle of an open courtyard, the Justice Tree still stands, so named because Christophe would sit under it and hear cases. An imported, marble bust of Venus de Milo also still stands on a pedestal in the courtyard, badly weathered by time. Her nose reportedly was shot off by U.S. Marines during target practice. The United States occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934.
Christophe built Sans Souci with material salvaged from the remains of plantations that were burned by his men during the wars of independence against the French, Spanish and English.
Born a slave, Christophe spoke English, was an officer in the French army and fought alongside George Washington in the 1779 siege of Savannah during the Revolutionary War.
In 1802, when the French invaded the port city of Cap-Haitien, the crown jewel of the French colonies, to squelch a slave rebellion, Christophe set fire to his own house as part of the scorched-earth campaign that left the French with only charred fields and smoldering ruins.
Sans Souci was built 30 miles inland from Cap-Haitien because Christophe knew it would be impossible to defend the coast, and he wanted to be in a position to burn it and wage a guerrilla war inland if necessary.
But after building Sans Souci and a series of fortifications to defend against any attempt by the French to retake the island and return his men to slavery, his troops rebelled.
Rather than face arrest and exile, Christophe committed suicide, using a pistol and a silver bullet.
The palace was sacked, everything of value was stripped or destroyed, and it now sits in decay in the midst of a region that is in sharp decline.
"We have no money, and we do not know if we will even be able to send our children to school, if schools even open this year," said Michel Joseph, as he lounged on the grassy knoll that was once the royal garden. "People cannot even eat. How are we supposed to live?"