A Historically Informed Look at Haiti

Catastrophe seems to have a special affinity for Haiti. Or perhaps the Haitians have a predilection for inviting disaster to visit their third of Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Certainly, the floods that killed thousands in Haiti during the 2004 rainy season were widely interpreted in the American press as an implicit confirmation of this latter view. While Florida, Grenada, and Jamaica weathered powerful hurricanes with extensive property damage but little loss of life, over 2000 were dead or missing after (only) heavy rains triggered mudslides around Mapou and Fond Verattes in May (Lakshmanan 2004). Another 2000 died in and around Gonaives in September, after heavy rains from Tropical Storm Jeanne set off flash floods; by comparison, the storm killed only nineteen in the Dominican Republic (Bracken 2004).

Following independence in 1804, most of the Western world predicted that the new “Black Republic,” Haiti, would fail because blacks are incapable of self-governance (Farmer 1994: 226). An uncritical examination of the state of Haiti today would seem to verify the prescience of these (undeniably racist) prophecies. The floods in Gonaives and Mapou, for example, were naturally initiated, but the disasters were man-made: weak government and denuded lands, not forceful winds or copious rain, transformed storms into floods, and floods into humanitarian catastrophes (Lakshmanan 2004; Williams 2003).

But this reading of Haiti’s most recent ecological trials is inadequate-it expunges the guilt of the international community and implies equality of blame between Haitian peasants and the elite. Haiti, both before and after independence in 1804, essentially functioned as a colony from which both wealthy Western colonial powers and Haitian elites extracted everything of value. And yet, now, when the material reserves have been exhausted, the routinely exploited peasantry is forced to shoulder the blame for their own suffering.

According to most US accounts, the flooding and its aftermath in Gonaives and Mapou were the inevitable results of deforestation. Over 98% of Haiti’s original forests have been cut down, leaving the topsoil unanchored. Subsequent erosion has peeled away the soil layers, leaving the earth covered in a mantle of bedrock that can’t absorb the rain, and filling the rivers and canals with silt. When heavy rains strike this denuded landscape, they trigger mudslides on slopes destabilized by erosion, and flooding from silt-choked canals and rivers that quickly overflow their banks (Woodwell 2002; Lakshmanan 2004; Marx 2004; Lewis and Coffey 1985).

Poverty, in conjunction with a powerless and corrupt government, supports the inexorable march of deforestation. In an economic climate where 70% of the population is unemployed; food imports (over Ã?½ of them as food aid) undercut the demand for, and price of, locally grown crops, thereby forcing farmers to look for other sources of cash; and 71% of fuel comes from charcoal, it’s no wonder that many peasants cut down trees for cash or cooking fuel (Bracken 2004; NAFTA and Inter-American Trade Monitor 1996; Williams 2003; Lakshmanan 2004; Haiti Progres 1997). Charcoal sellers claim to recognize that deforestation is a problem, but the inescapable logic of necessity has forced them to this end. They won’t let their families starve to save Haiti’s trees (Reuters 1998). Nor would their sacrifice make a difference-someone else would just take twice as much for him or herself, another tragic example of the commons logic (Hardin 1968).

The government, burdened by debt, riddled with corruption, and often unstable, has been unable or unwilling to undertake the reforms necessary to hinder the pace of deforestation. Agricultural infrastructure-which might improve yields and prolong productivity on already cleared lands-is either damaged or non-existent across much of the country (Hargreaves 2003). Laws aimed at protecting the few remaining forests are rarely enforced-perhaps because the Environmental Ministry is, at best, a nominal entity, understaffed and under-financed (Marx 2004; Reuters 1998). In the neighboring Dominican Republic, Haiti’s trials have inspired preventative actions such as the outlawing of charcoal as a cooking fuel, and subsidies for gas as a replacement fuel. But Haiti’s government is too beset by fiscal problems to undertake similar efforts (World Bank Grant Proposal 2004; Reuters 1998).

Poverty and corrupt government are not only the ultimate explanation for the extensive deforestation that enables flooding-they’re also the handmaidens of flood-caused deaths. Haiti’s urban poor live in shanty towns populated by ramshackle sheet-metal structures; rural poor frequently live in even flimsier, wood and thatch constructions. Many of these shanty towns and rural villages are located on unstable hillsides or in ravines through which water is channeled during storms. Whether because government officials have been bribed to ignore the building codes these slums violate, or because they are simply unable to stop the multitudinous poor from building in these dangerous locations, the outcome is invariant and horrific-sudden floods harvest lives at an extraordinary rate in these crowded, highly exposed and utterly unprepared communities (Williams 2003).

Deforestation, corruption, poverty, ignorance, high birth rates, equitable land distribution, a general tendency to shift blame and avoid responsibility, a culture of exploitation-according to the developed world, these are the strands from which Haiti’s environmental tragedy has been woven. What this list fails to explain is how Haiti, once the “jewel in the crown of contemporary European colonialism” (Lindskog 1998), became the poorest, most ecologically ravaged nation in the Western hemisphere. It also fails to elucidate the mechanisms by which this nation, forged by the only successful slave revolt in the modern era, and transformed by its newly freed populace into one of the West’s earliest democracies, devolved into a land tainted by corruption and torn by violence. The Western media correctly identifies the proximate causes of the floods in Gonaives and Mapou. However, to fully understand those calamities and their developmental sequence, a wider, more historically informed framework is necessary.

The slaves who won their freedom from France in 1804 did not inherit a “pristine” land. France, which acquired the western 1/3 of Hispaniola from Spain under the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, used its colony well during its 100+ years of formal ownership (Lindskog 1998). The French settlers cleared thousands of hectares of forest for sugar, tobacco, and coffee plantations-labor-intensive production systems made possible, and even immensely profitable, through the large-scale importation of slaves from Africa. By 1789, Saint Domingue (the French colonial name for Haiti) supplied Ã?¾ of the world’s sugar and a large share of its coffee; the colony was also an important source of mahogany for European furniture makers, and campeachy for dyes (Bracken 2004; Paryski 1989).

There is good evidence that the rapid pace of development, and the sheer extent of exploitation, had severely damaged Haiti’s environment before the slaves secured their liberty. Various royal edicts, laws, and ordinances, promulgated throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, were aimed at halting-or, at least, reducing the rate of-land clearance for plantations, and tree cutting for export. Clearly, government officials were concerned about the pace and extent of deforestation (not because these were proto-environmentalists but, more likely, because they wanted to maintain the productivity of their cash cow). Unfortunately, these laws, often issued by distant rulers and weakly enforced in situ, had little effect and so, by the 1740s, Haiti had begun to import wood from America: it was that much easier to obtain wood from across the sea than it was to waste time hauling wood from the more remote upland areas where forests still stood! (Lindskog 1998).

The French colonist were simply too fixated on the wealth which Haiti could generate for them to worry about the long-term consequences of their actions. Indeed, with over Ã?½ of the plantation owners being absentee landlords, and the “locals” largely comprised of over-worked slaves with a high turnover rate, the distant future was either irrelevant or unattainable. In other words, life on St. Domingue, as one contemporary observer noted, was characterized by “such an avidity and greed that the future was considered of no value at all” ([Moreau de Saint Mery 1797]: Lindskog 1998).

Freedom for the enslaved population did not translate into a respite for the land. War destroyed much of the agricultural infrastructure, decimated the population, and left the government desperate for funds. Moreover, the new republic was surrounded by hostile nations which refused to formally acknowledge the legitimacy of its independence. While the Haitian peasantry might have accepted their country’s isolation and turned to subsistence agriculture, the government (which traditionally elite groups, like the mulattos and wealthy black merchants, quickly came to dominate) was convinced that economic engagement with the rest of the world was vital to the consolidation of Haitian sovereignty-and the ability of its leaders to continue lining their pockets, as they’d been accustomed to doing under French colonial rule. Accordingly, while “radical” land reforms led to the break-up of old plantations and greater equality in land distribution among peasant producers, these new family-owned parcels were frequently devoted to the production of export crops like sugar cane, cotton, and coffee, rather than corn or sorghum-crops that would feed the household, but not the state’s coffers or European markets (Library of Congress; Farmer 1994: 74-75). The management may have changed hands, with the wealthy whites being replaced by wealthy mulattos and black merchants. And the laborer (in theory, at least) might now be the one to profit from and control his or her own work. But the end product was the same: a land stripped of its vitality and resources to feed European demand. Haiti became a colony in all but name, politically marginalized while economically exploited.

Meanwhile, France continued to press Haiti to make reparations for the losses French plantation owners had suffered following the successful revolt of their chattel. Specifically, the French demanded payment of 150 million francs and the waving of custom charges on �½ of all French imports. In other words, the former slaves ought to make amends to their masters by paying for the chains they had broken! Desperate for diplomatic recognition, President Boyer agreed to the French demands in 1825, accepting a mountainous debt that Haiti struggled for decades to repay (Farmer 1994: 76; Farmer 2004).

Haiti’s government imposed heavy taxes on its poor peasant citizens, but with French coffers absorbing most of these revenues, and corrupt officials pocketing the rest, very little money was available for building or maintaining the infrastructure small farmers required to practice sustainable agriculture on extant plots of land (Farmer 1994: 88). Faced with declining productivity on their current holdings and an increased need for cash–both to pay their taxes and purchase basic necessities like soap, salt and charcoal–peasant farmers either expanded their holdings (where possible) by clearing land in less productive or desirable areas, or harvested timber from “communal forests” to make charcoal for sale. By the end of the 19th century, these “coping mechanisms” of the over-taxed poor had destroyed vast swathes of the original tropical rain forest cover (Lewis and Coffey 1985). Modern pundits claim that a “tradition of land stewardship by which most peasants expect the land to be exploited” has contributed to Haiti’s environmental degradation, (Paryski 1989), yet they never address the provenience of such cultural attitudes, perhaps preferring to see them as sui generis. Clearly, if Haitians do believe that the relationship between humans and land is necessarily exploitative, this worldview is the inheritance of 19th century economic and political realities like the unjust national debt and the regressive tax system it inspired.

Cash-strapped governments ruled by elites who feel forced to impose harsh taxes on a poor citizenry, rarely last long. Accordingly, it’s hardly surprising that the latter half of the 19th century, and first decade of the 20th, saw Haiti riven by political tumult-unrest that was often encouraged and financed by colonial powers competing for “economic ascendancy in the Haitian economy” (Farmer 1994: 85). The chaos eventually ended when one of those colonial behemoths opted for a blatant assertion of authority.

America invaded Haiti in 1915, and then essentially ruled the island for the next 20 years. Despite the tendency of American historians to see our intervention as benevolent, triggered by a charitable concern for the abused populace, the effects of the American occupation were anything but salutary. While Haiti was under US control, many North American companies seized the opportunity to grab land for new rubber, sugar, and banana plantations. The U.S. government claims that corporate acquisitions focused on unoccupied land, but other historians have estimated that as many as 50,000 peasants were displaced by the unfettered rapacity of American businesses (Farmer 1994: 95). Worse still were the financial burdens Haiti’s “guardians” bequeathed to the island. American altruism had not been cheap, and when the occupation ended in 1934, Haiti nearly suffocated beneath its gargantuan national debt. The newly restored government found itself in the same untenable position as its predecessors-dependent on revenues from custom duties on tropical and agricultural resources (especially coffee), and taxes on peasant farmers (Farmer 1994: 102).

With farmers clearing and cultivating every inch of available space, and large tracts of land being exploited by rapacious, foreign-owned corporations, environmental degradation in Haiti proceeded at a rapid clip. By 1950, only 8-9% of the original forests remained, and once rich soils were either stripped away by erosion, or exhausted by cultivation without rest or artificial restoratives (e.g. fertilizer) (Lewis and Coffey 1985). Then came the Duvaliers.

Francois Duvalier was a seemingly innocuous professor of anthropology who gained the presidency in 1957 through a fraudulent vote rigged in his favor by the army. Meant to be a puppet of the generals, Dr. Duvalier proved instead to be a masterful tyrant. While his personal military forces, the tontons macoutes, terrorized the populace, Duvalier maintained international-and especially US-support by representing himself as an ardent anti-communist (Farmer 1994: 110). Given Castro’s rise in Cuba, US leaders were willing to ignore Duvalier’s ‘excesses’-and even to supply his army with the tools of repression-if it would prevent the spread of Communism in the Caribbean.

Francois Duvalier died in 1971, but political chaos did not ensue, for the crafty doctor had carefully planned for the succession of his only son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, or “Baby Doc,” as he was (un)popularly known. Like his father, Baby Doc was dependent on US support and largesse to run the nation and supply the paramilitary forces which sustained his dictatorial authority. Also like his father, Baby Doc knew how to read the American economic and political environment so as to offer powerful US constituencies the concessions necessary to secure tacit American support for his tyrannical rule. Thus, Baby Doc eagerly implemented a new, US guided program for Haiti’s economic development that focused on drawing private American investments to Haiti through incentives such as “no custom taxes, a minimum wage kept very low, suppression of labor unions, and the right of American companies to repatriate their profits” (Farmer 1994: 114).

Representatives for Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and aid agencies like CARE and USAID-both of which have planted millions of trees in the last decade, only to see their reforestation efforts fall under the axe or rendered laughable by the pace of deforestation in other areas-claim that until Haiti acquires a “functioning government”, it is environmentally doomed (Lakshmanan 2004; Sontag and Polgreen 2004). A strong and stable government will translate such goals as conservation, protection, and renewal of natural resources, into reality. But the combined effects of the Duvaliers’ stable dictatorships belie the validity of this simplistic equation. By the time Baby Doc was overthrown (he and his family now enjoy their sunny exile and misappropriated government revenues in sunny Miami, Florida), Duvaliest policies had placed the finishing touches on Haiti’s environmental degradation, and “the visitor to rural Haiti was often struck by the aridity, the erosion, the limitless poverty” (Farmer 1994: 119-120). Papa and Baby Doc exploited and terrorized the people; the people abused the land and exhausted the last of their resources; and so, by 1985, the 18th century’s wealthiest colony had become one of the 20th century’s poorest nations.

Western representations of Haiti’s environmental state inevitably “blame the victims,” attributing the current level of deforestation to political corruption, poverty, and a culture of exploitation. Catastrophes like the floods which struck Gonaives in September of 2004, or Mapou in May of the same year, while tragic, are the inevitable consequences of Haitians’ inability to manage themselves or their resources. By ignoring history, this explanatory framework achieves a specious legitimacy. However, a valid representation of Haiti’s environmental descent will forever elude those who ignore Western culpability.

For much of its history, Haiti has existed to provide the wealthy with “tropical produce, raw materials, and cheap labor” (Farmer 1994: 255), and its wealthy Western clients have shown no restraint in their efforts to extract maximum value from the island and its people, while minimizing their contributions to the integrity and preservation of both Haiti’s natural and human resources. If Haiti now finds itself “all used up,” greater responsibility should be assigned to the policies, practices, and prejudices of wealthy colonial powers, rather than the “barbarity” of the Haitian people.


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