The Environment and Poverty in Haiti

Border Between Haiti and Dominican Republic
CREDIT: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

The picture above illustrates the extreme deforestation of Haiti. You can literally see the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic from space. How and why did this happen and what are its effects? Haiti is one of the most deforested countries in the World with only 2% forestation. The reason why it’s that way is because the trees have been cut down for fuel and specifically to make charcoal because it’s one of the few commodities that can be sold to get the essentials of life. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Here’s an interesting blog post that explains part of why Haiti is so impoverished, the disappearance of the coffee crop and Creole pigs:

As recently as 1949, Haiti had been the third-largest coffee exporter in the world, and the beans had been the main source of the foreign exchange the country needed to develop. Pierre Marcelin gestured out into the surrounding trees as dusk fell, and said: “There are still some coffee bushes out there. But we don’t bother harvesting them anymore.”
The Marcelins offered a comprehensive explanation, with several features. They got quietly but particularly angry when they reached one of their points. “We lost our pigs,” they said, and Milfort and I looked at each other with immediate understanding.

In the early 1980s, African Swine Fever was detected in Haiti, and the United States and other international aid agencies spent $23 million to eradicate nearly 1 million black Creole pigs. But Haitians, and others, still question whether the mass slaughter was necessary. The Haitian black pigs had survived for 500 years and become resistant to disease, and by the time the killing started in 1982 the local pigs had already stopped dying. Critics still argue that the United States was truly only concerned about protecting its own pig industry.

The destruction was devastating to millions of poor rural Haitians. One agronomist estimated the loss at $600 million – in a country where people are lucky to earn a few hundred dollars a year. Compensation was never adequate, and the dictatorship of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier passed little of it along to people like the Marcelins anyway. Creole pigs had been scavengers. The new replacement pigs from Iowa needed special food and medicine, far beyond what people like the Marcelins could afford. They did have a few of the newer pigs up the road – they offered to show us – but they complained the new animals were weak and prone to disease.

Creole pigs had also been a source of savings, which steadily appreciated as the pigs grew. All over the third world, farm animals serve the same function as a store of value. The mass pig slaughter was roughly equivalent to the collapse of American banks in the early 1930s, before federal deposit insurance, which cost many of our grandparents their life savings.
The destruction of the Creole pigs also had reduced coffee production, the Marcelins explained. They had used pig droppings, high in nitrogen, to fertilize their crops. The imported fertilizer they would need today costs 1000 gourds (about $25) a sack, which they cannot afford.

In addition to the issue with the ill-advised culling of the pigs, Haiti’s agriculture was environmentally unsustainable with its rice crop eradicated:

Rice production and trade in Haiti is affected and influenced by a number of environmental factors. Haiti is a mountainous country that has a relatively small amount of arable land. A significant portion of Haiti’s arable land is being lost every year because of the interrelated environmental problems of deforestation, soil erosion, and decreased rainfall which have all come about because of unsustainable agricultural practices dating back to the agricultural systems established by European settlers and the peasant agriculture which followed. This lost of productive land has intensified stagnation in the agricultural sector, which has lead to the adoption of more intensive, unsustainable agricultural practices which intensify the environmental problems. “Approximately 15,000 hectares of cultivated land have been lost to erosion yearly.”[51]. Haiti is caught in a vicious cycle connecting environmental degradation, poverty, and agricultural stagnation.

Haiti has been through deforested. Its original forest covered 93% of the country, today 3% of that forest remains (see Table 9). In 1873 Samuel Hazard wrote that Haiti’s mountains “with occasional exceptions” are covered with “vegetation of some sort, but principally of the most valuable kinds of tress.”[52] Many of those trees mentioned were cleared to make way for sugar cultivation by the Europeans by the mid-seventh century[53]. Lumber was also shipped to Europe (which had been all but completed deforested by this point) for commercial purposes. Later when steam power emerged as the dominant source of power for sugar mills, the forests were depleted so that they could serve as fuel for the mills[54]. Following the Haitian revolution, the plantation system was destroyed, the land was divided into small portions which was owed and cultivated by the peasantry. Constrained by the relatively small amount of arable land apportioned to them, these small farmers cultivated marginal land on the mountains. Over time the use of intensive, unsustainable agricultural practices emerged as the Haitian peasantry has tried to meet its growing subsistence needs in the face of growing population pressures and decreasing soil productivity.

The massive deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices that have contributed to two problems which threaten the cultivation of rice as well as other crops: soil erosion and a drop in rainfall. The land in the Artibonite where most of the rice is grown, is becoming more dry and less productive every year. This trend seems unlikely to change given the structural reasons maintaining the environmental crisis in Haiti.

In an article published in 2001, Dr. Elizabeth Thomas-Hope summed up the findings of her study on the connections between economic development and the environment in Haiti as follows:

Haiti… not only demonstrated a downward cycle of environmental and economic trends, but also the role of governance in the generation and reinforcement of the relationship between the options available in the environmental resource base and the economic decisions. The characteristics of governance have impacted upon the interrelationship of environment and economy at all levels of scale, from the household to national government, with intervening factors involving access to markets, issues of resource ownership, and the capacity to effectively manage both human and environmental resources.[58]

It seems unlikely that Haiti’s government, with its weak institutions will be able to address the country’s environmental problems under current conditions.

And that was before the earthquake… Scripture teaches us that we are to be stewards of the land, even giving it a sabbath rest. As scientists we also can help here to try to minimize the law of unintended consequences and help with sustainable development. There are 10,000 aid agencies in Haiti that haven’t properly dealt with the grinding poverty. There’s got to be a better way.

4 comments to The Environment and Poverty in Haiti

  • Randy Isaac

    It is indeed important to help Haiti financially right now but also to consider the deep-rooted history and long-term future. I recently met the founder and CEO of Flourish and they have posted a helpful article on Haiti’s ecological history.


  • David Wallace

    An email from our pastor. his brother uses technology to drill wells which provide clean drinking water. The radio interview gives a good feeling for conditions in Hati. My own experience tells me that he only talks about a fraction of 1 percent of things that hit him while he was there.

    My brother Jim just got back from Haiti.
    Arrived Friday at 1am. And at 7am did an interview with CBC radio.
    I’d like to invite you to listen to it, as it gives a bit of a sense of what continues to go on there.
    He’s one volunteer, among many from many effective organizations.
    Your ongoing prayers for that nation, and long-term support are appreciated.

  • Paul Arveson

    I’ve been thinking about “religion” lately: here is how James defined it: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27).

    ASA people are practical, with job skills that can be applied to the care of the poor on a large scale. Let’s use them!

    One example is solar cooking – using the power of the sun to cook food or sterilize water. This eliminates the need for wood in sunny countries. This is an underutilized, underfunded solution that could benefit billions of poor people in the world. Please join me in developing the ministry for this purpose –

  • Richard Blinne

    The special section of this week’s Science talks about sustainable agriculture dealing with how to grow more food without exacerbating environmental problems, and simultaneously coping with climate change. Note: Full access requires AAAS membership.

January 2010
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