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Haiti’s Intertwined Crises: Poverty and Environmental Degradation

Haiti’s population is facing the dual crises of environmental degradation and intense poverty. The two problems are intertwined, and projects that alleviate poverty while ignoring the environment are what Haitians would call, Lave men swiye yo atè, or washing your hands and wiping them in the dirt.

Four hundred years ago, Haiti was the richest colony in the world, known as La Perle d'Antilles. The mountains were covered in rich mahogany trees and rain forest, the rivers ran deep and clear. When the French colonized the western third of the island, they were able to extract unprecedented wealth, but the day the ground was first broken to plant crops for export, the steady decline of Haiti's soil and environment began.

"It is poignant to read Christopher Columbus' breathless words of wonder as he looked at the island's spectacular scenery at the end of the 15th century. It was, he wrote, 'fertile to an excessive degree... and filled with trees of a thousand kinds and tall, seeming to touch the sky.' At first sight, it was nothing short of the promised land that Columbus had persuaded himself must exist across the Atlantic. Green, well-watered, seemingly full of natural riches, it also held the prospect of infinite wealth." -Insight Guide: Dominican Republic and Haiti 

In the beginning it was French plantations. Forests were cut down to make way for sugar, cocoa and other export commodities. Saint Domingue, as Haiti was known during the colonial period, created unparalleled wealth, but at a price. Enslaved West Africans were imported at very high rates because the brutality of forced labor was such that many died and the turn over was great. As the colonizers' greed increased, so did the number of slaves, until the French were outnumbered, and the territory was already overpopulated. 

The Haitian Revolution began in 1791 and raged on for nearly thirteen years. Haitians excelled at guerilla warfare. One highly effective strategy against the French soldiers was to destroy villages, burn fields, ruin water wells and raze cities to the ground. The French were already weakened by the climate and tropical illnesses, and the rebels made sure they found only the most inhospitable landscapes.

When Haiti won its independence in 1804, the country had been ravaged by more than a decade of heavy fighting and environmental destruction. The population of more than 500,000 could hardly be accommodated by the most fertile flat lands. As the land was subdivided into small holdings for each family, they were forced to settle and plant gardens on steep hillsides. Two-thirds of rural areas contain slopes greater than 20%, and when the hillsides were cut clear for planting food and crops for export, the rich topsoil quickly washed away.

However, Haitians did not yet know famine.

In the early 19th Century, the United States occupied Haiti. Upon arrival they found eleven independent regions, and it was noted that in the seventy-two years from 1843-1915, Haiti had experienced "102 civil wars, revolutions, insurrections, revolts, coups and attentats (assassination attempts)" (Written in Blood, Heinl, Heinl and Heinl). The U.S. sent its military to Haiti under the auspices of creating peace and protecting the lives and properties of foreigners in Haiti, and in 1917 a new American-written constitution was handed down, allowing foreign ownership of land for the first time since independence.

Changing the land ownership law had a tremendous impact on Haiti's economy during and after the occupation. Capitalism came to Haiti, and there was an attempt to reinstall colonial plantations. By the 1920s, American firms were buying state lands for large agribusiness enterprises. One of these, the Haitian American Sugar Company (HASCO), cleared trees from fertile areas to make way for sugar production, marking the beginning of widespread deforestation and erosion. 

The eleven regions were replaced by one centralized capital of politics and commerce. Where before there had been a railroad system operating in the country, and peasants were generally able to feed themselves and live decent lives, the American occupation changed things forever.

Today there are 9.6 million Haitians living in an area about the size of Maryland, and 5 million of them live in rural areas as subsistence farmers. Less than 2% of Haiti's original plant cover remains. Haiti's population is facing the dual crises of environmental degradation and intense poverty. 56% of the population is living below the extreme poverty line of $1 a day, while an additional 20% are living on less than $2 a day. This represents 6.2 million people.

Haiti is a place where one can witness a major environmental disaster in the wake of a brief afternoon shower. After it rains, the panoramic hillsides bear ugly white scars in places where trees were dragged along - hauntingly reminiscent of human wounds deep enough for the bones to show.

Twenty-five of Haiti's thirty principal watersheds have been stripped bare, contributing to water shortages throughout the country. Most struggle to meet household needs and have to buy drinking water. Few farmers have access to water for irrigation and diminishing harvests are indicative of the reduced capacity of the soil. 

Haitian peasants are hungrier than ever before. Unable to grow enough food for their families, many farmers have resorted to cutting down trees to maker commercial charcoal, the primary source of fuel in the country. Rural Haitians cut down thirty million trees a year to meet the demand for 3.4-3.7 million tons of wood to make charcoal. 

It is precisely because the rural population is so poor that Haitians have been unable to protect their environment or improve their agricultural production. Low-tech advancements that can make trees more profitable, such as grafting mango varieties for export, are not widely available. Education is nearly completely privatized and financially out of reach for most farming families. This leaves them without access to better agricultural techniques and environmental conservation. In cruel irony, the very steps they take to stay alive today - such as cutting down trees to make charcoal - lead to the destruction of their environment and their inability to produce the food they need to survive tomorrow.