Thursday, November 08, 2012

Haiti's Environment: At a Glance

By Josette Perard
Haiti's ecological system, most specifically the rapport between its population and the environment in which they live, is in a dismal state. This reality has serious consequences on the quality of life for Haitians in both rural and urban settings. It is no coincidence that Haiti's ecological health has degraded significantly while the government has been absent in managing the national territory and its resources.
As one travels through the country, it is easy to see that marshes and open spaces have deteriorated, forests have been destroyed and outdated agricultural practices have contributed to severe erosion. Sediments from the soil are then carried away by water and threaten sea life and the coastal areas.
This very systematic breakdown of Haiti's ecology has adversely impacted overall production capacity on the island. Day after day, small farmers living in Haiti's countryside struggle to get by as quality of life have considerably worsened.
When Christopher Columbus arrived on the Island of Hispaniola in 1492, forested area was abundant and covered 80% of the island. Upon their arrival, Spanish colonists immediately began destroying the environment. They imported animals for breeding and allowed them to graze freely—openly dismissing pasture practices that protected the land and supported food production.In spite of these mounting challenges, the government refuses to implement the policies and regulations that this situation necessitates. Instead, the government continues to make statements and write reports that remain on paper without employing concrete actions. How did Haiti get here?
Additionally, they began cutting trees like mahogany and campeche for coloring and for export. Between 1664 and 1803, French colonists continued deforestation at the same rate. They destroyed forest land near the coastal areas and at the base of mountains to cultivate tobacco, indigo and cane without planting trees to replace them.
After Haiti became independent, these practices continued. The Haitian government, in search of foreign investment, began to give abundant land concessions to large companies. For example, the United Haitian Corporation received 46,511 acres to use for a period of 50 years. Even so, forest cover at this time still accounted for 50% of Haiti's total acreage.
"Haitians are incurring a diminishing quality of life. Families that could live and prosper off the land no longer can."
During the American Occupation, the Haitian government gave 790,000 acres of land to SHADA (Haitian American Society for Agricultural Development). SHADA deforested thousands of acres to plant sisal and rubber, two plants that destroy the quality of the soil. Even more troubling, their cultivation had nothing to do with meeting the needs of the Haitian people.
By 1945, the number of forested acres had decreased to 21% and by 2002, the number of trees was down to 2%. Today tree coverage is estimated at just 1%!

Soil Erosion

Years of alarming deforestation that still continues today has utterly depleted the soil of valuable nutrients. In 1978, it was estimated that 4,651 acres of arable land were uncultivable due to poor soil quality. Today, 36,000 tons of soil that would otherwise be secured by the roots of trees is being hauled off by water each year – this is the equivalent of 9,300 acres. This is purely arable land that could produce food that is being lost.

Water is Rare

Haiti is located in a tropical zone so it benefits from substantial rainfall, but because of deforestation and erosion, the infiltration capacity of water has considerably diminished. Of the 40,000 m 3 of rainfall in Haiti annually, only 10% soaks into the soil. This means the water table is disappearing and the rivers are drying up. It is incredibly painful to watch the soil washed away during the rainy season, disappearing into the sea.
In addition, most water sources are full of toxic material because of a lack of watershed management where they are located. Pesticides, trash and human waste contaminate local water sources. This poor water management is accompanied by the epidemics of malaria, typhoid fever, and other waterborne diseases.
This of course is on top of the deadly and devastating arrival of cholera through the UN occupation two years ago. Inadequate access to clean water and sanitation made Haiti a fertile breeding ground for cholera to flourish – to date there have been nearly 600,000 cases and over 7,000 deaths.
Haiti is Losing its Biodiversity Not surprisingly, destruction of the environment has resulted in a lack of protection for many plant and animal species., causing them to disappear. Despite the odds Haiti is still home to 5,000 plant species and unique fauna, 220 bird species, 300 fish species, and a large reptile population. Urgent actions need to be taken to preserve this rich biodiversity.


For rural Haitians, the degraded environment and decline in resources has led to a gradual decrease in economic opportunities. So, many rural communities are witnessing a massive exodus of their populations towards larger towns and the capital city of Port-au-Prince. In 1950, there were 152,000 inhabitants in the capital. The 2004 national census revealed 2.3 million resided in Port-Au-Prince, a number today that is estimated to have increased to 3 million.
Throughout the country, Haitians are incurring a diminishing quality of life. Families that could once live and off the land are now often forced to seek employment opportunities in the cities. However, job openings in urban areas are scarce, as are public services. In a seemingly endless vicious cycle, migrants from rural areas often end up living in ever-growing slums, without access to basic sanitation services, such as adequate drainage and sewer systems. As a result, water quality, alongside quality of life, continues to diminish.

A deforested hillside

Current Causes of Environmental Degradation:

Political Factors

The complete absence of political will to protect the environment continues to cripple Haiti. The Haitian government plays no role in protecting its natural resources. Most often, the government takes a nonchalant attitude and “laissez faire” approach towards the clear acts of destruction and violations of its natural resources.

Socioeconomic Factors

A lack of environmental education, understanding and appreciation is engrained in the Haitian culture. The resulting social norms and behaviors reflect a need for greater respect and care for the environment.

Demographic Growth

Haiti's population is growing at an unsustainable rate. In 1971, Haiti had 4.2 million inhabitants. By 1982, the population rose to 5.77 million and by 2004 the population totaled 8.3 million. Today, there are around 9 to 10 million Haitians. It is easy to see that this level of population growth is putting undue pressure on Haiti's already precious resources.


According to studies by the World Bank, 80% of Haitians live below the poverty line – most of whom live in rural Haiti. In order to survive, the peasant population has little choice but to exploit the land intensively.

The Need for Energy

Selling charcoal is the only means of income for many Haitians
Haiti relies on wood to meet 72% of its energy needs. Wood is used for charcoal, cooking, and use in industrial settings (bakeries, dry cleaning, etc.). Every year thousands of trees are cut down for energy use. Which of course, has significant consequences. Unregulated Exploitation of Sand The absence of regulation means that sand mining is being exploited as well. This lack of policies or regulation around sand mining is resulting in the reduction of plant coverage and a change in the topology of the landscape.

Lack of Urban Planning

In the cities there is no urban planning. People build housing wherever and in any manner as they wish. While the space and planning for roads, sewage, draining and other essentials are not provided.

Natural Causes

75% of Haiti's territory is mountainous, which creates vulnerabilities for the ecosystem. While Haiti is situated in "Hurricane Alley" in the Atlantic Ocean along fault lines that are susceptible to earthquakes, making it particularly vulnerable to frequent and severe natural disasters.


Clearly, the impacts of Haiti's degraded environment have ramifications far beyond the loss of a vibrant ecosystem. On an ecological level, deforestation leads to nutrient loss in soil, soil erosion, degradation of water quality, sedimentation in canals and rivers and a loss of animal and plant life.
In addition, deforestation leads to the phenomena of desertification – which is not only devastating to agriculture, but also intensifies natural disasters (landslides, flooding, and forest fires). Socioeconomically, it is not difficult to draw the connections. A decrease in natural resources limits what citizens can utilize to make a living. A decrease in agricultural productivity leads to declining incomes, while polluted water sources are responsible for a myriad of waterborne illnesses. Above all, these dire effects of a degraded environment increase dependence on other countries as increased trade becomes a necessity.

What Should be Done?

Primarily, it is the role and responsibility of the government to respond to this question. Democracy should be utilized whereby the people turn to the polls to vote for and elect competent leaders. Here at the Lambi Fund of Haiti, we can raise our voices. Together, community-by-community across the country, we can raise our voices in unison in a fight to save the environment that is threatened by total destruction. In all reality, it is necessary for the power of the state to control the population explosion, manage urban planning, spearhead the fight against poverty, reforest the land and reduce the pressure on Haiti's natural resources. This will not be realized though, until Haitian civil society unites and begins demanding these rights.
In light of these current struggles, Lambi Fund is doing everything in its power to bring to the forefront the realization of these objectives. Through the convening of conferences and workshops, community members are educated not only on the importance of the environment, but of their civil rights as well. Lambi Fund is working with partner organizations to reforest the localities in which they live, to build cisterns for potable water, latrines to manage human waste, and training farmers on techniques that protect the environment and improve productivity.
This being said, Lambi Fund's reach is limited and we realize that it takes a force far larger for change. As such, we must join forces and demand a comprehensive plan to restore and protect Haiti's environment—for the well being of all of us.