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Deforestation in Haiti




AUTHOR: Kristen Picariello December 18, 1997


1. Abstract

Haiti is one of the many developing countries that has sought to increase its growth and end its cycle of poverty. One of the ways in which it has done this has been by cutting down the forests. Most of Haiti's population live below the poverty line. Nearly 70 percent of all Haitians depend on the agriculture sector, which consists mainly of small-scale subsistence farming and employs about two thirds of the economically active work force (1). However, extreme soil erosion and deforestation mean that Haiti's environment is one of the most devastated in the world. Only 30 percent of the land is suitable for cultivation, with the result that the majority of the rural poor have a desperate struggle for survival on marginal areas.

In Haiti,a substantial share of poverty is also traceable to rapid population growth pressing upon limited endowments of soils and clean water. Deforestation and population growth, coupled with years of repression and colonial intervention has caused the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Haitians. Many of these Haitians flee Haiti and head to the United States in boats and rafts. Vast numbers of men, women and children never make it to the United States. Those who do are deported back to Haiti. A vicious cycle soon begins, with the environment and innocent Haitian people caught in the midst of it.

2. Description


Deforestation refers to the complete destrucution of forest cover, whether this destruction is due to land-clearing for cattle ranching, small holder agriculture, (Haiti) plantation agriculture, or parking lots. Deforestation means that the land is converted permanently from forest uses to non-forest purposes. Deforestation is much more serious than forest degradation. Forest degradation may change the ecology of certain forest aspects, but it does not destroy all forest cover(2).

Originally, tropical forests in Asia, Africa, and Latin America covered about fifteen million square km. of land area, or about 12 perent of the earth's surface. Today, tropical rain forest cover has shrunk to half that, or 7.5 million square km(3).

In addition to this sad reality, the rate of destruction of the forest is increasing. As late as 1979, deforestation occurred on "only" 75,000 square km. per year. By 1991, the annual amount of forest deforestation had risen to between 130,000 and 140,000 square km. The rate of deforestation increased by 80 percent in these years. In other words, the rate of deforestation rose from less than 1 percent of forest area per year in 1979 to nearly 2 percent of forest area by 1991. In many areas, the rate of deforestation was much higher (three quarters) as high as 12 percent per year in some countries of West Africa and Latin America(4).

The rapid loss of forest cover has grave economical, ecological and ethical consequences. Millions of people in Haiti and other poor countries face permanent poverty with forest destruction. Haiti is a country that is virtually deforested at the present time. If one were to fly over the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the border appears like it was drawn by an"acetylene torch" owing to massive deforestation in Haiti. The Haitian climate has, as a result of deforestation, been changed drastically(5).

Poverty and the Poor in Haiti

Numerous studies have illustrated that poverty and hunger are often related to environmental degradation(6). In Haiti and other developing countries, there has been a strong effort to keep the poor landless and disenfranchised. If they are vulnerable economically and socially, it is believed the poor can be easily coerced into working for the rural and urban elites for low wages. If the poor are unable to produce their own food, they are quickly absorbed into the cash economy. Poor farmers often have to sell their crops immediately after harvest when the market is flooded and prices are at their lowest. They do this because they need quick cash. These farmers spent their reserves in an attempt to grow their crops. Farmers need to sell their crops in order to make some type of profit to support their families(7).

In Haiti, about 75 percent of the population lives in poverty. Almost 70 percent of all Haitians depend on the agricultural sector for their small-scale subsistence farming. Agriculture composes 34.8 percent of the economy and employs 66 percent of all Haitians.Farmers usually grow coffee, mangoes, sugarcane, rice, and corn on their farms(8). In order to grow their crops, farmers clear forest areas. Deforestation is fatal to the environment and ecosysytem. However, these farmers do not have a choice but to continue this deforestation. Their livelihoods depend on it.

In 1995, Haiti had a per capita income of 229 dollars. Haiti remains by far the poorest country in the hemisphere, at less than half the per capita income of the next poorest country, Honduras. Haiti's population has the lowest health and educational indicators in the region. Less than 60 percent of the population receive primary health care and the illiteracy rate is about 50 percent. The mortality rate for children under five is more than double the regional average and life expectancy is only 57 years(9). Haiti's problems of poverty, poor education and health conditions are the result of years of neglect and misrule, which will take years to overcome.

Years of U.S Intervention and Dictatorships

Haiti's current situation can be traced to the years of military intervention by the United States as well political turmoil within the country.

With 22 changes of government from 1843 until 1915, Haiti experienced numerous periods of intense political and economic disorder. In 1915, the United States intervened militarily during an especially unstable period. U.S. military forces were withdrawn in 1934 at the request of the elected government of Haiti (10).

In the early part of the twentieth century, Haiti suffered from a turbulent political life and financial mismanagement. Eight percent of the Haitian budget went to debt service, and U.S. Government officials were concerned that financial obligations to U.S. investors might not be met. There was a fear in the United States that France or Germany might establish a position of influence in Haiti (11).

These concerns were heightened after the outbreak of World War I, when Haitian authority collapsed into bloody factional struggles in the summer of 1915. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was determined to take action.

In July 1915, Admiral William B. Caperton was directed to land forces to establish order and assume responsibility for administering custonhouses. With almost no resistance, some 330 sailors and marines took control of the capital (Port-Au-Prince) within a few hours.

Once established in the major population centers, U.S. officials quickly ensured the election by the Haitian National Assembly of a responsive president, Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave, who had served as president of the Haitian Senate. As a result of continuing unrest, Admiral Caperton also established censorship and proclaimed martial law. These emergency measures were not repealed for over ten years (12).

Haiti's (internal) political turmoil began in 1957, when Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) was elected President, following a year during which six different governments held power! He became president for life in 1964 and maintained absolute political control until his death in 1971. During Duvalier's rule, a small black middle class emerged, but Haiti suffered from domestic political tension, severe corruption, repression and economic stagnation. The United States suspended all economic and military assistance to the government of Francois Duvalier in 1963; aid was resumed only in 1973(13).

Basic Indicators of the North-West Region in Haiti During Duvalier Years Source:Project Haiti Homepage

Surface area (in km2)




Rural Population (%)


Life expectancy (in years)


Infant mortality (per 1000 live births)


Urban population without potable water (%)


Rural population without potable water (%)


Urban population without electricity (%)


Rural population without electricity (%)


Deforestation (%)


Illiteracy in the adult population (%)


Annual income per capita (US$)


As these data illustrate, there are many people fighting over too few resources. This area of Haiti, the North-West region, is one of the poorest regions in the country. The resources are not allocated/distributed evenly. This is an obvious symptom of conflict. Many of the people who live in this area do not have access to clean water or electricity. The life expectancy and infant mortality rates are greatly affected by the lack of resources. These poor people are most likely vitamin deficiant. This explains why there is a very low life expectancy, 52 years.

After Papa Doc's death, his son Jean-Claude, (Baby Doc) assumed the presidency and continued many of his father's policies. Although the country experienced a true period of economic recovery and investment, Jean-Claude ultimately failed to provide the leadership necessary for Haiti's sustained development. As a result, the country stagnated politically and economically while public discontent mounted. On February 7, 1986, after months of tension and civil disorder, Jean-Claude fled Haiti for France(14).

A military regime, the Conseil Natinal de Gouvernement (CNG), immediately succeeded Duvalier with the help of foreign powers represented in Haiti. The U.S. Embassy played a major role in persuading U.S. Army- trained general Henri Namphy to be chief of state. Washington resumed the suspended foreign assistance programs and almost doubled grants to Haiti over the previous 1985 fiscal year(15).

In late 1986, the CNG organized local and Constituent Assembly elections. In March 1987, a national referendum approved a new and thoroughly democratic constitution. The CNG canceled general elections scheduled for November 1987, amid popular discontent and regime representation.

A few years later, in elections held in 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest and opponent to Haiti's former dictatorship, was elected President by an overwhelming majority. The election was witnessed by international observers from the U.S., U.N., and the OAS and was declared to be Haiti's first free and honest election. Voters also elected members of parliament and mayors of Haiti's large cities and towns. Aristide was inaugurated on February 7, 1991(16)

President Aristide's term did not last very long. In the early morning of September 30, 1991 a military junta began the overthrow of Aristide's seven- month old regime. Attacks by soldiers on the urban slums that housed Aristide's supporters, on orphaned children that he had encouraged, and on populat mass organizations that arose during the post-Duvalier dictatorship soon followed. The terrorism seemed directed at forestalling any popular mobilization in support of Aristide and effectively deterred an imediate mass response. Threats against the broadcast media ensued. After some time spent in detention, army officers allowed Aristide to go into exile, (first to Venezuela and then the U.S.) and ceded formal power to a provisional government. The military once again had resumed its role as executor of the status quo(17).

From October 1991 to June 1992, an unconstitutional de facto regime led by Joseph Nerette as President and Jean-Jacques Honorat as Prime Minister, governed with the support of a parliamentary majority and the armed forces, approved Marc Bazin as Prime Minister to head a new de facto government. No replacement was named for Nerette as President. Bazin's mandate was to negotiate a solution with President Aristide, in exile in the United States, and to end the economic embargo and diplomatic isolation of Haiti imposed after Aristide's ouster. In June, 1993, Bazin resigned and the UN imposed an oil and arms embargo, whcih brought the Haitian military to the negotiating table(18).

The military regime deprived Haitians of democracy. Anyone who spoke out against the regime was killed. Numerous atrocities were commited during the Duvalier and military regimes. The Haitian police force and security apparatus was known for its corruption and brutality.

With the help of the United States, the 6,000 member Haitian National Police Force was established. This civilian police force will be an important guarantor of long-term stability and democratic development in Haiti (19). Members of this new civilan force are beginning to conform with the practice of respecting human rights. However, Haiti still has a long way to go. It must stabilize its economy and help the poor. It is only beginning to do so, as more and more people leave Haiti and head for the United States.

Haitian Migration to the United States

The United States has been involved (indirectly) with the influx of Haitian boat people fleeing Haiti. In the early 1970s, Haitians began migrating to southern Florida without authorization. The Governor and other prominent policy makers in Florida pressed for federal action to deter this population stream. Until 1981, arriving Haitian boat people were detained in Florida, and most were deported as rapidly as possible. Since 1981, the U.S. government has used the Coast Guard to intercept boats filled with Haitian migrants. Since May 1992, "interdicted" Haitian vessels have been escorted back to Haiti, without allowing passengers an oppurtunity to request political asylum in the United States. Although this policy has sparked condemnation from many observers as inhumane and discriminatory, the federal government arguably has the administrative, legal and political ability to uphold it. Political criticism of this policy has helped induce the U.S. government to act in favor of a democratic regime in Haiti(20).

Recently, the United States has been the center of controversy once again. Human rights groups state that U.S. immigration laws are biased. Refugees and politcal prisoners from El Salvador and Nicaragua are allowed entrance into the U.S. Haitian boat people are restricted from entry and are deported by the United States Coast Guard to Haiti (21).

3. Duration

InProgress: 1960s-Present

The problem of deforestation and poverty in Haiti began during the years of the Duvalier Dictatorship. Money was mishandled and not invested properly. The Haitian economy is similar to the other economies in Latin America. Ten percent of the population controls 70 percent of the wealth. Currently, foreign and domestic potential investors have been reluctant to risk their capital, planning to "wait and see" what the administration of President Rene Preval (Aristide's successor) does to promote investment and make the Haitian economy a safe environment for investment. The Preval government will have to implement necessary, but unpopular economic reforms in order to obtain badly needed foreign aid and improve Haiti's ability to attract foreign capital if the economy is to gain momentum. Only when these policies have been implemented will the poor receive the help they need, and refrain from cutting forest areas.

4. Location

a. Continent: North America

b. Region: Southern North America

c. State: Haiti

5. Actors

Haiti and the United States

II. Environment

6. Type of Environmental Problem


When deforestation occurs, there is a reduction in the abundant resources of the forest. For example, forests serve to control climates, especially rainfall. The forest absorbs the reflectivity of the sun's rays from the sun and stores a sizable share of the world's carbon. Forests are one of the most important sources of biodiversity on earth. Forests, especially rain forests, contain at least 50 percent of all the earth's species. Undisturbed forests can provide the essential food, clothing, and firewood for indigenous people(22) Deforestation threatens all of this.

Poverty is one of the reasons why deforestation occurs. In Latin America, Africa and South Asia, poverty is traceable to rapid population growth pressing upon limited reserves of soils and clean water. Poverty has also been caused by colonial domination, in which the education and health of local people were ignored for centuries(23). However, poverty can also be attributed to bad economic and social policies, as has been illustrated in Haiti's case.

Deforestation has been linked to a number of global threats to the environment including global warming, (through the accumulations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases); especially carbon dioxide; from forest burnings.

Deforestation does result in poverty and lack of resources for poor people. The role of poverty in deforestation is fueled by the ever more desperate search for fuelwood by impoverished people. In Haiti, poverty has been caused by lack of resources and the bad economic and social policies of dictatorial regimes.

7. Type of Habitat


8. Act and Harm Sites:

Combinations of Act and Harm Sites

Site of Act Site of Harm Action/Event
(1)Haiti Haiti Haiti deforests its lands

Degradation and deforestation in Haiti, as in other countries, is happening at an alarming rate. Worldwide, forests have shrunk by about 142,000 square km. per year in the early nineties. Of that total amount, about 80,000 square km. fell to slash and burn agriculture. Another 10,000 square km. were deforested by the search for firewood (24).

Yes, there is a decrease in the amount of resources that the poor depend on due to deforestation. Some resources are gained if farmers take care of the fields and do not abuse them. Other parts of the land are constantly being used over and over again. The soil erodes and there is nothing more that can be done.

III. Conflict

9. Type of Conflict


10. Level of Conflict: Medium

11. Fatality Level: 4

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Direct and Personal

b. United States: Indirect Link

13. Outcome of Dispute:


Not much will change in the foreseeable future unless the Haitian government sets forth clear priorities: strenghthening fragile democratic institutions, development of a credible legal and law enforcement system, and private sector, agricultural and infrastructure development. Investors should invest in Haiti, this will build up the Haitian economy which in turn will be prosperous. The United States and United Nations should end all embargos and offer aid in the forms of education and health programs. (Aid is being sent to Haiti, beginning in late 1995). Furthermore, the United States must change its current immigration policies and allow Haitian boat people into the country. Each time people are deported back to Haiti, the problem is the same as before.

14. Level of Strategic Interest


IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases


  • 16. Relevant Websites and Literature