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The socioecological conditions in present day Haiti are deeply conditioned by its past. During the colonial period, France developed Haiti into one of the most productive and profitable Caribbean islands. The emphasis on forestry and sugar exports led to the importation of slaves on a huge scale, massive environmental degradation, and eventually to a slave revolt. In 1804, Haiti declared independence, making it the only successful slave revolution in history. The legacy of underdevelopment, slavery, and the commodity economy has been persistent, however. Violence has continued to plague Haiti, which is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with a per capita income of only $1,600. The abject poverty rate of 80 percent and the fertility rate of 5.8 children per female are in large part responsible for the major health and environmental threats to Haiti’s population of 8,121,622. Furthermore, environmental and health information are difficult to disseminate because of low educational and literacy rates (52.9 percent).
Two-thirds of the population has no formal employment. The country has a low life expectancy (52.92 years), high infant mortality (73.45 deaths per 1,000 live births) and death rates (12.34 per 1,000 population), and a low population growth rate (2.26 percent). HIV/AIDS (5.6 percent) is a growing threat to the Haitian people. Two-thirds of the populations have no access to improved sanitation, and almost 30 percent lack access to safe drinking water; the lack of potable water creates a major health hazard in Haiti. Despite the extreme poverty, irregularities have led to the suspension of millions of dollars in international aid. The UNDP Human Development Reports rank Haiti 153rd of 232 countries on general quality-of-life issues.
Haiti covers one-third of the island of Hispaniola; the remaining two-thirds is occupied by the Dominican Republic. Bordered by the North Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea, Haiti has a coastline of 1,771 miles (2,851 kilometers). The climate is tropical except for the semiarid area where mountains block the trade winds. The terrain is generally rough and mountainous. Because Haiti is in the center of the hurricane belt, the country is vulnerable to severe storms from June to October. Periodic droughts and occasional flooding and earthquakes pose additional threats to the environment and lives. In 2004, southern Haiti experienced massive flood damage, and the northwest was hit by Tropical Storm Jeanne. Thousands of lives are lost whenever such disasters occur. Many deaths and much environmental degradation are caused by landslides that result from the absence of trees to serve as natural barriers to eroding soil.
Deforestation is rampant at 98 percent. Despite efforts to prevent further damage, locals continue to clear forests for agriculture use. The battle for survival also leads Haitians to cut down trees for fuel. Nearly a third of Haiti is arable, and two-thirds of the people are involved in subsistence agriculture. Only the 38 percent of Haitians who live in urban areas have access to electricity. Haiti’s natural resources include bauxite, copper, calcium carbonate, gold, marble, and hydropower, but the country lacks the infrastructure to adequately exploit these resources.
As a result of mass deforestation, desertification and soil erosion are widespread. It has been estimated that Haiti loses 36 million tons of soil annually. In 2006, a study by Yale University ranked Haiti 114th of 132 countries in environment performance. The country was substantially lower than both the relevant geographic and income groups. The lowest scores were received in the areas of biodiversity and habitat, environmental health, and air quality. Only .4 percent of the land area is protected. One-fifth of the 20 endemic mammal species are endangered, as are 14 of the 62 endemic bird species. Haiti’s air supply is polluted by emissions of carbon dioxide from solid and liquid fuels, gaseous fuels and gas flaring, and cement manufacturing.
In 1994, the National Assembly created the Ministry of the Environment, which has been charged with implementing environmental policies and strategies that include forest management, conservation, national parks, buffer zones, mineral and energy resources, and water management. However, the lack of a comprehensive environmental policy and specific legislation has made it difficult to carry out much-needed change and reparations.
Haiti also has a National Commission for the Environment in which the prime minister ostensibly works with relevant agencies to implement the National Environmental Action Plan. Unfortunately, the plan has never been fully implemented due to a lack of funding and structure. Much of the work on Haiti’s extensive environmental problems is funded by international groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). For instance, international agencies such as the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the UNDP have provided Haiti with funding to launch forest preservation programs and to establish a national flood warning system.
In line with endemic environmental issues, Haiti participates in the following international agreements: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Marine Life Conservation, and Ozone Layer Protection. The government has signed but not ratified the Hazardous Wastes agreement.
- Franklin W. Knight and Teresita Martinez-Vergne, , Contemporary Caribbean Cultures and Societies in a Global Context (University of North Carolina Press, 2005);
- Mark Kurlansky, A Continent of Islands: Search for the Caribbean Destiny (Addison-Wesley, 1992).