The Big Picture of the Haitian Environmental Challenges
To understand the environmental problems in Haiti you have to understand a bit about economics in Haiti. The current state of the environment in Haiti, in a word, is devastating. If you look at a satellite photo you will see the dramatic difference between Haiti and the Dominican Republic – the two countries that inhabit the island known as Hispaniola. Currently the only remaining cash natural resource comes from trees. For years one of the prime natural resources of Haiti has been systematically savaged. Clear cutting forest land to export and sell the wood is a common practice, which we are assuming is unregulated since there seems to be little regard for renewal strategies.
In the past one of the primary money crops for the SE region of Haiti was coffee. It was one of the only ways that revenue and real wealth could be derived from the countryside. That is, until the price of coffee dropped dramatically in the 1970’s. Farmers in rural Haiti turned to other cash crops in an effort to survive economically. These crops required more land to be cleared and as such more trees were cut down. This action in some ways sealed the fate of the coffee industry because it takes so long for trees to regrow and a good coffee crop requires shade from trees.
Also in the 1970’s taxes or tariffs on exported products created more pressure on local farmers that were unable to compete in the global market. The result, more crops failing and more people struggling to survive. On the flip side the International Monetary Fund (IMF) began to flood the Haitian market with free rice to feed the hungry. There was such an abundance of rice imported from other places that the farmers choosing to grow and sell rice in Haiti gave up because they could not compete with a free commodity.
This economic roller coaster ride of crops, crop devastation and economic pressures make it very difficult for the local economies to regulate and become self-sustaining. The result is a weakened economic system putting even greater pressure on a vulnerable environmental system. Stir in a natural disaster or two such as a hurricane or earthquake (link to 2010 story about earthquake) and you have 10 million people on a devastated island needing, on a daily basis. fuel for cooking and heating to be drawn from an area that has only 2% of its original forest cover remaining.
This sheer absence of trees has created dangerous micro-climate conditions which swing from a season’s worth of rain falling in one night or prolonged periods of drought strangling what crops remain and severely limiting drinkable clean water supplies.
Like the hibiscus which is the national flower of Haiti, the environment can create a rich verdant climate for growing that colorful and delicate flower, that when stressed will cause the large colorful blossom to rapidly whither and fall.
Providing environmental policies and solutions will require great minds and strong wills to decide on a course of recovery, regrowth, and preservation that will be decades in the making.
See our blog post on how we believe Return 2 Haiti can help the environment.