The Finger of Blame for Haiti’s Environmental Degradation

The Haiti/Dominican Republic border. Photo:

By Meghan Pierce, Undergraduate Research Assistant

I visited the Library of Congress last Tuesday to listen to a lecture by Dr. Jean-Francois Mouhot, a post-doctoral research fellow based at Georgetown, who is currently conducting a three-year research project on the Environmental History of Saint-Domingue / Haiti (1492-today).

Dr. Mouhot began his talk by displaying a picture of the Haitian-Dominican boarder, brought to prominence by Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth (see above). The photograph reveals sparse, brown soil on Haiti’s side of the border, and flourishing tropical forest on the other. Dr. Mouhot indicated that with this image, Gore, like many others, depicts Haiti as a “cautionary tale” of failed environmental policy.

Dr. Mouhot was quick to amend that he did not dispute the impact of An Inconvenient Truth, nor the overlying message about environmental conservation. However, he was hesitant to endorse the stereotypical narrative that links Haiti’s environmental degradation to social failings, economic hardship, and violence. Instead, his research seeks to examine certain environmental factors, such as epidemics caused by mosquitoes, as the historical cause of instability. Given the dearth of research on Haiti’s environmental history presently, his future findings will undoubtedly present a fresh perspective on the country long dismissed as a “naked pearl” (a play on Christopher Columbus’ christening of Haiti as “the Pearl of the Antilles”).

According to Dr. Mouhot, human encroachments on nature have left forests standing today on about three percent of Haiti’s land. Such a dramatic figure has sparked intense domestic action. President Michel Martelly has launched a drive to double forest cover by 2016, and has declared 2013 “the year of the environment,” even creating a catchy creole slogan, “Yon ayisyen, yon pye bwa” (one Haitian, one tree).

This blog has previously discussed the importance of images in the formulation and implementation of policy, which holds true when considering the photographed Haitian/Dominican border. Significantly,  the first 9 images that appear after a Google search of “Haiti Environment” are of the Haitian/Dominican boarder, demonstrating the “failed” mentality already prevalent from an outside policy perspective.

A policy maker could easily contemplate the stark Hispaniola divide and point the finger of blame to Haitians, while lauding the Dominican Republic for its efforts to conserve trees. However, such analysis does not take into account Haiti’s lack of liquid propane gas for cooking, deeming wood burning necessary. The Dominican Republic, on the other hand, has access to propane, meaning the tendency to cut down trees for charcoal is less frequent.

Such examples caution us against one-sided understandings of Haitian environmental degradation. While it is true that Haitians are responsible for deforestation, it is also prudent to consider colonial-era crop dependence, historical resource extraction habits, and of course, such environmental risks as violent storms, earthquakes, and periodic drought, which can result in deforestation.

As Haiti attempts to rebuild its fragile ecosystem, policy makers and environmental advocates should caution against over-simplified understandings of environmental degradation, and interpret such images as that of the Haitian-Dominican border with a grain of salt. Rather than declare the state of the environment the result of “failed policy,” it is better to question the reason for deforestation, and to ponder more practical responses to larger structural factors.