An Environmental History of Saint-Domingue/Haiti, from Columbus to the present

I have recently started a 3 year project (funded by a Marie Curie Fellowship) looking at the Environmental History of Saint-Domingue/Haiti from Christopher Columbus (1492) to today (Saint-Domingue was the name of the French colony on the western half of the island of Hispaniola which took the name Haiti when it became independent in 1804).

Haiti, like Easter Island, is often used as a powerful ‘cautionary tale’ to warn the public about environmental degradation. Former US Vice-President Al Gore, in the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), a movie seen by millions, comments on an aerial picture of the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The photograph reveals naked, brown soil on Haiti’s side of the border and luxuriant tropical forest on the other. Gore uses this example to note on how different sets of policies can impact the land.

Scholars also often use Haiti in their publications to the same effect. Jared Diamond devotes one chapter of his best-selling book Collapse (2005) to a brief comparison of the histories of Haiti and of the Dominican Republic, again emphasizing good and bad practices on each side of the border. Many more scholars only mention Haiti in passing,  usually providing the reader with a well-established yet shallow narrative of the ruin of the country’s ecology. This narrative is perhaps best summarized in the title of a recent book on the history of Haiti: Philippe R. Girard’s Paradise Lost: Haiti’s Tumultuous Journey from Pearl of the Caribbean to Third World Hotspot. This story is repeated, albeit always in short sections and with only minor variations in a number of recent studies, and can be abridged in a few sentences. This narrative almost always begins with a reminder that Haiti – ‘Green Island’ in native Taino language – was once considered the ‘pearl of the West Indies’. Haiti is part of the second largest island in the Antilles, and was once largely covered with forest and tropical vegetation which provided a luxuriant ecosystem for indigenous species of animals and plants. The familiar story continues during the colonial era with the development of the plantation economy, whose aim was to produce cash crops for the European and North American markets. The resulting land clearance, firewood demand, and rapid population growth have progressively destroyed native ‘virgin’ ecosystems. These human encroachments on nature have left forests standing today on about three percent of Haiti’s land. The deforestation and poor land management, combined with violent storms, have triggered in turn massive soil erosion. Haiti is today a ‘naked pearl’, a deforested country, enmeshed in a selfreinforcing process of environmental degradation.

The narrative then, more often than not, links this environmental degradation to social and economic hardship, and violence. Haiti, a country of nearly ten million, is indeed also one of the poorest countries in the world, with extremely low standards of living, high mortality rates, and endemic violence and anarchy2. The situation is so dire that Haiti is prominent on the ‘Failed State Index’, ranking twelfth in 2009, closely following, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the only American country to make it to the top forty. As Lester Brown puts it: “Once a tropical paradise, Haiti is a case study of a country caught in an ecological/economic downward spiral from which it has not been able to escape. It is a failed state, a country sustained by international life-support systems of food aid and economic assistance.” Yet, the number of times this stereotyped narrative is reproduced in publications or news reports is inversely proportional to the number of scholarly studies devoted to the topic.

The project will thus aim to fill in a void in scholarly research by producing the first Environmental History of Haiti since 1492. The monograph will attempt to explain why Haiti is now one of the most environmentally degraded and poorest countries in the world, whilst it was in the 18th century a luxuriant island and the leading exporter of sugar in America. Existing academic works on Haiti are mostly centred on one particular aspect of the history of the country, are circumscribed in time and almost always neglect the environment when attempting to explain the nation’s tortured past. This project’s working hypothesis is that environmental factors have played a much more significant role than is currently recognized. For example, as John McNeill has recently shown in his book Mosquito Empires, the pattern of population and colonisation of the island, which has played such a significant role in the country’s history, was severely constrained not only by the slave-based plantation economy, but also by the work of humble mosquitoes, vectors of yellow fever and malaria. Environmental degradation today (deforestation, soil erosion…) also plays a crucial role in the chronic instability of the country.

The project will be carried out in Washington D.C. and Paris under the guidance of two leading scholars in the field of Environmental History, John McNeill (Georgetown University) and Genevieve Massard-Guilbaud (EHESS).


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One response to “An Environmental History of Saint-Domingue/Haiti, from Columbus to the present

  1. Pingback: Focus on Haiti

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