Why does Haiti have it so bad?

The economic disparity between Haiti and its island-sharing neighbor, the Dominican Republic, is a question I’ve wondered about a lot since the devastating earthquake in Haiti. [I’m sure I’m not alone in my search for an answer.] Recently, I found an excellent explanation, thanks to the Progressive Reader, the blog associated with the Progressive Book Club. It’s an excerpt from a book by Jared Diamond, called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. So, rather than try to lamely paraphrase Diamond, I’m reprinting the entire excerpt below.

The Progressive Reader promotes books of interest to intellectually curious readers, and it features extended excerpts like this one, reviews, on-line book discussions, lists of books organized by issues, and profiles of and video interviews with authors. Current recommendations include: Soul of a Citizen, by Paul Loeb, The Death and Life of the American School System, by Diane Ravitch, and The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, by Naomi Wolf.

To be honest, some of the excerpts are so good that, as often also happens when one reads the New York Times Book Review, you feel you’ve gotten the “nugget” and may not “need” to read the book. There. I’ve said it:  I don’t read all the books that I “should,” but thanks to informative blogs like Progressive Reader, I’m a bit more informed.

Here’s the Haiti-Dominican Republic excerpt:

Why did the political, economic and ecological histories of the Dominican Republic and Haiti – two countries that share the same island – unfold so differently? Part of the answer involves environmental differences.

Hispaniola’s rains come mainly from the east. Hence the Dominican (eastern) part of the island receives more rain and thus supports higher rates of plant growth. Hispaniola’s highest mountains (more than 10,000ft) are on the Dominican side and the rivers from those mountains mainly flow eastwards into the Dominican side. This has broad valleys, plains and plateaus and much thicker soils. In particular, the Cibao valley in the north is one of the richest agricultural areas in the world.

In contrast, the Haitian side is drier because of that barrier of high mountains blocking rains from the east. Compared to the Dominican Republic, the area of flat land good for intensive agriculture is much smaller. There is more limestone terrain and the soils are thinner and less fertile and have a lower capacity for recovery.

Note the paradox. The Haitian side of the island was less well-endowed environmentally but developed a rich agricultural economy before the Dominican side. Haiti’s wealth came at the expense of its environmental capital of forests and soils. Haiti’s elite identified strongly with France rather than with their own landscape and sought to extract wealth from the peasants. The lesson, in effect, is that an impressive-looking bank account may conceal a negative cash flow.

While those environmental differences did contribute to the different economic trajectories of the two countries, a larger part of the explanation involves social and political differences. One of these involves the accident that Haiti was a colony of rich France and became the most valuable colony in its overseas empire. The Dominican Republic was a colony of Spain, which by the late 1500s was neglecting Hispaniola and was itself in economic and political to decline.

Hence France could and did invest in developing intensive slave-based plantation agriculture in Haiti, which the Spanish could not or chose not to develop in their side of the island.

France also imported far more slaves into its colony than did Spain. As a result, Haiti had a population seven times higher than its neighbour during colonial times – and it still has a somewhat larger population today. But Haiti’s area is only slightly more than half of that of the Dominican Republic so that Haiti, with a larger population and smaller area, has double its neighbour’s population density.

The combination of that higher population density and lower rainfall was the main factor behind the more rapid deforestation and loss of soil fertility on the Haitian side. In addition, all of those French ships that brought slaves to Haiti returned to Europe with cargos of Haitian timber, so that Haiti’s lowlands and mid-mountain slopes had been largely stripped of timber by the mid-19th century.

A second social and political factor is that the Dominican Republic – with its Spanish-speaking population of predominantly European ancestry – was both more receptive and more attractive to European immigrants and investors than was Haiti with its Creole-speaking population composed overwhelmingly of black former slaves. Hence European immigration and investment were negligible and restricted by the constitution in Haiti after 1804 but eventually became important in the Dominican Republic. Those Dominican immigrants included many middle-class businesspeople and skilled professionals who contri buted to the country’s development. The people of the Dominican Republic even chose to resume their status as a Spanish colony from 1812 to 1821 and its president chose to make his country a protectorate of Spain from 1861 to 1865.

Still another social difference contributing to the different economies is that – as a legacy of their country’s slave history and slave revolt – most Haitians owned their own land, used it to feed themselves and received no help from their government in developing cash crops for trade with over seas European countries. The Dominican Republic, however, eventually did develop an export economy and overseas trade.

Finally, Haiti’s problems of de-forestation and poverty have become compounded within the last 40 years. The Dominican Republic retained much forest cover and began to industrialise. It launched a crash programme to spare forest use for fuel by instead importing propane and liquefied natural gas. But Haiti’s poverty forced its people to remain dependent on forest-derived charcoal from fuel, thereby accelerating the destruction of its last remaining forests.

Extracted from Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond, published by Penguin, copyright 2005.