Haiti’s Poverty is Directly Linked to Deforestation and Habitat Loss

  • Published on May 10th, 2009

Haiti continues to claim the dubious honour of being ranked as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 80% of this Caribbean nation’s population living under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty. Haiti’s sorrowful rank as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world has been directly attributed to the degradation of Haiti’s natural environment (less than 1.5% of its original tree cover remains intact) as well as a lack of governance structures, underinvestment in social capital, obstacles to private investment, and a spiraling “poverty trap“.

While all these factors are related to one another (and unfortunately feed off of one another as well), environmental degradation is unquestioningly one of Haiti’s most immediate threats.

“The catastrophic state of the environment is closely related to deep-seated institutional, political and governance problems”, says Bernice Robertson, Crisis Group’s Haiti Analyst.   “Coherent national socio-economic development policies have been mostly absent, due to management and political limitations and the narrow interests of those holding economic power”.

The primary cause of Haiti’s environmental degradation has been caused by Haitian’s need for energy. With an electricity sector that only covered 10% of Haiti’s population in 2006, chronic energy shortages have contributed to Haitian’s search for alternative sources of energy. Unfortunately for Haiti’s natural environment, wood became and continues to be the principal energy source in Haiti, accounting for 70 percent of energy consumption in 2006. This resulted in the steady deforestation of Haiti, with an estimated 6,000 hectares of soil lost each year to erosion.

The loss of Haiti’s tree cover has had devastating effects. In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne tore through the island nation leaving over 3000 dead in its wake. Observers noted that many of the dead were killed in massive landslides caused by vast amounts of water falling, washing away soil cover and sweeping through communities leaving a trail of destruction behind.

While the current focus of environmental writers has tended to focus on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and the island of Hispaniola (Haiti shares it with the Dominican Republic) is probably in no immediate danger of being submerged by the seas, Haiti is and will remain  extremely vulnerable to natural disasters like extreme storms and resulting secondary catastrophes. While Haiti’s forest cover is long gone, and its natural environment virtually denuded, it is the combination of failures that have led to this tragedy that we need to understand. Governance failures and poor planning are not exclusive to Haiti, and unfortunately nor is environmental loss.

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(Photo by leoffreitas at Flickr under Creative Commons License)

About the Author

Amiel is the founder of the Globalis Group, an organization whose motto is "combining action and thought for a sustainable world." His experience includes working with the Canadian government on greenspace projects, sustainable development programs and on policy documents on issues as diverse as climate change, sustainable development, and the environmental and social impacts of transportation. He is listed on the UN’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory’s list of GHG experts, and has sat on the Canadian Environmental Certifications Board’s Greenhouse Gas Verification and Validation Certification committee.