a pearl

Timothy E. Wirth
describes the environmental devastation that has led to political turmoil in Haiti, and suggests how it can again become ‘the pearl of the Caribbean’

Much has been written about the sad and recurring spectre of political turmoil in Haiti. The tug and pull between democracy and dictatorship has been on display for the past few decades, personified by the desperate boat people risking everything to try to find hope and opportunity for the future. Far too little attention, however, has been given to the environmental underpinnings of the Haitian crisis and to the environmental destruction accelerated by the crush of poverty and rapid population growth.

Arriving at Haiti in the late 15th century, Columbus wrote in his journal of the island’s wonders: ‘The mountains and hills, the plains and meadow lands are both fertile and beautiful. They are most suitable for planting crops and for raising cattle of all kinds... the trees, fruits and plants are very different from those of Cuba.’

Environmental exhaustion
Five hundred years later – and 20 years after my first visit – I went to Haiti in the mid-1990s on behalf of the US Government. Just flying into the country, the extent of the environmental exhaustion of the land was striking. The lush hillsides and meadows Columbus described have been denuded, stripped virtually clean. The stark contrast between forested and bare lands acts as an unofficial but unmistakable border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Too many people scraping too few natural resources from the land...
The daily grind of meeting basic needs for an impoverished people is a major force in eroding Haiti’s essential natural resources and core economic assets. Too many people scraping too few natural resources from the land has led to one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation. Topsoil is lost to erosion. Rivers are filled with the resulting sediment and the freshwater resources are diminished. These trends – and associated pollution – lead to waterborne diseases and damage to human health. And all these developments push rural residents toward the island’s urban centres, where there are too few jobs. In this despair, the seeds of discontent and political chaos germinate and grow.

Comprehensive strategy
The other driving force is rapid population growth. Haiti’s population of 7 million is growing at almost 1.5 per cent annually and will increase by 30 per cent in the next 20 years. The average Haitian woman has 4 or 5 children, each entering a nation whose economic, environmental and political prospects are headed in the wrong direction.

Any serious effort to stabilize Haiti and help its residents pursue sustainable development must fundamentally address both its people’s need for family planning and other basic reproductive health services and the issue of rural agriculture, the primary endeavour of two thirds of the population. A comprehensive population strategy would provide services, promote human rights and education for all, and engage women in the economy. A rural agriculture programme must provide credit, promote land reform – giving farmers a stake in the land – and include an inventory of the country’s biological diversity and opportunities.

Haiti’s misfortune is likely to be a recurring nightmare for its people, for the cause of democracy and for world concerns unless the core factors underlying its political and economic collapse are addressed. Yet a creative, effective programme of environmental restoration might just transform Haiti once again into the ‘pearl of the Caribbean', and help demonstrate the powerful relationship between the world’s future economic and environmental fortunes

Timothy E. Wirth is President of the United Nations Foundation and Better World Fund, and was formerly a US representative and senator from Colorado. He served as undersecretary of state for global affairs in the Clinton Administration.

PHOTOGRAPH: Mark Edwards/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Into the mainstream | Creation’s forgotten days | Restoring a pearl | Stop my nation vanishing | Energy release | Oceans need mountains | People | An ocean corridor | At a glance: Seas, oceans and small islands | Profile: Cesaria Evora | No island is an island | Small islands, big potential | Small is vulnerable | Natural resilience | Books and products | Keeping oil from troubled waters | Redressing the balance | Neighbours without borders | Will Mother Nature wait? | Pacific canaries

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Issue on Poverty, health and the environment, 2001
Issue on World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: