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How did beautiful, rich, sustainable Haiti become Poor Haiti?

How the tragic situation of Haiti's overpopulation and poverty came about? There were not always 9m hungry people there. When this once rich and beautiful island was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, it was inhabited by a population of about 100,000 Amerindians, living in a steady state economy. The Amerindians refused to mine gold for the Spanish, so the Spanish imported many thousands of slaves from Africa. The French took the whole island over in 1697 and it remained their most lucrative possession until 1825, despite the inhabitants claiming independence and freedom from slavery under the French Revolution of 1789. At that time there were few Amerindians but about 400,000 African slaves and 100,000 colonists. Added on 17 Jan 2010. Slavery is ongoing in Haiti.

We should never forget that the wealth of the developed world was originally built on the slave trade, until coal and oil became cheaper than slaves. And slaving is still going on in Haiti, as A Crime so Monstrous shows.

The Island of Hispaniola, which Haiti, on the western end, shares with the Dominican Republic to the east, was discovered by Christopher Columbus. In colonial times Haiti was known as Saint-Domingue. The west was rich in minerals, notably gold, but the east lacked minerals. The Amerindian population refused to be slaves, so the Spanish imported slaves from Africa to dig up the minerals and farm crops of sugar and coffee for export. On the east side French buccaneers set up camp and, in 1697, the whole island became a French possession. After vicious trade-wars with Britain and other countries lasting on and off for a century, Saint-Domingue was the only French colony left. At the time though, Haiti was the jewel that every country craved. One in eight French people derived their income directly or indirectly from that slave colony and picked it clean. Its GNP was around a third the size of the French mainland economy in 1789.

In 1789 the people of Saint-Domingue, being French, successfully claimed representation in the French revolutionary parliament, which banned slavery. But the French elite would not let go of their cash-cow so easily. The slaves fought courageously for freedom against colonial soldiers from Spain, England and France.

Slavery was formally re-established by Napoleon in 1802 after many battles.

It was not until 1833 that the French State recognised the independence of Saint-Domingue, which took the name Haiti. Incredibly Charles X extorted massive reparations from the Haitians, although so many Europeans had lived off their backs and their land for well over two centuries. The island was impoverished through the payment of the 'debt' which was paid by 1833. Whereas, at the end of the 15th century, shortly after discovery by Christopher Columbus, the population was about 100,000 indigenous Amerindians, following the discovery of gold, by the time of the French Revolution and its own revolutions, it had been unsustainably bloated by continuous importation of massive volumes of slaves from Africa, to a total around 400,000, plus 100,000 Europeans. In 2010, with a population estimated at around 9 million, it is among the poorest states in the world.

Yet, just before the French Revolution, Saint-Domingue was the biggest producer of sugar in the world and produced more than half the coffee in the world. Its external trade was more than one third of metropolitan France’s. One in eight French people lived directly or indirectly from its product, which depended on enslavement of the inhabitants.

This is what happens when a population is deracinated and disorganised in an economy where the only way of getting a living is by your hands. Remember how the original Amerindians had a small and steady population? So did the Africans in the countries from which they were taken. Artificial stimulation of population growth has disastrous consequences, even when it is not done by elites for outright slavery. Haitians have little money for food, let alone contraception, and little access to either.

Poor Haiti. And now this terrible earthquake.

It makes me really angry when all you hear in the news is that the Haitians were the first slaves to get independence and then of how they squabbled. I think that we can safely assume that they may have independence but that the old slave economy has remained, with wages very hard to come by, and that this overt poverty has permitted the classic slave trade to continue, as the book, A Crime so Monstrous, by Benjamin Skinner, shows.

"Chavannes says today’s “dramatic situation” has deeper roots. Delayed agricultural reform is partly to blame, he says, with no proper sharing out of land since independence in 1804, when division of the land of poor slaves amongst the generals merely produced what he refers to as “neo-slavery”. “Agrarian reform is pressing”, says Chavannes, pointing out that 80% of local court cases involve haggles over who has jurisdiction over which parcel of land.

Up to the 1960s however, Haiti was self-sufficient in food. After which the neo-liberalist regime began to bite and gradually destroyed local production, rice, poultry and eggs industry being examples. Since then, the country has suffered from a lack of political commitment to the sector, he argues." Source: Serge Gilles (Leader of the Fusion des Sociaux Democrates Haitienne - Haitian Social Democratic Fusion Party)


Editor's note: Additional information about the slave trade in Haiti was included on 17 January 2010.

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Apart from this earthquake (which appears to have killed more than 1% of the human population) and its sad history, Haiti currently suffers from excessive human impact on its landscape and natural resources.

The rate of deforestation, species loss and soil loss through agriculture is leading to an environmental disaster.

The dead from the earthquake will be buried, homes, offices and hospitals will be re-built. The pain of loss will eventually fade, but it seems the Haitians will be left with a situation heading towards environmental and societal collapse. What can be done? What can they do? The problem is a microcosm of what is happening else where in the world but we are focused on this place right now because of the disaster of the earthquake.

For more information on Haiti, please visit:

From the New York Times:

To Heal Haiti, Look to History, Not Nature ...

On France2 News last night concerns were raised that the US is taking control of the only airport in Haiti and is preventing other national aid planes from landing. ????
More information would be welcome.

Editorial Comment: The article "The Militarization of Emergency Aid to Haiti: Is it a Humanitarian Operation or an Invasion? of 15 Jan 10 by Michel Chossudovsky of may be helpful. - JS

Sur les Nouvelles France2 la nuit dernière les inquiétudes ont été levées que les Etats-Unis prennent le contrôle du seul aéroport en Haïti et empêchent d'autres avions d'aide nationaux d'atterrir.

plus d'infos seraient bienvenus

Sheila Newman, population sociologist

Editorial Comment: One French language article is "Haïti: la « malédiction » n’existe pas" of 15 Jan 10 by Michel Chossudovsky of - JS

Haitians cannot afford to eat, let alone contraceptives.

"Unintended pregnancies are also a common problem for many Haitian families. Pregnancies are common in Haiti because there is not adequate resources in order to offer proper birth control methods. As I stated earlier, Haiti is lacking many necessary health care benefits. Birth Control is one of them. Although, if these resources are offered, many of the Haitian families can not afford to pay for them. These poor families are living in poverty and can not afford food let alone birth control. There are on average 39 births in a population size of 1,000. But without the proper health care, many of these babies don’t make it out of the hospital alive. Because of the enormous population the infant mortality rate is rather large. In turn many of these unintended pregnancies are causing more problems for the families in Haiti."

Low wages are to blame

"Many families only own a small-scale portion of land, and because of this, the families do not receive an adequate amount of money to help supply for the family. Instead of farming for income, many other Haitians turn to factory work. In fact, many Haitians work for a popular company called Walt Disney. This famous company employs many people, but mainly teenage girls. The average employee is a young girl ranging from age 15 on up. Not only is this working situation violating the law by using child labor, but also the working conditions are dirty, cold, and abusive for all employees. For a company that is known throughout the world, you would think that the labor conditions would be more advanced and healthier for all employees. These employees are putting their lives at risk to produce clothing and other Disney products. There are toxic fumes that are released in the production process and no protective gear is supplied to eliminate harm to employees. After all, employees are a key factor in making a company successful.

In Haiti, the working conditions for producing Disney products isn’t the only downfall. Wages for these Haitian workers is unbelievably low. These families can barely supply food for their family on a daily basis. On the average, a Haitian worker makes "10 to 25 cents and hour, which in turn equals an average of $1.80 a day. (Disney Fantasy)" Minimum wage in the United States can be as much as 50 times the wage rate that Haitian Disney workers earn. If Disney would increase the hourly wages to at least $1.00 an hour, more Haitians would be able to help supply their family with more food and more security. With the income level that the Walt Disney company receives, this idea of increasing wages for Haitians would not cause Disney any financial problems. In the long run, Disney may find improvements because of this change in many areas. The employees would be much more happier, and in turn the products would be produced faster and have better quality. At this point in time Disney is fighting many legal battles in dealing with the cruelty and underpaid employees in Haiti. If Disney would increase the wages for these poor people they would find these legal instances diminishing rather quickly.

Because the wages in Haiti are so low, the poverty level in Haiti is now up to 1.3 billion people. With this vast amount of poverty stricken people in Haiti, this country is more susceptible to "domestic violence, illegal drug use, and unintended pregnancies (Population and Poverty)."

Source: "Chapter Twelve:Haiti" by Heather Hewitt, Dr. Jamal Nassar, Political Science, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois 61790-4600 USA

Recent research shows the importance of cognitive ability to macroeconomic outcomes.

Populations show different average levels, which robustly predict economic performance.

'The impact of smart fractions, cognitive ability of politicians and average competence of peoples on social development' (PDF 418K) Rindermann et al Talent Development & Excellence Vol. 1, No. 1, 2009, 3-25

Geoffrey Miller noted recently in the Economist that gene research may identify reasons for this:

"We will also identify the many genes that create physical and mental differences across populations, and we will be able to estimate when those genes arose. Some of those differences probably occurred very recently, within recorded history. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending argued in "The 10,000 Year Explosion" that some human groups experienced a vastly accelerated rate of evolutionary change within the past few thousand years, benefiting from the new genetic diversity created within far larger populations, and in response to the new survival, social and reproductive challenges of agriculture, cities, divisions of labour and social classes. Others did not experience these changes until the past few hundred years when they were subject to contact, colonisation and, all too often, extermination.

If the shift from GWAS to sequencing studies finds evidence of such politically awkward and morally perplexing facts, we can expect the usual range of ideological reactions, including nationalistic retro-racism from conservatives and outraged denial from blank-slate liberals. The few who really understand the genetics will gain a more enlightened, live-and-let-live recognition of the biodiversity within our extraordinary species-including a clearer view of likely comparative advantages between the world's different economies." ("The looming crisis in human genetics -- Some awkward news ahead" by Geoffrey Miller in the Economist of 13 Nov 09.