Volume 12, Number 17 January 17, 2010
The Destruction of Haiti
By Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min Muhammad
First of all, I am happy to report that a forty (40) member health care team from the Bedford Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps of New York City (BSVAC) arrived safely in Haiti on Sunday afternoon, January 17th. This first team is made up of EMT's, paramedics, nurses and doctors and many of them speak the native language. I personally know some of the members of BSVAC and I hope to stay in contact with them as they do their humanitarian work. I have offered to help them in any way that I can.
Right now I feel that the best way that I can help is to give a little background to the predicament that the Haitian people find themselves in both before and now after this “publicized” disaster. I am a farmer and an agricultural economist. The extreme poverty of Haiti is directly related to the destruction of her agricultural base and the subsequent erosion of her land. Just yesterday I introduced my new book to the 12th Annual Ministry of Agriculture Conference held in Dawson, GA about 9 miles from Muhammad Farms. The title of the book is “The Science and Business of Farming vs. the Art and Hobby of Gardening.” In this book I emphasize how a farmer must look at his farm in terms of a “system”. I also emphasize how the major function of the farmer is to make the right decisions to keep his farm system in “balance”.
Haiti’s agricultural and economic system is completely out of balance with nature and the needs of the people. In this case this imbalance can be historically tracked an analyzed. The relief efforts given now, pale in comparison to what is needed to put Haiti in a position to sustain herself in the future. For an in-depth overview of Haiti’s history please type in to a “google” search “Why is Haiti so poor” and read the article by Bob Corbett, director of People to People.
Haiti’s problem began in 1804 after the slaves rebelled and freed themselves from their French slave masters. Haiti was once called “The Jewel of the Antilles” and was the richest colony in the entire world. Economists estimate that in the 1750s Haiti provided as much as 50% of the Gross National Product of France. The French imported sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, the dye indigo and other exotic products. In France they were refined, packaged and sold all over Europe.
One of the primary reasons that Haiti was such a productively rich land was because of slave labor. White people were willing to put productivity above all other values, and Haiti’s slave system was the most brutal in the Caribbean. The ultimate threat to a rebellious slave was that he or she would be sold to Haiti.
After the 1804 liberation struggle, Haiti became the second free country in the Western World (after the United States), and the first black republic. However, the United States was still a slave nation. The international community decided that Haiti's model of a nation of freed slaves was a dangerous precedent. An international boycott of Haitian goods and commerce plunged the Haitian economy into chaos.
Unfortunately for the masses of Haitians, slavery did not die with French rule. Rather, the basic concept of forced cheap labor was passed on to the emerging native Haitian elite. The colonial French heritage carried on in the Haitian elite's imitation of the French labor system. The first president of now freed Haiti tried to enforce a system of labor on the peasants which resembled medieval serfdom, i.e., tying the peasants to particular plantations owned by the elite. This is an important factor in Haiti's later misery. About ½ of the elite were mulattos and the other half were freed black slaves who earned their freedom before the revolution.
So a class system developed in Haiti where the elite 3% ruled over the masses. The masses decided to run to the hills to get away from the new slavery like conditions. However, they were poor and had no other fuel for cooking but charcoal made from burning wood. The destruction of the trees led ultimately to the destruction of the topsoil in the hill country of Haiti where most of the people lived until extreme poverty and land erosion ran them to the cities. When trees are removed from hilly land in a climate of tremendous rainfall, then the topsoil in which crops can grow will be washed away.
Haiti’s poverty was increased by the Haitian governments consent in 1838 to pay France 150 million francs for the land taken from the slave owners after the 1804 revolution. Haiti paid this money as a type of ransom to France so that France and the rest of Europe would recognize Haiti and agree to buy Haiti’s agricultural products. However, the only way to repay this debt was to sell raw agricultural products to France to obtain francs. Of course France paid Haitian farmers what she wanted to pay, meaning that over time Haitian farmers and the Haitian economy was drained over an 80 year period until the debt plus interest was paid back in 1922.
America ruled Haiti from 1915 to 1934. During and after this occupation, America has increased the class divisions by supporting the elite against the peasants as a way to insure that a “friendly” regime to the US government would always be in power.
Haiti is a mountainous country. For the past 200 years people have been cutting the trees on their mountains without replanting. Now, when the rainy season comes with its four or five months of daily pounding rains, one can see the brown rivers torrent down the mountain sides and watch, helplessly, as Haiti's little remaining soil flows out into the Caribbean.
Haiti has no fuel except wood. People cook with charcoal. This requires massive amounts of wood to provide fuel for 9 million people. Thus the demand on wood as a crop is the immediate cause of the denuding of the mountains of Haiti.
The immediate motivation of much of the cutting down of trees is economic. Peasants are hungry. They have little available work. But wood is in constant demand as charcoal, or to sell to others to make charcoal. Peasant wood-cutters who do understand the soil erosion problem will argue that they have no alternative. They either cut wood to sell for food or they starve.
There is little motivation for wood cutters to replant more trees. Mainly they do not own the land. They cut here or there as sharecroppers or renters, then move on to other lands. The land owners are often city people or wealthier village folks who do not keep a close watch on their lands. Were they to replant, it is likely that the neighbors' animals (pigs and goats) would eat the seedling trees since there is little forage left in Haiti. The land tenure system--the way land is owned and used in Haiti--provides little motivation to anyone to replant the trees. Of course, it is in the interest of the nation as a whole to replant trees. But, no individuals who own, share-crop or rent lands are personally motivated to do this costly and troublesome work whose investment benefit to the tree grower cannot be realized until after the tree is harvested in 30 years.
The largest portions of Haiti's best lands produce crops for export. Sugar cane is the dominant export crop, but tropical fruit and other crops are grown as well. With most of the very best land out of production for local food crops (beans, rice and corn), the masses of people do not have access to land to grow food for eating or selling on the local market. Ironically, Haiti, once a primarily agricultural land, is a net importer of food.
These lands which produce the export crops are controlled by the elite of Haiti. Most of the imported cash goes to these owner/controllers of the land and most of it is not spent in Haiti, but in the United States and Europe. Not even a trickledown effect is felt from this flow of cash. Further, the farm wages are among the lowest in Haiti. Cane cutters spend an entire day in back-breaking work to cut a ton of sugar cane. For this long day one could expect $1.63 a day OR LESS! When one compares this with the high prices of imported food, one can see the contribution to Haiti's difficulties from this concentration on export crops.
Look at Haiti now and know that what you see there can be in America soon. When the product of the land is not valued as highly as the products that a farmer must buy, soon the farmer must strip his land to produce enough raw products to pay his expenses. Consequently, the fertility of the land is broken and the people starve. From 2001 to 2008 the average return on equity for the American farmer was 1.67%. However, the return on equity for the food manufacturers who used the raw products from the farmers was 16.5%. The food manufacturers receive 9.9 times more returns or profitability on their equity investment than does a farmer. How long will the farmers hold up under this exploitation and will their children come into farming knowing the reality of economic slavery? Maybe Haiti will be a lesson to us all.