Country profile - Haiti
Haiti occupies the rugged, mountainous, western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. Years of violent political struggles, environmental mismanagement and external economic shocks have left it the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Haiti's gross domestic product (GDP) is now as low as some of the least-developed countries in Africa. Around 70 per cent of the workforce is unemployed, with over half of the country's 8.7 million people living in abject poverty and suffering chronic food shortages.
For generations, Haiti's political situation has been precarious. Power has changed hands repeatedly, often through violent rebellion or military coups, and the country's democratically elected government is fragile. With half of the country's wealth controlled by one per cent of the population - the francophone elite - class tensions frequently spill over into violence. Poverty and political repression have caused hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, US and Canada. It is estimated that one-in-six Haitians now lives abroad.
Child slave labour is widespread. In rural areas children work long hours on family plantations, and poorer families frequently send their children to wealthier families in urban areas to work as domestic servants - often in appalling conditions. In the semi-lawless capital, Port-au-Prince, an estimated 400,000 street children live in absolute poverty.
The country's agricultural sector suffers from a lack of adequate inputs, a poor road network and limited mechanisation, with many rural farmers either unable to obtain credit or charged excessive rates of interest.
In the 1600s French colonisers destroyed vast areas of Haiti's virgin rainforest to make way for sugarcane plantations. Yet more forests were destroyed to produce fuelwood for the sugar mills. In recent years sugar production has declined but logging is still widespread, with wood being burned to produce charcoal - the country's primary fuel source. In the 1920s, over 60 per cent of the country was forested compared with less than two per cent today; the result has been accelerated soil erosion, depleted fertility, reduced water retention and silting of the country's waterways. It is estimated that Haiti loses around 10,000-15,000 hectares of once-fertile land to erosion every year.
Almost total deforestation has exacerbated the country's vulnerability to natural disasters. In 2004, flooding claimed 3,000 lives along Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic and, in September that year, Hurricane Jeanne killed 3,000 people as a result of flooding and mudslides. In contrast, in the Dominican Republic, which has retained much of its forest cover, the death toll from Jeanne was minimal.
Coffee highs and lows
In recent decades, Haiti has been synonymous with coffee, and it is now the country's primary cash crop. Coffee is also the main hillside perennial crop grown by smallholders, or "petits planteurs". However, the slump in world coffee prices, political instability and the impact of pests has seen a decline in the country's competitiveness and overall coffee production has tumbled. In particular, the US-led trade embargo against the county's military dictatorship in the early 1990s hit farmers hard, with many growers opting to burn their coffee bushes to produce charcoal.
Despite its relative decline, coffee production is still vitally important to rural communities, with money from the sale of coffee cherries being used to pay for medical expenses and to gain credit for school fees. Coffee farming also has important environmental effects: since it must be grown under shade plants - often plantain and bananas - these help stabilise the soil and offer an important food source.
Coffee co-operatives have been established to help farmers bypass middlemen and secure better prices for their coffee. Fertilisers and equipment are sold to members at a reduced price, and more of the coffee is now enjoying Fair Trade status, helping raise Haiti's profile as an exporter of gourmet coffee.
Sugar, rice and pigs
Sugarcane is the country's next most important cash crop, although Haiti has been a net importer of sugar since the late 1970s. Since much of the country's production is used by rural distilleries to produce rum - the lower quality Clarin is produced for the domestic market and Barbancourt rum, one of the finest in the world, is exported.
Rice has been a Haitian staple for generations. In the 1980s the country was virtually self-sufficient in rice production, with nearly a fifth of the population - over 90,000 families - dependent on rice-growing. Then, in the mid-1990s, following pressure from the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the Haitian government cut import tariffs on rice from 35 per cent to three per cent. The domestic market was flooded with low-cost, highly-subsidised, American rice, which drove down the price of domestic rice and, unable to compete, many Haitian growers were forced out of business.
Pig husbandry was once a major source of income to peasant farmers, but the African Swine Fever (ASF) epidemic in the 1980s saw the Haitian government slaughter the country's entire creole pig stock. Although the virus was contained, many farmers were left impoverished. After the cull chicken replaced pork as country's main source of animal protein.
Hope for the future?
While political volatility continues to discourage much-needed foreign investment, Haiti has worked closely with the IMF to restructure its economy, and has repaid its debts to the World Bank. Furthermore, Venezuela and Cuba have together created a US$1bn fund for the development of energy, health and infrastructure in Haiti.
However, the country, still faces a long and difficult road to progress. It remains to be seen whether the current government will help pave the way to a more secure future or whether political rivalries will continue to fuel the kind of instability that has kept Haiti's population locked into poverty for so long.
- Country: Republic of Haiti
- Capital: Port-au-Prince
- Area: total: 27,750 sq km land: 27,560 sq km water: 190 sq km
- Population: 8,706,497 (2007 est.)
- Population growth rate: 2.5% (2007 est.)
- Life expectancy: total population: 57 years
- Ethnic groups: Black 95%, mulatto and white 5%
- Languages: French, Creole
- Inflation: 21.4% (2006 est.)
- GDP purchasing power parity: $14.79 billion (2006 est.)
- GDP per capita: $1,800 (2006 est.)
- GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 28% industry: 20% services: 52% (2004 est.)
- Land use: arable land: 28.11% permanent crops:11.53 % other: 60.36 % (2005)
- Major industries: sugar refining, flour milling, textiles, cement, light assembly based on import parts
- Agricultural products: coffee, mangoes, sugarcane, rice, corn, sorghum, timber
- Natural resources: bauxite, copper, calcium carbonate, gold, marble, hydropower
- Export commodities: manufactures, coffee, oils, cocoa, mangoes
- Export partners: US: 80.9%, Dominican Republic: 6.9%, Canada: 4% (2005)
Date published: September 2007
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