Haiti’s Hard Life: Analysis by Jared Diamond

EDITOR’S NOTE: From The Progressive Book Club, Jared Diamond’s 2005 analysis of Haiti’s continuing problems.

In the following excerpt from his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond takes on the question of why Haiti seems to have it so tough compared to its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. (Via The Guardian)

Why did the political, economic and ecological histories of the Dominican Republic and Haiti – two countries that share the same island – unfold so differently? Part of the answer involves environmental differences.

Hispaniola’s rains come mainly from the east. Hence the Dominican (eastern) part of the island receives more rain and thus supports higher rates of plant growth. Hispaniola’s highest mountains (more than 10,000ft) are on the Dominican side and the rivers from those mountains mainly flow eastwards into the Dominican side. This has broad valleys, plains and plateaus and much thicker soils. In particular, the Cibao valley in the north is one of the richest agricultural areas in the world.

In contrast, the Haitian side is drier because of that barrier of high mountains blocking rains from the east. Compared to the Dominican Republic, the area of flat land good for intensive agriculture is much smaller. There is more limestone terrain and the soils are thinner and less fertile and have a lower capacity for recovery.

Note the paradox. The Haitian side of the island was less well-endowed environmentally but developed a rich agricultural economy before the Dominican side. Haiti’s wealth came at the expense of its environmental capital of forests and soils. Haiti’s elite identified strongly with France rather than with their own landscape and sought to extract wealth from the peasants. The lesson, in effect, is that an impressive-looking bank account may conceal a negative cash flow.

While those environmental differences did contribute to the different economic trajectories of the two countries, a larger part of the explanation involves social and political differences. One of these involves the accident that Haiti was a colony of rich France and became the most valuable colony in its overseas empire. The Dominican Republic was a colony of Spain, which by the late 1500s was neglecting Hispaniola and was itself in economic and political to decline.

Hence France could and did invest in developing intensive slave-based plantation agriculture in Haiti, which the Spanish could not or chose not to develop in their side of the island.

France also imported far more slaves into its colony than did Spain. As a result, Haiti had a population seven times higher than its neighbour during colonial times – and it still has a somewhat larger population today. But Haiti’s area is only slightly more than half of that of the Dominican Republic so that Haiti, with a larger population and smaller area, has double its neighbour’s population density.

The combination of that higher population density and lower rainfall was the main factor behind the more rapid deforestation and loss of soil fertility on the Haitian side. In addition, all of those French ships that brought slaves to Haiti returned to Europe with cargos of Haitian timber, so that Haiti’s lowlands and mid-mountain slopes had been largely stripped of timber by the mid-19th century.

A second social and political factor is that the Dominican Republic – with its Spanish-speaking population of predominantly European ancestry – was both more receptive and more attractive to European immigrants and investors than was Haiti with its Creole-speaking population composed overwhelmingly of black former slaves. Hence European immigration and investment were negligible and restricted by the constitution in Haiti after 1804 but eventually became important in the Dominican Republic. Those Dominican immigrants included many middle-class businesspeople and skilled professionals who contri buted to the country’s development. The people of the Dominican Republic even chose to resume their status as a Spanish colony from 1812 to 1821 and its president chose to make his country a protectorate of Spain from 1861 to 1865.

Still another social difference contributing to the different economies is that – as a legacy of their country’s slave history and slave revolt – most Haitians owned their own land, used it to feed themselves and received no help from their government in developing cash crops for trade with over seas European countries. The Dominican Republic, however, eventually did develop an export economy and overseas trade.

Finally, Haiti’s problems of de forestation and poverty have become compounded within the last 40 years. The Dominican Republic retained much forest cover and began to industrialise. It launched a crash programme to spare forest use for fuel by instead importing propane and liquefied natural gas. But Haiti’s poverty forced its people to remain dependent on forest-derived charcoal from fuel, thereby accelerating the destruction of its last remaining forests.

Extracted from Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond, published by Penguin.  © Jared Diamond 2005.



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By Simmininch via Flickr/Creative Commons
By Jared Diamond from Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, via the Progressive Book Club


Rebecca M.
Rebecca M.9 years ago

France needs to pay back the money it took forcefully from the Haitian's. It was taken as a bully, as the Haitian's were left without a choice to pay for their freedom with their treasures, even though they paid for it with their bloods. How many nations had to pay for their freedom with both their bloods and treasures...read more on the true history of Haiti, and how it was impoverished at: http://lidealist.wordpress.com/

Rebecca M.
Rebecca M.9 years ago

It's long, but it's worth reading.

The hate and the quake**

By Sir Hilary Beckles ( Historian, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill.)
The University of the West Indies is in the process of conceiving how best to deliver a major conference on the theme Rethinking And Rebuilding Haiti. I am very keen to provide an input into this exercise because for too long there has been a popular perception that somehow the Haitian nation-building project, launched on January 1, 1804, has failed on account of mismanagement, ineptitude, corruption.

Buried beneath the rubble of imperial propaganda, out of both Western Europe and the United States, is the evidence which shows that Haiti's independence was defeated by an aggressive North-Atlantic alliance that could not imagine their world inhabited by a free regime of Africans as representatives of the newly emerging democracy.

The evidence is striking, especially in the context of France.

The Haitians fought for their freedom and won, as did the Americans fifty years earlier. The Americans declared their independence and crafted an extraordinary constitution that set out a clear message about the value of humanity and the right to freedom, justice, and liberty.

In the midst of this brilliant discourse, they chose to retain slavery as the basis of the new nation state. The founding fathers therefore could not see beyond race, as the free state was built on a slavery foundation.

The water was poisoned in the wel

Carlotta F.
Past Member 9 years ago

Thank you for the synopsis. These people should be due reparation and their dept removed.

Eileen P.
Eileen P9 years ago

this article is an incredible beginning to understanding both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Nellie K A.
Nellie Adaba9 years ago

The situation needs to change.

Bill U.
Bill U.9 years ago


Thomas T.
Thomas T9 years ago

So far, so good. Further, read "The Uses of Haiti", which also details the ongoing rape of Haiti's resources (including raiding its treasury) by virtually every major power (yes, including USA) And people blame the Haitians for their poverty, etc...

Lisa B.
Lisa B9 years ago

Joseph, Cynthia has just used extracts from Jared Diamonds book Collapse. Having read the book, from memory it does also talk about the dictatorships. But the book isn’t just about Haiti, or the history of Haiti. It is using Haiti as one of many examples of why some societies collapse and others don’t. I had been meaning to reread the section on Haiti as a refresher, so thank you Cynthia for publishing this summary.

Ant, the current regime has been left with a legacy of corruption and degradation. It is unfair to place all of the blame on them.

Melissa, thanks for the link. Very interesting.

Ott D.
Domenica O9 years ago

yes, haitis misery is man made, and man in this case means two very rich nations: france and the usa. shame on both.

Deb R.
Past Member 9 years ago

I could not figure out the differences between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Thanks for the info.