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Governance and environmental degradation in Haiti
Richener Noël, September 2013

For several decades, Haiti has endured major environmental degradation caused by the anarchic occupation of certain high-risk areas, the spontaneous appearance of new neighbourhoods, poor waste management and the proliferation of buildings outwith all legal and institutional frameworks. There are, nevertheless, a number of authorities and laws which have been established to protect the physical environment in which the Haitian population lives. This institutionalisation does not appear to be part of an approach based on results and effectiveness aiming to halt the process of general deforestation, destruction of watersheds and erosion. This article argues that Haiti’s poor environmental management is the result of a lack of a sufficiently developed environmental policy and mechanisms for the coordination, facilitation and intervention of the different institutions in the environmental sector.

 Environmental degradation in Haiti

The deterioration of the environment in Haiti is a widely recognised fact: the country is said to be in a permanent state of vulnerability (in terms of the risk of floods, landslides, pollution, erosion, etc.) [1].

In rural areas, the most worrying factors are deforestation, bad cultivation practices, the splitting up of land, erosion and the degradation of watersheds. Vegetation cover fell to 2% of the land area in 2012 (around 15% if we take tree cultivation into account) [2]. The degradation of watersheds linked to deforestation is the main cause of floods which cause a great deal of both material and human damage when there is heavy rainfall [3]. 80% of the country is mountainous with slopes that vary from shallow to steep, small valleys and easily-flooded coastal plains. This can be seen from the results of the different natural disasters which have affected these areas in the last decade. In 2004, when there was major torrential rain, several thousand people were killed or went missing in the sections communales of Mapou, Belle-Anse, Bodarie (South-east) and Fonds-Verrettes (West). Damage on a similar scale took place in 2008 in Artibonite, the west and the south, after a series of cyclones. The heavy rainfall in October 2012 with the passage of cyclone Sandy also affected the rural economy (notably in the agriculture and livestock sectors), and consequently affected the livelihoods of small farmers.

Regarding the management of urban space, the situation is also judged to be unsustainable and difficult. Since the 1960s, massive internal migration and population increase has taken place. Cities have grown beyond their historical limits due to the uncontrolled flow of people to peripheral zones and the establishment of shanty towns. Cities have grown without any genuine urban planning. New neighbourhoods have spread and generally become more densely populated without being properly linked up with pre-existing urban frameworks, which increases urban exclusion (in terms of distribution of services), environmental degradation (with the destruction of the physical landscape) and maintains cities in a state of under-development. The country is struggling with the “urban transition” that has taken place since the second half of the 20th century [4]. The urbanization process is a major challenge and Haitian cities have not had the means to manage a structured transition from small “traditional” towns to major (urban) conglomerates. Almost all the main towns (Saint-Marc, Cap-Haïtien, Gonaïves, Cayes, Léogâne, etc.) have experienced floods that resulted in great human loss and major material damage.

In the last fifty years, there has been a direct link between the socio-economic and economic situation and the environmental deterioration in the country. The Duvalier regime (1957-1986) was an unenlightened “totalitarian” dictatorship. In order to perpetuate its reign, the state exerted a repressive form of control throughout the country, notably through the presence of the “tontons-macoutes” (militias made up of hundreds of thousands of men). On the socio-economic front, the situation was characterized by economic decline which led to increased poverty and the deterioration of people’s living conditions. Peasant farmers, in despair, left rural areas en masse. Due to the lack of capacity of towns to absorb these people, it was therefore under the Duvalier regime that today’s major shanty towns began to take form. After the fall of the dictatorship (1986), political instability, marked by successive coups d’état, led to greater economic decline and the suspension of public policy and action. This situation contributed to the withdrawal of public institutions from the control and governance of the country. Even within public bodies there was often a lack of understanding of public action. Local authorities were often neglected. Problems of governance were often made worse by corruption which prevented institutions from meeting the needs of the population. In 2012, Haiti was ranked among the countries with the highest levels of corruption in the world [5]. The process of environmental degradation is therefore linked to the socio-political context that has weakened the country.

Other environmental issues that are not dealt with in this article (such as sanitation and natural resource management) confirm this difficult environmental situation in Haiti. Indeed, since the sixties there have been continual calls for urgent action.

[1] Comité Interministériel d’Aménagement du Territoire (CIAT), 2009.

[2] Bellande Alex (2009). Impact socioéconomique de la dégradation des terres en Haïti, United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Carribean (ECLAC 2009).

[3] United States Agency for International Development (USAID 2006). Environmental vulnerabilities in Haiti: conclusions and recommendations.

[4] See: Holly Gérald et al (1999). Les problèmes environnementaux de la région métropolitaine de Port-au-Prince, Commission pour la commémoration de la ville de Port-au-Prince. Goulet Jean, (2011). Le défi urbain en Haïti ». In « Le défi haïtien : Économie, dynamique sociopolitique et migration».