Discovery Guides Areas


Environmental Refugees: How Many, How Bad?
(Released June 2006)

  by Ethan Goffman  


Key Citations



Haiti: Vicious Cycle upon Vicious Cycle


At one time a wealthy colony, the crown jewel of both the Spanish and French empires in the Caribbean, Haiti has long since fallen onto miserable times. Beginning in 1972, boats crammed with extremely poor people, many starving, thirsty, and sick, began arriving in Florida, while the bodies of Haitians drowned trying to escape their island have washed up intermittently. U.S. policy has alternated between granting these "boat people" refugee status and sending them back. The boat people are only the most well-known, although generally the poorest, of Haiti's several waves of immigrants, to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the United States, which began some 200 years ago.29

crowded boat
More than 400 refugees packed into a boat off the Florida coast
Jared Diamond believes that environmental limitations explain part of Haiti's poverty; that its development did not take into account Haiti's geographic and natural resource base. He contrasts Haiti with the adjacent Dominican Republic, "a higher percentage of Haiti's area is mountainous, 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."30 Developing much more rapidly than the Dominican Republic, Haiti used up its environmental capital far more quickly. Haiti's French overlords also constructed an intensive plantation system based on importing large numbers of slaves, leading to overpopulation and a deliberately low education level.

Deforestation is a primary factor behind Haiti's poverty, and therefore a driver of its refugees. Shrinking forests cripple the island nation's two primary means of subsistence, agriculture and energy. With numerous mountains and decreasing forest cover, rain degrades what good farmland is available, and the fuelwood and charcoal upon which Haitians depend for energy are in short supply. Desperate peasants flee to the increasingly crowded and impoverished cities, from which more refugees flee the island itself.

stacks of scrawny tree limbs
Young tree limbs for sale, a key cause of Haiti's deforestation and soil erosion
Of course this environmental explanation is only part of the picture. Haiti's history of cruel and corrupt governance is another driver of the island's refugees, beginning with extreme maltreatment of slaves, while the notorious regimes of "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier, from 1957 through 1986, created an ongoing culture of violence. Such brutal dictatorships provide little incentive to care for the environment, which further degrades, enhancing the cycles that result in refugees.

Another perspective considers economics as a driving force behind Haiti's refugees. A relatively affluent society can afford to concentrate on improving its environment, on long-term thinking. Were Haiti to be given a vast injection of time and money, they could easily plant forests, not only improving the environment but eventually creating a trade in wood products. Yet, as Anthony V. Catanese explains, Haitians lack the luxury of being able to do so: "Rural people correctly concentrate on immediate cash crops versus long-term prospects of agricultural productivity. They find it difficult, if not impossible, to consider tree farming as a cash crop. Because their needs are immediate, their time horizon is brief."31

A vicious cycle of poverty, environmental degradation, and political violence and corruption thus exists, with each element feeding on the others. Indeed, Haiti was one of the first nations for which the term "environmental refugees" was applied.32 So how should Haiti's refugees be classified? Catanese believes that the term "environmental refugee" is apt. He argues that, although environmental conditions are integral to the definition of environmental refugees, a political aspect is always present in deciding whether a society can alter environmentally destructive practices. Therefore, "Haitian migrants may be considered environmental refugees because the root causes of their migrations are land degradation and the government's unwillingness to act in the interest of the general population."33

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