It's been a week since the disastrous earthquake in Haiti. Like nearly everyone, I was appalled by the carnage. Rush Limbaugh was appalled because it gave Obama a political edge with blacks "both light-skinned and dark-skinned". Pat Robertson blamed it on a deal with the devil in prerevolutionary days - kind of their own original sin that doomed them before the eyes of God. I find a much more logical explanation for Haiti's long and continued history of misery in Jared Diamond's 2005 book, Collapse - How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
The environmental element is a mix of geographic problems. According to earthquake experts the quake struck on a 50-60-km stretch of the more than 500-km-long Enriquillo-Plantain Garden Fault, which runs generally east-west through Haiti, to the Dominican Republic to the east and Jamaica to the west. Port-au-Prince is simply located in the wrong place where tectonic plates rub against each other and a shallow earthquake ensues in their backyard. To exacerbate the problem, Haitians live on the wrong side of 10,000 foot mountains that don't get as much rain as the Dominican Republic (on the other side of the mountains) Most of the rivers flow toward the DR. Historically, there was little level ground to make good farmland, and the forests were cut down for sugar plantations.
The biggest disaster ever for the island of Hispaniola occurred shortly after the first white guy showed up. Nearly all the native slaves used by the Spanish after a guy named Columbus landed in 1492 were wiped out within 30 years (1 to 3 million decimated to about 11 thousand) Over the ensueing centuries African slaves worked French sugar plantations. Meanwhile, forests were stripped for sale of wood back to France, further denuding the landscape of Haiti. Slaves successfully revolted against the French at the beginning of the 19th century. The freed slaves changed the plantations to subsistence farming on small, individually owned plots, and stopped most outside trade and foriegn ownership of property, The killer blow to any hopes of modernization was delivered more recently when ruthless dictators reigned in both the Dominican Republic (Trujillo, Balaguer) and Haiti (Papa Doc & Baby Doc Duvalier). The DR's dictators were at least interested in saving their natural resources and developing modern industry, while the Duvaliers didn't care about either. The result is the continued destruction of what little resources Haitians possessed. For example, Haitians depend on charcoal fuelt to the point they are encroaching on the forests on the Haitian border with the Dominican Republic and cutting more forest. The DR, meanwhile, switched to natural gas and other fuels decades ago.
The path Haiti took centuries ago prepared the way for the devastation we've seen on our TV's over the last week. The earthquake couldn't have been prevented, but the Haitians would have conceivably been better prepared to recover if their history wasn't a series of wrong turns on the road to progress and modernization. Modern buildings would have made a huge difference toward survival for many Haitians. Like Afghanistan and other poor countires, though, modern society can't be created overnight. Political corruption is hard enough to rout out without the further breakdown of society that is sure to follow the environmental devastation in Haiti. Haitians that Jared Diamond interviewed half a decade ago had "no hope" for a brighter future. Their latest catastrophe does not help the situation. The only hope they can dwell on is that they're starting with a blank slate to have another chance of improving their futures. The U.S. needs to do it's part to help this transition.