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Haiti

Updated on January 7, 2012

A republic in the West Indies occupying the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, the remainder being occupied by the Dominican Republic. In culture, language, and economy the two countries stand in contrast. Haitians speak Creole (a dialect based on French), while the Dominicans speak Spanish; Haitians are far closer to West African agricultural practices, religion, and diet than to the European ways of the Dominicans.

Then too, Haiti has a populace of peasant farmers who eke out a bare living from tiny eroded plots of land, while in the Dominican Republic landless peasants work on large estates; in Haiti twice as many people live on half as much land.

Land and Climate

Hispaniola has the most complex and rugged topography in the West Indies. Haiti covers some 27,750 km2 of mountainous eroded land, only 20% of which can be classed as lowland. Both of Haiti's westward stretching peninsulas are mountainous, and between them are other mountain ranges. Large areas of flat land are few. The Plaine du Nord around Cap Haitien, though dry, is a good agricultural area. Other lowlands are the Artibonite Valley and the Cul-de-Sac, which are extensively cultivated and have some irrigation.

Temperatures vary with location. In the lowlands they average around 25.5°C; in the mountains in winter they may be close to freezing. The amount of precipitation depends to a great extent on topography. In general, less rain falls in the lowlands than in the mountains.

How much rain is actually received depends on elevation, aspect, and direction of prevailing winds. Thus Haiti runs the gamut from rainforest to near desert, and in most of the valleys irrigation is needed for reliable crops.

As a result of the temperatures and rainfall regimes, vegetation is varied, desert and jungle conditions can be found in close proximity and a tremendous range of crops can be grown.

The People

At the time of Haiti's last census in 1950 the population stood at 3.1 million. Since then the annual growth rate has been more than 2%, and the population is now 9,719,932. This rapid growth has placed heavy pressure on land resources, and the standard of living, never particularly high, has probably fallen. No other country in the Western Hemisphere has such a low level of material welfare.

Haiti is one of the most densely populated and least urbanized countries in the Americas. Rough estimates suggest an over-all density of 200 persons per km2, but when the population is related to arable land it is about 580 per km2. Rural populations reach highest densities in two widely separate zones; in the Plaine du Nord behind Cap-Haitien, the second city, and in a region stretching from the Cul-de Sac into the southwestern peninsula and centered on the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Land pressure and the consequent low living standard has forced many Haitians to migrate. At first many went to Cuba to work on the sugar estates, but after 1931 Cuban fear of Africanization stopped this movement. There was considerable pressure on the Dominican border but this was resisted first by the Dominicans who ejected large numbers of would-be emigrants and then, under the Duvalier regime, by Haiti herself. For the bulk of the population there is now no way to leave.

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