Already blighted by natural disasters, disease and poverty, Haiti looks as though it will soon become entirely devoid of biodiversity as the Caribbean country approaches 100 per cent deforestation.
The Haitian portion of the island of Hispaniola (shared with the Dominican Republic) had 4.4 per cent forest cover in 1988, a figure that had shrunk to 0.32 per cent by 2016. New research reveals that 42 of Haiti’s 50 largest mountains are now stripped of their primary forest, leaving only a handful of remote vestiges of tree cover left, themselves expected to disappear within the next two decades, wiping out native reptiles, amphibians and other species in the process.
‘There are many contributing reasons for the extreme deforestation of Haiti, but the poor economic state of the country, combined with the large number of people, would be the primary reason,’ says Dr Warren Cohen, a research associate at the College of Forestry, Oregon State University. ‘Trees are cut to make cooking fuel, charcoal, and for subsistence agriculture. Most homes use charcoal rather than electricity or other energy sources. There are efforts to change the source of energy, but it would take years and a large inflow of funds for a country of this size to make such a transition in its infrastructure. It is doubtful that the primary forests would survive by then.’
Humans are believed to have first arrived on Hispaniola roughly 6,000 years ago, and likely numbered as many as a million upon Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Haiti, famous for becoming one of the first post-colonial ‘free’ nations following independence in 1804, now numbers 11 million people and is one of the poorest nations on Earth – a situation worsened by the 2010 earthquake that killed upwards of 200,000 people and triggered a subsequent cholera outbreak. Like a modern-day Easter Island, Haiti now faces a future without any natural fauna.
‘Because the primary forest habitat holds nearly all of the biodiversity, including species found only in Haiti and not in neighbouring Dominican Republic, removal of habitat causes the extinction of hundreds or thousands of species of plants, animals and microbes, not just single species,’ explains Cohen. ‘Haiti is probably close to the front line of extinction from loss of forests, but other countries are not far behind. For example, Madagascar and some countries in central Africa appear to have low levels of primary forest. The main problem is that we need better data on primary forest around the world to assess the situation globally.’
This was published in the January 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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