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Jared Diamond on Haiti
January 28, 2010 3:01 PM   Subscribe

Jared Diamond on the unique cultural and geological challenges Haiti has faced since its colonial days. Diamond shows how these reasons have caused the nation to fare considerably poorer than its neighbor, The Dominican Republic.

I also believe that this is an excerpt from Diamond's book, Collapse.
posted by reenum (35 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
SLJD?
posted by subaruwrx at 3:23 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


A recent 40-minute radio interview with him on the topic. I haven't listened to it yet, presumably it hits the same ideas.
posted by ibmcginty at 3:30 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I had always heard that Haitians had depleted their own forest hardwood for cooking etc. fuel, but then last week I heard Ted Koppel say that the hardwood forests were part of the FF 150M reparations/ransom France demanded for the loss of their slave colony, and the Haitian wood was used to make fine French furniture.

so then Haiti had to borrow all that cash at usurious rates from a bunch of everybody, including US, and was still in hock up to their eyeballs in like 1947 (since 1804), and still people want to go around all finger-wagging about how giving money to Haiti is just throwing good money after bad, because they'll just blow it all on coke and hookers, or whatever,

and I notice that every time Aristide gets back in office he starts demanding reparations from France or bitching about how globalization Miami Rice is making Haiti stay destitute and next thing you know there's some nice US Marines escorting him to the airport

and the whole goddam thing makes me so mad I just want to bite someone.
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:33 PM on January 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


Wow, reading this summary, you'd almost think nobody ever invaded Haiti, nor enacted repeated coups against governments that attempted to invest in infrastructure that might ameliorate the effects of natural disasters, nor sent death squads and assassins to pursue the remnants of such political movements, nor even forced the country to pay a huge debt to ex-slaveowners as punishment for ending slavery. "French help" indeed!
posted by stammer at 3:38 PM on January 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


I may introduce "French help" as a euphemism for that weird kind of sanctimonious imperialism that always seems to target majority-black countries. Such as: "This latest IMF loan is nothing but more French Help."
posted by stammer at 3:44 PM on January 28, 2010 [24 favorites]


how to make money off of Haiti
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100201/scahill
posted by robbyrobs at 3:54 PM on January 28, 2010


I think you might have missed the point, stammer. Diamond isn't trying to get nefarious people of the who, he's attempting to explain why this can happen in Haiti. Of course the legacy of colonialism looms large, but generally, prosperous, stable, well-run nations tend to have less foriegn intervention and death squads, or they recover faster from them. The undermining of Haiti's ecological resources and its unique climate situation directly affects how prosperous, stable and well-run the nation is. In case you haven't read him, Diamond is keenly aware of the ravages of colonialsim and imperialism, so acting like he's trying to minimize them doesn't fit.
posted by spaltavian at 3:58 PM on January 28, 2010


"The French help" certainly must refer to French maids?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:02 PM on January 28, 2010


I listened to the interview, and Diamond conveniently leaves out the single biggest factor that has inhibited Haiti's development for the past 200 years: American (and French, and lately Canadian) interference and intervention.

The other explanations Diamond offers are secondary, and almost beside the point.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:07 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I also love that one of the unique cultural challenges Diamond lists is pretty much "being scary to white people". Ah, fate! Why do you curse Haiti with such arbitrary handicaps?

generally, prosperous, stable, well-run nations tend to have less foriegn intervention and death squads, or they recover faster from them

So you would attribute the various coups and invasions in Haiti to its being "badly run"? Foreign governments keep overthrowing Haiti's governments because Haiti is so unstable? I think there may be a causation problem here.

I would say Haiti would probably have been through fewer foreign invasions if it had ever been able to maintain an army that was designed to fend off foreign invasions. Instead, Haiti's army was designed by colonial occupiers to suppress indigenous political movements that might make the country more independent and, uh, stable and well-run.
posted by stammer at 4:09 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Undoubtedly, Haiti would be a thriving miraculous paradise if not for foreign intervention.
posted by proj at 4:10 PM on January 28, 2010


as long as there are kings and queens, there are able courtiers willing to offer up reasons why this is the best of all possible worlds and could be no different...
posted by ennui.bz at 4:16 PM on January 28, 2010


no, I think stammer is right on, with "French Help."

like, a couple weeks ago I heard France was calling for all the lender nations to forgive all of Haiti's remaining debt and I was all, "Isn't that nice." but then I found out the overwhelming reason Haiti is and has been in the shit for the last 300 years is France, France, France! if they want to help so bad, they can cough up 77B inflation-adjusted samoolyans and then we'll see who can eat fish for a day and who can catch fish for a lifetime. I mean, the Napoleons pretty much ran down the whole rest of the national treasury because they had Haiti to ride on, until suddenly they didn't.
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:21 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've actually been reading 'Collapse' slowly over the last few weeks, actually... Before jumping on Diamond for downplaying the effects of coups, etc, it's good to keep the larger context of the book in mind.

The central conclusion of collapse is that there are five major factors that have historically contributed to the decline of civilizations, and that the actual outcome is determined by how the civilization in question responds to those challenges. Sometimes you have a place hit hard by four-out-of-five of the factors, but through some creative reorganization of the society get by just fine and turn out to be Iceland. In other cases, you have societies hit by only one or two of these central factors but who fail or refuse to adapt to the situation and then crash and burn in the space of twenty years, leaving nothing but abandoned structures and scattered evidence of cannibalism in their wake.

And yes, deforestation and over-use of agricultural lands are central causes of the collapse of civilizations, both ills from which Haiti has suffered badly. Another is aggression from hostile neighbors, which Haiti has also had its fair share of, without so much of the mitigating factor of trade from friendly neighbors.

Jared Diamond is really good at looking at how the environment affects societal outcomes, which is a massively overlooked factor in the history of human civilization. Somewhere along the line, we got the notion that human ingenuity trumps the relationship to the environment every time; we'll invent our way out of every issue that comes up, right? And so when a (particularly Western) society collapses, it is generally attributed to political or military failures and questions of environmental stewardship are often overlooked.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic offer an interesting case because they are on the same island, and have similar basic environmental concerns as a result. The human political management of those resources have been very different for a pile of reasons, and the result is that one nation has abundant resources and is generally stable politically, and the other is one of the best-known basket cases of the Western hemisphere.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:21 PM on January 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


sorry - $21B at 5%
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:22 PM on January 28, 2010


spaltivan has it.
Collapse is Diamond's look at how societies, well, collapse. He examines the question of how natural resources fit into the picture. For example, his examination of the Rwandan genocide is fascinating. The dominant narrative there is that the Hutu v. Tutsi confrontation was race based. Diamond compellingly argues that race was not the primary, even secondary engine driving the slaughter. To oversimplify, people killed other people in Rwanda because there was simply not enough material resources to sustain the population.
In the D.R., there was a dictator in the seventies, I believe (it's been a year since I read Collapse), who, while exercising forms of genocide against some parts of the population, did do one thing right: He preserved the DR's ecology.
Thus, as Diamond points out, when you stand on the border between DR and Haiti you have a green side (DR) and a brown side (Haiti).
posted by angrycat at 4:24 PM on January 28, 2010


and kaibutsu has it too, even better.
posted by angrycat at 4:25 PM on January 28, 2010


I suppose the mess Iraq finds itself in is also a result of the environment, same as Poland in 1939.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:59 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Iraq IS awfully dry.
posted by empath at 5:02 PM on January 28, 2010


"The French help" certainly must refer to French maids?

Well, sure as hell, someone's getting screwed!
posted by mikelieman at 5:13 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's obvious that Diamond is not trying to downplay Haiti's colonial legacy. Check out this paragraph:

"While those environmental differences did contribute to the different economic trajectories of the two countries, a larger part of the explanation involved social and political differences — of which there were many that eventually penalized the Haitian economy relative to the Dominican economy. "

It doesn't seem like he's downplaying the social history of the island at all: rather he's just adding another set of data to the explanations. That's no cause for jumping on him and proclaiming that he's an Imperial apologist.
posted by festivemanb at 5:29 PM on January 28, 2010


Interesting analysis, but it seems incomplete because there was no mention of Haiti's pact with the devil.
posted by Slap Factory at 6:57 PM on January 28, 2010


I never think of the Dominican Republic as being stable or prosperous, except in comparison to Haiti.
posted by Rarebit Fiend at 7:02 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


The problem with Diamond is that the moment he says anything, I pretty much assume the opposite is true.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:05 PM on January 28, 2010


Just for reference, here's a NASA animation of the deforested border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
posted by destro at 7:32 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I suppose the mess Iraq finds itself in is also a result of the environment, same as Poland in 1939.

Ever heard of the 'Fertile Crescent?' Iraq today stands on the sandy remnants of a collapsed civilization, and it is at (or near) the center of a massive global rush for oil. It isn't exactly a story about the environment in general, but the story of modern Iraq is very much a tale of many actors wanting access to limited resources.

Indeed, Iraq would not be nearly as fucked up as it is today if, say, the US and other world powers hadn't funded both sides of the Iran-Iraq war, placing both sides in a weakened state in order to make their resources available at fire-sale prices. Now, two things can happen when you have lots of resources: either you manage them well, and enjoy a stable prosperity (think Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc), or you get into nasty fights with your neighbors, squander the resources available, and generally have a shite time of things until said resources are depleted. Think Iraq, Iran, and Easter Island. For a variety of reasons, Iraq is probably going to continue to be politically fucked until the oil is gone, and then it will be even more fucked until the population settles down to what a near-desert can support agriculturally.

The point of Collapse is NOT that the environment determines all; it's that people's relationship to their environment really does matter, and that the choices made concerning resource allocation and the environment have quite a bit to do with how their societies play out.
posted by kaibutsu at 8:42 PM on January 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


I had to stop reading Collapse in the Greenland section, which got downright silly.

Diamond is quite brilliant on many points, but the main flaw in his arguments is that he oversimplifies human agency. He boils down human behaviour to its evolutionary essentials: food, sex, shelter, etc. He assumes human seeks these essentials, and that any other behaviour is arbitrary.

This model can produce some interesting results, but it fails when it comes to the nuances of human behaviour that can produce catastrophic outcomes. I hate to invoke Godwin's Law here, but, really, no simple evolutionary explanation can explain Hitler's actions (if you want a more benign example, let's try Dick Cheney).

In the case of Haiti, I'm sorry, its history as a slave colony (and its failed history as a revolutionary state) is a much more fundamental explanation for its problems. The Dominican Republic was a backwater, criollo state.

Simply put: you have 3/4 of an island dominated by an elite aristocracy, and the other 1/4 packed with disadvantaged, disaffected, agitated slaves, which one do you think is going to come out better in the end? The tree-cutting is an ancillary point.
posted by hiteleven at 9:05 PM on January 28, 2010


really, no simple evolutionary explanation can explain Hitler's actions

Obviously. On the other hand, a violent German backlash against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles was widely predicted before the treaty was even signed. I believe that even some of the features of the Nazi takeover were predicted..

History is a lot more anthropological than Great Man theories allow for. Jared Diamond gets that much, at least, right.
posted by Chuckles at 10:56 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


no simple evolutionary explanation can explain Hitler's actions

Because if there was, it would summon all the evolutionary psychology haters out of the woodwork, they'd deem such an unprovable conjecture "not science", and then go back to mythologizing the human condition as a magic woo that the nerds won't ever understand.

The interesting thing about Hitler isn't that he murdered so many people, or that he convinced a modern superpower to go along with his madness, it is that his is the most spectacular example of pattern than has been repeated over, and over, and over again. Human agency may be infinitely creative, but its goals are banal.

Cutting down the trees was the action that will doom Haiti as a civilization. They did it for cooking fuel. In a thousand years that is all anyone will care about. All their other history is a narrative to explain how they would come to do something so foolish.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 3:10 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


One thing that Collapse also does well is to show how difficult it is to live from the land in a sustainable way. In Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond wrote world history open in a way that was understandable for anyone who had played Civilization, with addition of germs. Closeness to certain resources matter and the differences of haves and have nots tend to grow over time.

In Collapse, the resource attrition was added with a force. Some places that for the first settlers appear to be a very fertile and easy place to live may well be difficult to sustain, a fertile ground is barren after few generations or in 500 years, leaving the society to either spiral of diminishing returns from destructive methods or -- if they're lucky -- finding a whole different way to sustain themselves.

It is very, very difficult to know beforehand which methods of land use are sustainable in which environment, the details that can mess up a method that worked well in neighboring island may be really small. And it is always socially really difficult to adjust from a destructive method with great gains to less destructive method with smaller gains.

Add to this that the other countries try to squeeze from each others resources that they need and often do their best to prevent any change that would risk that production of that one resource and having destructive spirals and failed states seems to be inevitable.
posted by Free word order! at 3:58 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Diamond is quite brilliant on many points, but the main flaw in his arguments is that he oversimplifies human agency. He boils down human behaviour to its evolutionary essentials: food, sex, shelter, etc.

I think you read a different book than I did. His whole point about Greenland was the European settlers could have survived had they adopted the ways of the local Inuit or whatever they were called, but because of their religion and rigidity they viewed the locals as savages who didn't know any better - the settlers died off (little ice age didn't hurt with that) - and the locals survived.

In the case of Haiti, I'm sorry, its history as a slave colony (and its failed history as a revolutionary state) is a much more fundamental explanation for its problems. The Dominican Republic was a backwater, criollo state.

Simply put: you have 3/4 of an island dominated by an elite aristocracy, and the other 1/4 packed with disadvantaged, disaffected, agitated slaves, which one do you think is going to come out better in the end? The tree-cutting is an ancillary point.


This thread is bizarre. Did people read the link?
posted by billysumday at 5:07 AM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's a brief summary, yet it's seems to be too much for people to read. I know Diamond is scarily close to not treating everyone as a unique snowflake (determinism, *gasp*) but the typically outrage here is so hilariously off the mark.

So you would attribute the various coups and invasions in Haiti to its being "badly run"? Foreign governments keep overthrowing Haiti's governments because Haiti is so unstable? I think there may be a causation problem here.

I would say Haiti would probably have been through fewer foreign invasions if it had ever been able to maintain an army that was designed to fend off foreign invasions.


Gee, I wonder if there's any correlation between having a capable military and a stable, well-run government that can has a sufficiently prosperous tax base that can pay for it?
posted by spaltavian at 7:05 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another factor that wasn't included in the link, but Diamond makes in Collapse, was that immediately after the French were overthrown, the Haitians destroyed the plantation system to prevent the French from returning and re-enslaving them. Unfortunately, once the plantations were destroyed, a lot of the agricultural efficiency went with it, leading to deforestation and erosion of the topsoil from small landholders clearing new lands, using poor agricultural practices and cutting firewood.
posted by electroboy at 7:09 AM on January 29, 2010


I have to admit that the link did not work for me the first time I posted, which is why my remarks were general.

The summary is good. I think those bashing the critics here are going a bit far themselves...I did call the man "brilliant", after all.

I think Diamond's popularity is perfectly justified, but is a sad sign of how much scholars in my field of study (history) have lost the popular narrative. Oh, sure, you might see a historian on NPR or on some two-minute CNN segment giving us the basic outlines of the history or this or that region when it comes up in the news. But Diamond is offering a theory of civilizations that, whatever its faults, is challenging and captivating.

People in my field, instead, are studying "fields of emotion" and "textual transmission". Sigh...
posted by hiteleven at 7:49 AM on January 29, 2010


Look, it's very clear that the genesis of Diamond's interest in this topic of societal sustainability came from his Papuan friend who asked, "Why do the white people have all the cargo?" He's spent the last 20 years trying to answer the question in ways that don't underline manifest destiny. Europe was, in his view, unusally fertile and geographically lucky. The Americas and Africa couldn't build lasting, power-projecting empires because they didn't have the right mix of domesticable animals. The crops that worked in the Mediterranean zone didn't translate to below the Himalayas. And so on. In Diamond's view it certainly wasn't that white men were smarter or stronger or even necessarily more brutal. (This last is a particularly favored progressive talking point, to the extent that you get this Avatar-like narrative of militaristic societies carving up peaceable kingdoms, even if the historical record doesn't support it.) But there are limitations to his approach and it does seem to often deny individuals and societies some agency as actors and choosers of their own courses. It's even the case that experts have taken him to task over particular parts of his theses, such as that Greenlander Vikings failed to adopt Inuit ways (it turns out they did eat a lot of fish). I think of his work more as an outline of testable hypotheses than anything definitive, as a challenge to existing ways of thinking about topics.

But one thing he is not is a defender of dictators or of white privilege. That's utter nonsense.

It's very clear that Haiti has been exploited, but on the other hand, it's not clear to me that it has been uniquely exploited. How many other American nations had debts, how do they compare per capita and per unit of GDP, and so on? The US occupied Haiti, yes, but we also occupied the DR, and they have had quite different outcomes. One doesn't want to blame the Haitians for their plight, but their history is not one of creating stable governments, whereas many other former colonies have done so.

The factors at work here are numerous. Diamond certainly raises some interesting ones, but the problem in political terms is that they may not be, so to speak, actionable. Sunk costs. Depleted resources. Missed opportunities.
posted by dhartung at 5:39 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


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