When viewed from satellite photos, the island of Hispaniola is marked by a shocking divide. While to the East, the Dominican Republic appears lush and green, Haiti, to the West, is brown and barren. The images paint a picture of the divergent paths the two countries have taken despite their similar geography and history.

Haiti is severely marked by deforestation, with only about 2 percent of its original forests remaining today. Destructive land conversion was initiated by outside forces, beginning when the French colonizers established coffee, tobacco, and sugar plantations. The timber industry, largely US-led, played a significant role in the Haitian economy in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, more recent 20th century deforestation is largely due to internal factors.

Image courtesy of NASA, © 2002, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of NASA, © 2002, some rights reserved.

Recent deforestation largely comes from the demand for charcoal, which provides over 60 percent of the nation’s energy. Many Haitians without jobs have relied upon collecting wood for charcoal conversion as a source of livelihood. This however, has led to a vicious cycle of poverty. As vegetation disappeared, Haiti witnessed soil degradation. Without any plants to hold the soil in place, it is also extremely vulnerable to mudslides during storms. Hurricane Jeanne hit the island in 2004, resulting in a relatively low death toll in the Dominican Republic. However, in Haiti, mudslides and flooding were largely responsible for 3,000 deaths.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic’s divergent fates are largely due to differences in leadership. Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s ruthless dictator from 1930 until 1961, promoted industrialization, allowing Dominicans to pay to import liquid gas. The Dominican Republic prohibited logging on public land and subsidized propane under the rule of Joaquín Balaguer, its late 20th century presidential strongman. In contrast, the Duvaliers, nicknamed “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc”, who ruled Haiti with iron fists in the late 20th century, did little to advance Haitian industry, allowing exports to languish. Haitians had no choice but to chop down their own trees in order to cook.

The Dominican Republic is now a relatively prosperous nation, with a growing tourism and services sector. On the other hand, even before the 2010 earthquake shattered life in Haiti, some estimated Haitian unemployment to be as high as 70 percent. The contrast between the fates of the two nations, which had approximately equal incomes in 1900, demonstrates the differences between short-term and long term strategic thinking.

Europeans initially became interested in the now divided island of Hispaniola because of its capacity to grow crops. Due to its fertile soil, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) became the most prosperous colony in the West Indies. The French colonizers enriched themselves on the backs of Saint-Domingue’s agricultural fecundity and brutally treated slave labour: in the 1870s, the colony provided 60% of the world’s coffee and 40% of France and Britain’s sugar imports. Much has changed.

Today, once fruitful Haiti is a net importer of food. This is partially due to IMF and World Bank policies that encouraged Haiti to concentrate on exporting textiles and using cash to buy food from the United States. But the largest problems for farming are soil degradation and mudslides, both the results of deforestation. The Dominican Republic, which does not face such severe environmental challenges, continues to be a large exporter of cash crops, though services are now the country’s leading sector largely due the important place of tourism.

Haiti was once referred to as the “Pearl of the Antilles”. While the Dominican Republic’s appeal as a vacation destination has grown, Haiti’s tourism industry has all but ceased to exist. Haitian tourism’s collapse long predates the 2010 earthquake, and is linked to the political instability that has reigned in Haiti since a coup ousted former President Aristide in 1991. Future prospects for scuba diving, once one of the country’s biggest draws for tourism, are now threatened. With virtually no legislation to protect them, Haitian beaches and coral reefs are becoming increasingly damaged by unrestricted dumping and uncontrolled fishing. Before the 2010 earthquake, activists worked to ensure that the country’s marine resources were maintained and hoped to establish a marine park off of La Gonâve and the Arcadin Islands. Conservation of ecosystems could possibly allow for tourism to pick up again sometime in the future. However, these concerns were met with more pressing needs following the disastrous 2010 earthquake.

Overall, environmental degradation in Haiti has led to widespread problems that are felt much less severely in the neighbouring Dominican Republic. Before the earthquake, international organizations active in Haiti began to see environmental regrowth and protection as a development priority. Many initiatives, however, slipped backwards due to the earthquake’s destruction. Going forward, reforestation and environmental protection efforts could prove key to rebuilding the Haitian society and economy.

Initiatives such as the Haiti Regeneration Initiative, led by the UN Environmental Programme and Columbia University’s Earth Institute, have allocated funds to replanting efforts. In places where other plants simply cannot grow, Haitians could plant jatropha, which could provide vegetable oil to power electrical generators, therefore reducing Haiti’s reliance upon charcoal fuel. Haiti could also follow the example of the Dominican Republic, which subsidizes propane. Before the earthquake, initiatives led by the UN and smaller foreign and Haitian charities sought to transform trash into bricks of paper to be burned instead of charcoal. These projects largely petered out, however, because the recycled bricks were not economically viable compared to the inexpensive price of charcoal. Making charcoal less competitive could allow such initiatives to prosper in post-earthquake Haiti. Moreover, the UN has made coastal protection and restoration one of its priorities in 2012. However, such programs tend to fizzle throughout the years without the backing of a strong government. Overall, restoring Haiti’s environment will prove crucial to removing Haiti from a vicious cycle of poverty and dependency. It is only a question of how to do so.