Haitian Peasant Contour Ridges: The Evolution of Indigenous Erosion

In these pages I will describe and analyse the recent emergence, in a mountainous region of rural Haiti, of a locally unique but technically effective erosion control strategy which, though unknown some two decades ago, had by the late 1970’s become an essential, universally adopted element in the agrarian repertoire of peasant cultivators in the research community.

The significance of this pattern lies not only in its uniqueness within the context of the ongoing, virtually unimpeded erosion which continues to undermine the agrarian base of most regions of this mountainous Caribbean nation. In addition, the appearance of this locally confined erosion control complex as an unplanned result of early 1950’s developmental inputs illustrates for development planners at least one type of technically successful project outcome in a process involving selective retention by peasant cultivators of some developmental inputs, the rejection of other elements, and–above all–the evolution of locally created devices for the solution of agrarian technical problems for which planners had been unable to provide any convincing, cost-effective remedy.

But this paper is intended. not as an anthropological encomium of Haitian peasant wisdom, but as an attempt to identify those key factors which have led to the successful emergence of appropriate erosion control technology in one corner of a denuded island Republic whose massive but tragic and economically most significant export is an unintended annual contribution of irretrievable topsoil washing out into the Caribbean Sea. The first Europeans to see this island in the late 15th century had described it as a lush tropical paradise. The erstwhile fertility of the island’s soil is evidenced by 18th-century colonial export figures, which earned for the colony of Saint- Domingue (as the island was then called) the title of most valued jewel in the French overseas empire.