The domestication of wood in Haiti: A case study in applied evolution.

Expatriate tree lovers, whether tourists or developmental planners, often leave Haiti with an upset stomach. Though during pre-colonial times the island Arawaks had reached a compromise with the forest, their market-oriented colonial successors saw trees as something to be removed. The Spaniards specialized in exporting wood from the eastern side of the island, whereas the French on the western third found it more profitable to clear the wood and produce sugar cane, coffee, and indigo for European markets. During the nineteenth century, long after Haiti had become an independent republic, foreign lumber companies cut and exported most of the nation’s precious hardwoods, leaving little for today’s peasants.

The geometric increase in population since colonial times-from an earlier population of fewer than half a million former slaves to a contemporary population of more than six million and the resulting shrinkage of average family holding size has led to the evolution of a land-use system devoid of systematic fallow periods. A vicious cycle has set in-one that seems to have targeted the tree for ultimate destruction. Not only has land pressure eliminated a regenerative fallow phase in the local agricultural cycle; in addition, the catastrophic declines in per hectare food yields have forced peasants into alternative income-generating strategies. Increasing numbers crowd into the capital city, Port-au-Prince, creating a market for construction wood and charcoal. Poorer sectors of the peasantry in the rural areas respond to this market by racing each other with axes and machetes to cut down the few natural tree stands remaining in remoter regions of the republic. The proverbial snowball in Hades is at less risk than a tree in Haiti.