The Evolution of Haitian Peasant Land Tenure: A Case Study in Agrarian Adaptation

This study, based on twenty-one months of fieldwork, documents the occurrence of “cultural evolution” in the form of a series of adaptive land-sharing strategies that have emerged in a Haitian peasant community, serving as a partial buffer against the deleterious impact of internal population growth. The recent anthropological literature on agricultural intensification emphasizes adaptive changes in technology as an agrarian response to population growth. Population growth in Haiti, however, has led to a transformation, not of technology, but of land tenure, in the form of ritually mediated resource-sharing patterns that permit the bulk of the population to remain on the land despite serious intergenerational decreases in average landholding size.

Analyzing quantitative data on land tenure within an evolutionary paradigm, the study gives a step-by-step systems analysis of the mechanics of this demographically triggered transformation and exposes the still somewhat latent structure of the new adaptation that has been devised, giving particular attention to the unexpected but statistically impressive intervention of Haitian “voodoo” in the arena of land control.

The presentation is divided into three parts. Part One places the Haitian peasant in historical and structural perspective, dedicating two chapters to an anthropological reconstruction of the emergence of peasant lifeways in Haiti. A further chapter discusses the contemporary structures of civil and military control by which the peasant of today is tied into the larger society. Part Two then turns to the research community. Life in the village of Kinanbwa is described, with particular emphasis being given to those peasant life spheres most directly affected by the process of internal population growth.

Part Three zeroes in on the land tenure system itself. The occurrence of recent evolution manifests itself in the form of a puzzling discrepancy between the land tenure system reported to prevail in Haiti and the system which a plot-by-plot analysis actually reveals in Kinanbwa. What was expected was an inheritance system, in which most plots would have been under the control of owners who had received them from parents. What emerged instead was a system in which most plots were being sharecropped. Instead of the traditional life cycle, now the typical cultivator begins as a sharecr0pper, purchases land
in his mid-thirties, and in turn shares this land out with other tenants in the community, nonetheless remaining a tenant on one or more plots himself. A complex web of intracommunity sharecropping emerges as the backbone of the contemporary land tenure system. The task of accounting for this system is approached both diachronically and synchronically. Diachronically the system is shown to be the transformed “descendant of what in fact was a more traditional inheritance system. A model is constructed simulating the step-by-step conversion, under demographic stress, of a traditional inheritance system into a system whose transformed descendant is one of reliance on stratum internal sharecropping. The model is tested and validated with quantitative data.

But in the final chapter, a synchronic riddle is also solved.
Analysis had shown that most of the peasants now purchase land and eventually become landlords themselves. But such a system has a built-in problem which must be solved. In a society such as Haiti where land is scarce and valued, who is doing all of this land selling? Land transaction data indicate that the vast majority of land sales are made by the peasants themselves to finance obligatory rituals of the ancestor cult. Thus rural Haitian voodoo emerges as a latent regulatory device sustaining a critical flow of land and functions thus as a mainspring mechanism in the resource- circulating strategies which this population has evolved under the impact of population pressure.