The Wood Tree as a Peasant Cash-Crop: An Anthropological Strategy for the Domestication of Energy

Though differing in emphasis from each other, several attempts to explain rural Haitian poverty, including the field studies of Moral (1961) and the more recent literature searches by Zuvekas (1978) and Lundahl (1979), have concurred in their identification of deforestation and soil erosion as major impediments to economic well-being in rural Haiti. Largely in response to Zuvekas’ findings, several planners in the late 70’s, aware that large sums of money had been wasted on unsuccessful reforestation and erosion control projects in Haiti, asked whether the root of the failure might not lie in Haitian peasant land tenure insecurity, in an unwillingness on the part of the Haitian peasants to make long-term investments in land in which they felt they had little long-term security.

Though such reluctance would make perfect anthropological and economic sense among a truly landless peasantry, this hypothesis appeared at odds with much existing anthropological research which indicates that Haitian peasants not only consider themselves owners of much of their land, but demonstrate their security quite concretely by investing thousands of hard-earned gourdes in the purchase of new plots whenever the opportunity arises (cf. Herskovits, 1971; Metraux, 1951; Underwood, 1964; Murray, 1977). In 1978, and at greater length in 1979 (Murray 1978; 1979), I proposed an alternative anthropological approach to the erosion problem, one that laid the blame for failed reforestation projects not on “Haitian peasant land tenure” or on the conservatism of a frightened peasantry, but rather on several crippling flaws that weakened the very design on which most of these projects had been based.