Is Haiti Overpopulated?

Talk about blaming the victim. Pat Robertson says the misery inflicted by the Haitian earthquake is payback for “a pact with the devil.” Rush Limbaugh blames the nation’s “communist” leadership. And according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, Haiti’s desperate poverty is a result of "progress-resistant cultural influences."

Throughout the media coverage, “overpopulation” is hyped as another explanation for Haiti’s poverty and vulnerability to disaster. One former U.S. diplomat told CNN that Haiti is overpopulated because its people know nothing of birth control. The mainstream news media subtly reinforce this theme with frequent references to Haiti’s high fertility rate (four children per woman) and large youthful population (nearly 40 percent of which is aged 15 and under). It’s even more overt in cyberspace, where commenters openly blame population growth for Haiti’s troubles—see, for example, comment #5 here.

So, is Haiti “overpopulated”? To what extent is high fertility and rapid population growth an underlying cause of Haitian poverty? To answer that question, we first need to unpack the concept of “overpopulation.”
When we say that a community or nation is overpopulated, we imply that its numbers have grown too large in relation to the stock of available resources. But here’s the rub: resources are often distributed so inequitably that it’s impossible to determine how many people they can support.

In many poor countries, subsistence farmers work hard to coax a living from tiny parcels of land, while large plantations—owned by agribusiness or local elites—produce bountiful harvests for export. Rapid population growth worsens the plight of the subsistence farmers, whose holdings grow smaller with each succeeding generation, but inequity—rather than population growth—is at the heart of the problem.

This is certainly true in Haiti. Rapid population growth magnifies the problems of poor Haitians; high fertility means more mouths to feed, more young people to educate and employ. But to understand the root causes of Haitian poverty, we must remember the nation’s sordid history of exploitation, corruption and misrule.

The story of Haiti’s immiseration is a long one, whose villains include French colonizers and Haitian elites. It may be hard to believe, but Haiti—now the poorest country in the Western hemisphere—was once the richest colony in the world. In the 18th century, the “Pearl of the Antilles” produced prodigious crops of sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, and indigo—accounting for half of France’s GNP. Fortunes were made from the richness of Haiti’s soil and the labor of its people—slaves imported from Africa and literally worked to death. Most of that wealth left the island, never to return.

Also gone forever is a good part of the nation’s soil: while wealthy interests helped themselves to the fertile bottom lands, poor farmers were forced to cultivate steep hillsides, and the resulting deforestation and erosion has washed much of Haiti’s once-rich soil into the sea.

The U.S. also played a starring role in Haiti’s impoverishment. Soon after the slave revolt that established Haiti as an independent nation in 1804, Thomas Jefferson, fearful that such revolts might prove contagious, led an international boycott of the fledgling country. We directly occupied the country from 1915 to 1934, with U.S. bankers reaping the profits from Haiti’s still plentiful harvests. Later, we propped up the brutal (but reliably anti-communist) Duvalier dictatorships.

Centuries of such exploitation have left Haiti in dire shape. We’ve heard the mind-numbing statistics: nearly three-quarters of Haitians live on less than $2 per day; two-thirds of workers are not formally employed; fully half of Haitian adults are illiterate. Even before the earthquake, Haitians were reduced to eating cakes made of mud to stave off hunger.

Against this backdrop, it becomes clear that Haiti’s population growth is a symptom,not a cause, of its poverty. Over the last half century, population growth rates have slowed in most parts of the world, but they remain high in places like Haiti, where poverty is severe and the status of women is low. Why? Where child mortality rates are high and social “safety nets” nonexistent, poor couples have many children to ensure that some will survive, and to help provide for them in old age. And, where women are denied education, opportunity and the full legal and social rights of citizenship, they must rely on childbearing as a source of status and security.

This point is made powerfully in M. Catherine Maternowska’s Reproducing Inequities: Poverty and the Politics of Population in Haiti. Maternowska worked for a dozen years in the Haitian slum of Cité Soleil, where she documented the failure of a well-intentioned effort to promote family planning. As Helen Epstein writes in a review of Reproducing Inequities:

…One reason the program failed was that the precarious economic situation in Cité Soleil had made fairly regular childbearing a virtual necessity for many women. In order to survive, poor women had to rely on men, and the only way to secure a man’s loyalty was by bearing his children. But Haitian men had problems of their own. Most were unemployed or were forced to compete for the small number of day-labor jobs working on building sites or hauling charcoal in the slums. These difficulties, rather than discouraging the men from having children, apparently challenged their sense of masculinity, sometimes prompting macho demands that their women not use contraception because it would make them "loose" or promiscuous.

You just keep having children. This is how you keep a man," Sylvia, mother of twelve, told Maternowska. "If you don’t give [children] to him, he doesn’t give [money] to you…. And sometimes even if you do give, you lose anyhow. Life is hard."

Of course, Haitians desperately need family planning and reproductive health services. Only a quarter of Haitian women use modern methods of contraception, and—partly as a result—the island nation has the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in the western hemisphere. Increased contraceptive use would improve public health and reduce pressure on Haiti’s severely depleted resources. But, as Maternowska learned, it’s not enough to simply offer family planning services. Programs must address the underlying inequities—gender and economic—that lead people to want large families. Change is possible, however: Maternowska found that Haitian family planning programs worked best where they were linked to broader efforts to improve people’s lives. One project, which combined pig farming, small business loans and family planning, reported much more positive results than the stand-alone family planning project in Cité Soleil.

“Overpopulation” is no more the root cause of Haiti’s misery than Pat Robertson’s loopy “pact with the devil.” Yes, Haiti has high rates of population growth, which makes its environmental and social problems more difficult to solve. And yes, Haitians need access to quality family planning and reproductive health care services—as all people do. But the real underlying causes of Haiti’s despair are poverty and injustice. If we hope to help the Haitian people build a nation that is stable, self-sufficient and resilient, we must address those root causes.

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  • tedtoal

    Laurie, I see that you are NOT denying overpopulation is a problem in Haiti, but denying that it is the ROOT problem. You say that it is actually a symptom of other causes.

    I’d like to discuss this with you. Specifically, I’d like to call for a sort of truce between overpopulationists and humanitarians that call for social justice, via our own personal truce. My email is, if you feel like contacting me. From the titles of your other blogs, it appears you are very concerned about overpopulation, as am I. I’ve spent my life as an overpopulation activist, trying (unsuccessfully) to get people’s attention about the issue.

    Suppose your house is on fire. Do you say, "Hey, is my house really on fire? No, actually, that’s just a symptom. The real cause is the people who threw firebombs onto it." No, you put out the fire, and you must deal with those terrorists as part of putting out the fire.

    I view overpopulation similarly. It has often been called the "root cause", even by me. I would still argue that it is, but in a way that is misleading, implying that all other problems stem from it. Being a natural biological system, nothing is related in that way; rather, things are highly interconnected. And OF COURSE overpopulation has its own causes and interactions, things it is linked to in one way or another. And OF COURSE we must look to those things to find out how to reverse overpopulation.

    It might be more accurate to call overpopulation the "final effect" rather than "root cause". It is a red flag that the end, or some kind of end, is rapidly approaching.

    I’ve criticized authors who deny overpopulation is the problem, but instead say that social injustices are the real culprit. I do not deny that such injustices exist, or that they are important. In fact, I agree that they are often a CAUSE of overpopulation, and must be addressed in order to deal with overpopulation. But I don’t deny or belittle the reality of overpopulation itself.

    There is a possibility here of creating a powerful coalition between overpopulationists and humanitarians: we can both learn to use words to describe the causes/problems in such a way that neither belittles the other, but rather, reinforce one another so that the two causes act synergistically to assist one another.

    Overpopulation won’t be "solved" without solving social injustice problems. Social injustice problems will be addressed far more quickly and seriously if the red flag of overpopulation is understood and heeded.

    There is a third group who should be included in the coalition: biologists.  They are the scientists who study populations and ecosystems, and understand environmental limits and effects of overpopulation.  I’m a burgeoning biologist myself.  Too often, the discussion about overpopulation leaves out any consideration of biology, but it is fundamental, and largely explains WHY we are experiencing overpopulation, and WHY we have social injustice. 

    Let’s get these three groups, overpopulationists, humanitarians, and biologists, united talking about overpopulation, social injustice, and decay of the environment, and what to do about it.


    Ted Toal


  • crowepps

    The ‘natural’ way to balance population against resources is famine, disease and death.


    The whole point of civilization is to manipulate the environment so as to create an artificial balance between population and resources and make famine, disease and death less likely.  When that balance goes out of whack there may be a number of reasons, but certainly few of those reasons are under the control of the working population or the ‘masses’ or whatever you want to call them.


    Outside interventions by ‘humanitarian’ efforts are wonderful and save a lot of lives, but unless the root causes of the problem are addressed (war, corruption, income inequality, environmental degradation, stigmatization of unwanted peoples) the problems will keep recurring.


    Are there too many people in Haiti?  Probably not.  The population density is 936 people per square mile, less than the Netherlands which has over 1,034 and far less than Los Angeles County which boasts 2,344.


    Are there too many poor?  Definitely.  The per capita income is less than $400 and 80% of the population is below the poverty line.


    Are they themselves personally responsible for their being poor?  Of course not.  Haiti is primarily an agricultural country, and a subsistence farming economy always results in high poverty levels.  Income levels were just as miserable on small single-family rural farms in the United States in the early 1900’s.  The problem of wresting more than a subsistence level existence from farming (without the economies of scale and mechanization of agribusiness) has been the driver behind the growth of cities practically since history began being written.