Haiti and Hurricane Jeanne: Harbinger of our Future

by Michael G. Livingston

The hurricane season is over until next summer. This year Caribbean Basin experienced four powerful hurricanes: Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne. The worst devastation occurred in Haiti, where Jeanne killed over 3,000 people. Not since Hurricane Mitch ripped through Central America in 1998 has the region known such devastating natural disasters. But how “natural” are natural disasters? The question seems absurd, but it is not.

First, the consequences of natural events depend on economic conditions and governmental policies. In the U.S., Charley killed 27 people and Frances killed 15. In Cuba, Charley killed 4 people (Frances missed the island). While Jeanne killed thousands in Haiti, the combined death toll from Jeanne in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, and the U.S. was 34. Haiti suffered a much higher death toll because of the devastation caused by centuries of capitalist underdevelopment and a government that ignored the hurricane and did not warn (or aid) its citizens. The deforestation of Haiti began under French colonial rule but really accelerated in the 20th century. In the 1920s approximately 60% of Haiti was stilled covered with forests. After intensive logging by American timber companies the percent of forested land dropped to 2%. Peasant farmers, suffering intense economic oppression, have been forced to use the remaining trees as fuel. Hence the massive mudslides and flooding that killed so many during Jeanne.

In addition, the Haitian government did not warn its citizens to evacuate. Haiti’s Civil Protection Office, which plans for and responds to natural disasters, was destroyed earlier this year along with much of Haiti’s constitutional government by imperialist intervention.

Haiti is not unique. The consequences of natural events become disasters when combined with capitalist economic structures and particular governmental policies. Two examples of this deadly combination are, first, the droughts that occurred between 1876 and 1900 in India, China, and Brazil, killing between 30 and 60 million people. These “natural disasters” were triggered by fluctuating weather patterns but were a consequence of both capitalist economic development and specific governmental aid polices. A highly informative and deeply moving description of these capitalism-related natural disasters can be found in Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis. The second example is the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. The Dust Bowl was more than anything else a consequence of capitalist agricultural policies in the U.S. The history of the Dust Bowl is found in Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s by Donald Worster, a book considered a classic of environmental history.

But the situation is now a bit more complicated. The frequency and intensity of natural events are now more than ever before the result of human activity. Global warming is increasing the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, and heavy rainfall, and will make overall weather patterns more harsh.

Putting together the consequences of capitalist exploitation with the consequences of capitalist-caused powerful natural events, we have what happened in Haiti. Is Haiti the harbinger of the future in the so-called Third World and even, perhaps, in the “advanced” capitalist countries? It sure looks like it.

The author can be reached at livingstonmiguel@hotmail.com