With the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, the kidnapping of 17-foreign born missionaries, and a destructive earthquake which left thousands dead, Haiti is once again on the front cover of many international news publications. Lying at the heart of the Caribbean, Haiti shares the mountainous island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. One would think that these countries would have developed down similar tracks, but whereas Haiti has a history of economic, political, and environmental challenges, the Dominican Republic has remained relatively stable over the past century.
In 1804, Haiti threw off the yoke of French Colonial rule, making it the world’s first black-led republic. The Dominican Republic was also successful in freeing itself from Spanish colonialism in 1821, but was merged with Haiti two months later. This union was not meant to be, and after increasing tensions, the Dominican Republic claimed its independence from Haiti in 1844.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic are interesting case studies. Each country suffered under colonialism, and they share an intertwined history in their formative years. Thereafter, however, these two neighbors developed down entirely different roads. This has always fascinated me.
I was curious if I could create visualizations from some of the publicly available datasets to learn more about these two countries. In my first attempt, I used an available dataset from the World Bank and created a line graph using R to visualize the change in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of each country over the past half century. GDP is a development measure that describes a country’s total economic output. Figure 2 is normalized per person to allow for meaningful comparisons. The differences are staggering!
Analyzing economic, human and landscape metrics in Hispaniola
As illustrated by the graph, the disparity in GDP per capita between the Dominican Republic ($204) and Haiti ($70.6) was present in 1960, but marginal. Over time, however, the gap in GDP between each country has increased significantly. The GDP per capita of the Dominican Republic is presently about seven times higher than that of Haiti. However, GDP is only one way to measure a country’s development. Since quality of life is not taken into consideration when calculating GDP, a different metric called Human Development Index (HDI) can alternatively be considered.
Human Development Index
I visualized the HDI of these two countries using a dataset from the United Nations in Tableau. HDI is a development index that is computed using life expectancy, education, and the per capita income of each country. Haiti finds itself among some of the poorest countries in the world with a HDI of 0.51 in 2019 (Figure 3). The Dominican Republic, on the other hand, does not share a similar position. With an HDI of 0.75 (2019), the country is positioned at number 88 out of a total of 189 countries in the world.
Human wellbeing is also thought to be affected by land use and land cover (LULC), through the provision of ecosystem goods and services. These ecosystem goods and services are a vital component needed to improve community well-being and are not included in HDI calculations. I used Geographic Information Systems to visualize the LULC of Hispaniola.
Land Use and Land Cover
LULC are directly related to the health and wellbeing of humans as well as ecosystems. Understanding LULC helps us to examine how different critical elements of landscapes are spatially distributed across the earth.
With the advent of satellite technology, it is easier than ever to study LULC at high temporal and spatial resolutions. There are several satellites such as Landsat launched by NASA and Sentinel Hub by the ESA which capture pictures of the earth at specified times. Access to consistently captured imagery data from a region allows scientists to quantify changes in LULC over the span of many years and decades. Changes in the built environment (i.e., buildings) and the natural environment can tell researchers a significant amount about the trajectory of growth in a region. Loss of forest habitat, for instance, may indicate that a country or region has poor management practices.
I used ArcMap 10.7, a product of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), which is a leading developer of geospatial processing programs to visualize the LULC of the island. The data was downloaded from ESRI’s Living Atlas of the World database. It is a constantly evolving geographic database that contains numerous geographic information of the world including base maps, applications, and land cover data. I used current land cover data (2020) and projected land cover data from 2050. According to ESRI, the 2020 high-resolution global land cover data was created using a machine learning workflow using Sentinel-2 satellite imagery. It can be accessed through the Living Atlas website. The projected dataset predicts global LULC for the year 2050. The data has a 300m spatial resolution and mostly focuses on human-induced land cover change. To access the dataset through the Living Atlas website, click here.
Workflow of Analysis of LULC
Figure 5 represents a visual workflow of my analysis process for visualizing the LULC of the island.
In the first step of this process, I imported the land cover data from 2020 and 2050 and spatially clipped it using the country boundaries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. After this step, I converted the newly clipped data from raster format to vector format and added a new field to their associated data tables. I then computed the area using the “calculate geometry” tool. The final step of this process was to export the data table to a flat .csv file which I saved in my local directory. The .csv file was analyzed using the R language.
As is illustrated from figure 6, the Dominican Republic has about 47 percent of its land covered with trees, while Haiti has only about 25 percent. This difference exists despite the fact that both countries have similar climates and topography. Most of Haiti’s forests were converted into “scrub” leading the percentage of scrub land cover to be about 60 percent whereas only 25 percent of the land cover in the Dominican Republic is classified as scrub. Scrubland is an area of moderate to sparse vegetation cover (i.e. grass, bushes, shrubs) that can arise as a result of deforestation, which is especially the case in Hispaniola.
Haiti’s long-term prognosis for landscape recovery is quite poor. Barring a sudden intervention, Haiti will likely continue to be environmentally degraded. This is evident in the 2050 projections of Haiti’s land cover (Figure 7). Scrubland will continue to predominate the land cover regime of the country, which will only exacerbate its wide-ranging environmental problems. The Dominican Republic, on the other hand, will likely maintain relative parity in its current land cover regime. The stark differences seen on Hispaniola will only be remedied through a concentrated reforestation effort, coupled with social and economic support for beleaguered communities of people in Haiti. Until this happens, Haiti will likely continue to struggle with environmental challenges.
LULC and environmental degradation
Tackling deforestation is an important task for improving Haiti’s future. As one of the most degraded landscapes in the world, Haiti’s vulnerability to disaster is disproportionate. Hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes ravage the country on a near annual basis. Without any vegetation to buffer these extreme events, their impacts are magnified many times over. Extreme rains trigger mudslides on barren hillsides, sending a deluge of topsoil and water into rural settlements and eventually into the sea. In a sense, Haiti is seeing what remains of its agricultural productivity wash away. Without any nutritive soils, growing agricultural food crops becomes very challenging. This leaves Haiti reliant on outside food aid, which may or may not come in a sufficient quantity to meet the needs of its people. The desertification of Haiti also leaves the country prone to droughts and famines in the dry seasons, especially since the agricultural productivity of the remaining soil is quite poor. According to a 2011 case study on desertification in the country, the majority of the remaining arable farmland is being extensively overtaxed and even marginal lands are being forced into agriculture. This significantly depletes what nutrients are left in the soil, and through this process, the land becomes an unproductive desert-like scrub. Haiti is attempting to combat this process through a variety of domestic and international initiatives, but without the will of the people, this process may be destined to fail.
If Haiti is going to recover from its ongoing crises, it is important to understand that the country cannot tackle its problems independently. Environmental degradation, political instability, and poverty are influencers on each other (Figure 8). So long as the environment remains deforested and prone to extreme disasters, there will continue to be extraordinary poverty in the country. Likewise, the extreme political instability seen in Haiti is heavily influenced by the country’s deteriorating domestic issues.
Haiti’s potential future can be seen in its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Having retained most of its forests, and through more careful agricultural development, the Dominican Republic stands as one of the most developed countries in the Caribbean. While it too is impacted by frequent large-scale disasters, these events are normally recovered from with much less loss of life and property. The lush rainforests and natural environments of the country also attract visitors and tourists from all over the world. This could be Haiti’s future as well if efforts are taken to improve the country today.
Through this data visualization project, I learned that Haiti and the Dominican Republic have indeed gone down different paths, but there are many lessons that these two countries can learn from each other. Both countries have rich cultures and strong place attachments among their populations. With a new approach, Hispaniola could become a model for sustainable development around the world. In due time, it is my hope that the news coming out of Haiti will be positive and encouraging, and that all Haitians will have a happier and healthier future.
Rajesh Sigdel (Raj) is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Raj enjoys wrangling and visualizing various spatial and non-spatial data. For more posts like this, you can follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.