Why is Haiti prone to quakes? What is the history of this nation?

By now, you must have read about the earthquake in Haiti (“a-eetee”, the “H” is silent; from an earlier name “Ayiti”). Haitians (‘a-eeti-ans') have suffered for centuries. What role has geography played in Haiti's history? How can geography help their recovery from this disaster? Here is a brief look.

It was 1492. European powers were seeking a sea route to India. They knew of India's rich resources through trade connections with India through the Arabs. European powers wanted direct access to India's riches.

Geography in action

Columbus sailed to find a sea route to India. and its vast wealth for Spain. In December 1492, he landed in what is now known as Haiti. Soon, Spain was exploiting the local population to mine gold. The local people didn't like the foreigners bossing over them! They revolted, but were brutally put down. The Spaniards brought with them diseases (especially small pox) to which the people of Haiti had no resistance. Many of them died of these diseases.

Subsequently the French and the Spaniards fought over the island. The eastern half of the island became a Spanish colony (modern Dominican Republic) and the western half became French. That's why Haitians are francophone (French-speaking).

Over the centuries, many Africans were captured and brought to Haiti as slaves. They lived under terrible conditions, slogging to keep wealth flowing to the colonial powers. Haiti's tropical climate was crucial to grow sugarcane.

From about the 17th century, Haiti got caught in the flourishing Triangle Trade: slaves from Africa were brought to Haiti and laboured in the sugarcane plantations to produce molasses which was then distilled to rum in Europe. Some of this rum was used to buy more slaves in Africa for labour in several Caribbean islands and in North America (later, this led to the origin of jazz music!).

Located in the Caribbean Sea, Haiti is very vulnerable to hurricanes. Whenever a hurricane hits, there are massive floods and landslides, leading to enormous loss of property and life. Cholera and dysentery spread.

Haiti is also located where two tectonic plates (Caribbean and North American) meet. They slide along each other producing earthquakes every now and then, including the recent quake.

For centuries, either foreign powers or local tyrants have brutally oppressed Haiti. This has kept people in severe poverty. There is very little educational, medical, and other infrastructure in Haiti. When disasters strike, even this little is lost.

Several geographic problems hinder the delivery of international aid to the affected people. Roads are destroyed and the airport is not in good condition.

Geography has contributed to many of Haiti's woes, but it is also helping in this desperate situation. For example, satellite imagery is helping understand the magnitude of the disaster, where the help is most needed, and how to plan relief operations.

For more details, illustrations, and online project visit the blog at http://tiigs.org

Keywords: Haitiearthquake