Geography has strongly influenced Haiti’s troubled history of poverty and suffering. The latest earthquake is one more disaster to hit Haiti. But geography is also being used to help Haitians recover. In either case, this is geography in action! Find out how and answer challenging questions.By now, you must have read about the earthquake that hit Haiti (“a-eetee”, the “H” is silent; from an earlier name “Ayiti”) on 12 January 2010, at about 4:53pm Haiti time. As I write this, about 100,000 people are feared dead. Every day, on television, we also see amazing stories of people being rescued alive from the rubble.

What role has geography played in Haiti’s history? How is geography helping the people of Haiti recover from this disaster?

Here is a brief look.

Columbus arrives

The Lodi dynasty was in power in northern India. Krishnadeva Raya was 17 years away from coming to power in the Vijayanagara empire. Sri Purandaradasa, Vijayanagara’s great gift, was an 8-year old boy. Meera Bai and Guru Nanak were in their early 20s. Taallapaakam Annamayya was 84 years old and had been singing at the Tirupati temple for decades. Sri Krishna Chaitanya was a young boy of seven.

The year 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. Columbus sailed to find a sea route to India and its vast wealth, for Spain.

Poor guy, he kept running into all sorts of lands. He kept hoping that he had reached India.

But no such luck!

Along the way, in December 1492, he landed in what’s now Haiti. Soon, Spain was exploiting the local population to mine gold. The locals didn’t like a bunch of foreigners bossing over them! They revolted, but were brutally put down. The Spaniards had also brought diseases (especially small pox) to which the natives had no resistance. Many natives 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).

Triangular Trade and poverty

Over the centuries, many Africans were captured and brought to Haiti as slaves. They lived under brutal 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 Triangular Trade.

Depiction of the classical model of the triangular trade. Source:


Depiction of the triangular trade of slaves, sugar, and rum with New England instead of Europe as the third corner. Source:


As part of this trade, slaves from Africa were brought to Haiti where they labored in the sugarcane plantations to produce molasses. This was then distilled to rum in Europe. Some of this rum was used to buy more slaves in Africa for labor in several Caribbean islands and in North America. (Later, the North American slave population, led to the origin of jazz music — we will see these connections in a blog post in late February 2010!).

Haitians (‘a-eeti-ans’) have suffered for a long time.

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. Here is a profile of Haiti and a map of Haiti is given below for quick reference (click on the image to see a larger version):


Topographic map of Haiti. (French) Source:


Geography in action

The climate and soils of Haiti are good for growing sugarcane. This made it a part of the Triangular Trade described above.

Located in the Caribbean Sea, Haiti is also 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 near the meeting of two tectonic plates (Caribbean and North American) meet. They slide along each other producing earthquakes every now and then. In the area, there are several fractures in the rock; these fractures called faults. These faults are locations where earthquakes occur.

Look at this map of the recent Haiti earthquake. (The earthquake happens at an underground point — this is called the “focus“; the point on the ground, directly above the focus, is called the “epicenter“.) Click on the image to view a larger version)


What caused the Haiti earthquake. Source: Washington Post, [Accessed on 26 December 2020]

This map shows you how the earthquake was felt in places away from the epicenter. (Click on the image to view a larger version)

Where the quake was felt. Notice that as you go further away from the epicenter, the intensity reduces — an example of the geography concept of distance-decay. Source: [Accessed on 26 December 2020]

  • QUESTION 1: According to this map, which type of “perceived shaking” (‘violent’, ‘very strong’, etc.) did the capital city, Port-au-Prince (pronounced: port-o-prance) experience? (1 sentence)
  • QUESTION 2: Look at your answer to the above question. How do you explain the severity of the impact in Port-au-Prince? (2-3 sentences)

Here is a gallery of photographs taken from a helicopter, showing some of the destruction and the effects in Port-au-Prince.

Several geographic problems have been hindering the delivery of international aid to the affected people. Many roads are destroyed. There is one runway at the airport in Port-au-Prince. Finally, as of 21 January, the port has re-opened allowing a huge American ship to unload aid.

All this is still not enough!

Obviously, Haiti’s geography has contributed to many of its woes. Because of these difficulties, people are desperate for aid to reach them. There is a lot of unrest as they scramble for survival.

How geography is helping!

But the application of geographic thinking is helping to improve conditions in this desperate situation.

Satellite imagery is helping understand the magnitude of the disaster, where the help is most needed, and how to plan relief operations. Here is an introductory story on this topic.

    • View it in SLIDESHOW mode (the menu is at the bottom left of the frame. Look at the legend of the map (on the right) and identify the various symbols and what they show (for example: “Bridges”, “Bridge and road obstacles and their probably operational status”, etc.).
    • Spend some time identifying the locations of these on the map and you will get an idea of the many obstacles that aid delivery agencies are facing.
    • To read the maps and images properly, you will have to zoom in and out, and move the map around to see the details.
  • QUESTION 4: How many airports are shown in these images? Name them. (1 sentence)
  • QUESTION 5: How does the answer to QUESTION 1 affect aid delivery? (2-3 sentences)
  • QUESTION 6: What is the date of the image? (1 sentence)

Look at how Google Earth and GeoEye show us pictures of various parts of Port-au-Prince before and after the earthquake. The “after” pictures are above the “before” pictures.

  • QUESTION 7: List any one way in which these images are helpful to us. (2-3 sentences)

Below are a few more questions for you to answer. You may have to do research in the links provided in this post.

  • QUESTION 8: When the earthquake struck Haiti, what were the date and time in your city? Remember to name the city and the state. You can use this resource for your answer. (1 sentence)
  • QUESTION 9: Which is the nearest country through which aid is being delivered to Haiti? (1 sentence)
  • QUESTION 10: What is the name and percentage of the largest ethnic group in Haiti? (1 sentence; give the source of your information)

An earlier, much shorter version of this post appeared in the
Young World supplement of The Hindu, in some locations on 2 February 2010.

Featured image: Topographic map of Haiti (in French). Source

This post was updated on 26 December 2020 to correct formatting errors, and to update broken links.


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