Some years ago, I saw television advertisements by the lumber and wood products firm Weyerhaeuser Corporation. The ads began by showing Weyerhaeuser employees having just finished clearcutting a mountainside in the Pacific Northwest. The next portion of the ad showed other Weyerhaeuser employees tromping up and down the clear-cut mountainside planting tree seedlings. The final portion showed Weyerhaeuser aircraft flying over the mountainside fertilizing the seedlings.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

No one asked why Haiti’s land was left bare, or why their houses were destroyed easily.What accounted for Weyerhaeuser’s actions? Before you start extolling Weyerhaeuser‘s commitment to socially responsible forestry, let me remind you that Weyerhaeuser stockholders currently own 13,000,000 acres of U.S. forestlands. That means Weyerhaeuser employees, responsible to these stockholders, determine when to harvest a forest based on such things as the current and expected future prices of lumber and wood products, the costs of harvesting, expected rate of tree growth, and the interest rate. Likewise, stockholders have an incentive to replant the clearcut mountainsides because owning the land assures them, and no one else, of being able to harvest the trees. Ditto for the fertilizing decision. The stockholders get to enjoy the return on the fertilizer.

Against this backdrop, consider what happened in Haiti following Hurricane Matthew. It didn’t take long for the world’s overly emotional members to begin lamenting how Haiti gets the raw end of natural disasters. There were the reports of cholera bacteria being washed down mountains devoid of forests. Water supplies were being infected by cholera. Many lives were threatened. Did the lamenters ask why the Haitian mountains were devoid of trees and undergrowth? Did anyone ask why the land had not been replanted and tended? No. Rather, calls for compassionate aid to Haitians went out, and discussion stopped there.

The same story applies to the hurricane’s destruction of shoddily built housing. While the damage and loss of life here were not as extensive as what occurred in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, calls for compassion by governmental and non-governmental organizations arose. Again, discussion stopped there.

While some raised misgivings about aid being dispensed by the wrong organizations; others took exception about the immediate recipients of the aid, and still others questioned whether Haiti had received so much aid since the earthquake that a welfare ethos was being built into Haitians. However, no one has been willing to think seriously about Haiti’s travail beyond its supposed victimhood status. In particular, why are the Haitian mountains devoid of trees and foliage enabling cholera bacteria to wash down into water supplies? Likewise, why is so much housing shoddily constructed?

Haiti by the Numbers

The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. publishes an “Index of Economic Freedom” each year for countries around the world. Haiti’s current ranking is 150 out of 178 countries. The Heritage Foundation notes that the security of property rights in Haiti is a matter of concern. When the 2010 earthquake occurred, Haiti was ranked 141 out of 179 countries. So Haiti actually regressed relative to other countries.

Is it any surprise Haitians practiced a “cut and get out” policy with respect to their forests?Economist Hernando de Soto’s celebrated book, The Mystery of Capital, gives some specifics about the pathetic state of private property rights in Haiti. For Haitians to settle legally on government (!) land, they must first lease it from the government for five years. Finalizing a lease requires 65 bureaucratic steps, taking two years on average. Then things get worse. Subsequent purchase requires another 111 bureaucratic steps, taking 12 more years – 19 years of red tape in a country where, to compound the problem, illiteracy is pervasive. He estimates that 68 percent of Haitian city dwellers and 97 percent of their rural counterparts live in housing for which no one has a clear legal title.

Is it any surprise Haitians practiced a “cut and get out” policy with respect to formerly forested Haitian hills and mountains? Not at all. Likewise, if you were building a house for which you had no legal title, how interested would you be in building a more durable structure? Not very, I submit. Indeed, you’re unsure about whether someone can come along and take away “your” house, and you’re unsure about your ability to sell the house in the future. The resulting deforested hills and mountains and shabby construction don’t cause hurricanes, but they’ll make hurricane-related damage more extensive – even fatal.

The reporting on Hurricane Matthew’s destruction in Haiti was similar to the reporting on the 2010 earthquake. To wit, never, never, ever, ever mention the role which the lack of Haitian private property rights played in the hurricane’s aftermath. Absent this lesson, however, Haitians are doomed to repeat these disasters. The media’s silence reminds me of its treatment of the crop failures that plagued the former Soviet Union’s communists annually after 1917. Each year supposed media “analysts” would dutifully report that the Soviet Union was hit with yet another year of bad weather. That bad weather could persist for decade after decade, and that may be the root cause for the bad harvests escaping the attention of many.

T. Norman Van Cott

T. Norman Van Cott

T. Norman Van Cott, professor of economics, received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1969. Before joining Ball State in 1977, he taught at University of New Mexico (1968-1972) and West Georgia College (1972-1977). He was the department chairperson from 1985 to 1999. His fields of interest include microeconomic theory, public finance, and international economics. Van Cott’s current research is the economics of constitutions.

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