Land and Climate
Haiti possesses some of the most rugged terrain of the Caribbean islands. Indeed, the topography of the country is reflected in its name, which derives from the Arawak word Ayti, which means “mountainous land.” Its mountain systems and the parallel ribbons of lowland that separate them are oriented in an east-west direction. To the north there is the Massif du Nord, which belongs to the main mountain backbone of Hispaniola (called the Cordillera Central in the Dominican Republic). To the south there is a long and relatively narrow mountainous peninsula formed by the Massif de la Hotte and Massif de la Selle. The latter contains the country's highest peak, Mount Selle, 8,773 feet (2,674 meters) above sea level. Between the mountain regions, central Haiti is characterized by alternating uplands (Chaine des Mateux and Montagnes Noires) and lowlands (the Cul de Sac, the valley of the river Artibonite, and the Plaine Centrale). The capital, Port-au-Prince, is located in the Cul de Sac depression. In the northeast around Cap-Haïtien there is a patch of lowland called the Plaine du Nord.
Plants and Animals
With a population density of roughly 660 persons per square mile (255 per square kilometer), Haiti is one of the most densely populated nations in the world. Opportunities for employment are scarce, and roughly three fifths of the population lives in the countryside. Like the capital cities of most developing countries, Port-au-Prince has grown rapidly; the metropolitan area now has more than 1.5 million inhabitants, many in shantytowns surrounding the city. Other major cities are Cap-Haïtien, Carrefour, Delmas, and Pétionville.
The inhabitants of Haiti are descendants of African slaves brought by French colonists to grow sugar in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ten percent still speak French, and most are nominally Roman Catholics, but the culture retains African roots. Ninety percent speak a Creole patois that is basically a mixture of French, Spanish, and English. Most Haitians practice voodoo, a combination of African and Roman Catholic beliefs that involves rituals of dance, music, magic, and cults of the dead (see voodoo).
Literacy is low among Haitian adults; less than half are able to read and write, and more than half have received no formal schooling. Class sizes are large, especially in rural areas, and schools are poorly equipped. Some two thirds of primary school age children attend school; of those, less than half will reach the sixth grade.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The economy is heavily dependent on farming, which employs a large percentage of the labor force; however, only a third of the land is considered suitable for cultivation. Ever since the French sugar plantations were destroyed in the struggle for independence, Haitian agriculture has been carried out mainly on small peasant farms that became increasingly fragmented through inheritance. Cultivation is principally by hand, using such simple tools as hoes or machetes. Few farmers can afford fertilizers or insecticides. The low productivity does not keep up with the large annual population growth rate, and thus a large portion of the nation's food is imported.