Haiti is a sovereign state located on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. Also on the island is the Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares a land border. The closest nearby islands are the Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Cuba. Haiti’s tropical Caribbean climate is hot and humid, with a dry season from November to January and a rainy season from February to May. Average annual temperatures range from a low of 22 degrees Celsius in the coolest months to a high of 30 to 33 degrees in the warm season.
To many people in the Western world Haiti is synonymous with voodoo dolls and zombies, but there are many myths and misconceptions about so-called voodoo. Haitian Vodou is a religion that developed in the Caribbean in the 18th century, amongst West African slaves who had been brought to the region by the French. However, there are no practices amongst Vodou that relate to zombies or voodoo dolls, and Vodou religion holds great reverence for death and the afterlife.
Hispaniola was first occupied by the South American Taino people. In 1492, Christopher Columbus founded the first European settlement, and in the 16th century western Hispaniola was settled by the French—resulting in hostile relations and the division of the island between the two countries.
France took control of the western end of Hispaniola, called it Saint Domingue, and put tens of thousands of enslaved Africans to work on plantations. Records show that Saint Domingue was particularly brutal in its treatment of the people it enslaved. Slaves and free people of colour began to fight for their independence, and after a decade of conflict, the French withdrew from Haiti in 1803. The devastation caused by the conflict gave the new country a difficult start. Claiming that Haiti’s instability made it vulnerable to German occupation, the US took control of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. Political turmoil continued throughout much of the 20th century and into the new millennium. With the election of a new president in 2006, it was hoped that the country would become more stable. However, the terrible earthquake that occurred in 2010 has left its 10 million people struggling.
Hispaniola is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the West Indies, with more than 5,500 species of plant. Many of these are found only in Haiti. Much of Haiti’s trees, flowers, and shrubs are found within the rainforests and wetlands, including massive tree ferns and delicate orchids, and cacti and acacia in drier regions. There are more than 600 species of fern and over 300 species of orchid alone.
Many of Haiti’s native animals are endangered, largely as a result of hunting and deforestation. The native mammals are limited to several species of rodent, but there are many native reptiles and amphibians. These include dozens of species of colourful lizards, iguanas, skinks, snakes, and frogs. One, the Hispaniolan Ventriloquial Frog, is particularly unusual in its ability to project its own chirping calls. Then there’s the Macaya Breast-Spot Frog—around the size of a grape, this is one of the smallest frogs in the world, and is found only in the high Haitian mountain peaks.
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