BY JOSEPH BLOCHER AND MITU GULATI for Slate
Haiti is in desperate need after a devastating earthquake, a hurricane, a presidential assassination, and not enough vaccines to stop the delta variant. International aid is pouring in, which is all good, but not good enough.
It is time to ask about what Haiti is owed—not in terms of international benevolence or moral duty, but as a matter of basic legal rights and principles. Many think of Haiti as a debtor nation, but the fact is that former colonial powers might be the ones legally in debt to Haiti. And the basis for that debt is not just a generalized grievance about colonial domination, but something much more tangible: Haiti once had something of great value, and the United States took it. That something is a small, uninhabited, rocky island covered in a million tons of sun-baked bird poop.
The island of Navassa is about 30 miles off the coast of Haiti and is covered in centuries’ worth of accumulated bird droppings—guano. Sometimes referred to as “white gold,” guano is a potent fertilizer that in the mid-1800s was a scarce resource for which American farmers were desperate. Peru had large amounts of the stuff, but its near monopoly position and special deal with Britain meant that American farmers were priced out. In 1850, guano was $76 a pound—a quarter of the price of gold at the time. The situation was so dire that President Millard Fillmore devoted portions of his 1850 State of the Union address to the subject.Continue reading