Alex MacGregor | Longreads | February 2018 | 19 minutes (5,053 words)

Geographers have an affinity for superlatives. Among the millions of named features on Earth, if something can claim to be the biggest, tallest, deepest, longest, or otherwise most extreme, it gets a lot of attention.

Asserting any superlative involves a degree of hubris. Our world has been picked over for superlatives, but how sure can we really be about any one claim? Any elementary school class will recite in unison that Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world — that is, unless the class happens to contain an Ecuadorian student. Ecuadorians correctly learn that the highest mountain in the world could be measured by distance from the center of the earth, rather than from mean sea level. By this measure, Ecuador’s Chimborazo is taller than Everest. An asterisk is warranted for even this basic claim.

Of much less prominence on the globe, but also a tricky superlative to nail down, is the most densely populated island in the world. A handful of the perhaps 100,000 islands on Earth have stratospheric population densities: Ultra-crowded islands exist in places as disparate as Kenya, Hong Kong, France, and the Maldives, but it’s regularly cited that, by the numbers, the densest of all is Santa Cruz del Islote, a 3-acre islet of about 1,200 people off the coast of Colombia. This claim has been repeated in numerous publications, most recently by The New York Times, and it’s even the subject of a short documentary. Journalists usually emphasize the bonds of family and community in a place so radically removed from western consumerism.

All of which makes for an uplifting read about a fascinating place. But what if the premise is wrong? I can’t comment on the experience of life on the island. But we’ve already learned to be wary of superlative claims, especially when westerners are the ones keeping score; what about this one? What if this is merely a very crowded island, and not the most crowded island?

* * *

After taking a few trips to other countries as a backpacker, I decided to try my hand traveling in a country that had always fascinated me: Haiti. First I went to the more straightforward northern region of the country, then to Port-au-Prince and other areas. I decided to cut back on time-wasting apps and devote those spare moments to learning Kreyòl instead. I read up on the Haitian Revolution. I made a minor pastime out of studying the country bit by bit on Google Earth.

One day, while poring over the south coast of Haiti on Google Earth — whether I was scouting for places that might be interesting to visit or just killing time I can’t recall — I found an island that looked really densely crowded. From above, it’s difficult to see that it’s even an island—just a big clump of houses surrounded by a narrow band of beach. Had I stumbled upon a place that might challenge Santa Cruz del Islote’s claim? Could this island really be the world’s most crowded?

This far-fetched possibility was tricky to disprove. The internet offers virtually no information about this mystery island, or really about any of Haiti’s many fishing islands packed with people. This particular island has dozens of houses and is smaller than a football field, yet Haiti doesn’t log a single entry in Wikipedia’s list of the most densely populated islands on Earth.

Unable to find a sufficiently detailed map of this corner of Haiti, I invested in a navigational chart. After all, this isn’t the 19th century, and with satellites, airplanes, and 7 billion people wandering the planet, I figured this patch of land must surely be among the millions of features geographers have documented. When the highly-detailed map showed up at my house a few days later, I excitedly flattened the monochromatic, water-resistant sheet on the floor. I went straight to the spot where this mystery island sits, and there I found a little islet: Caye de l’Est. Eastern Cay.

Bingo. So Google Earth didn’t fabricate a spit of sand covered in houses to troll geography nerds like me. (At least not again: In 2013 a glitch caused Google Earth to display a fake island in the South Pacific the size of Manhattan.)

I scoured the internet for information on the island, freshly armed with this somewhat distinctive name. I mostly came up dry. The search results related to this island are all generic web pages without a shred of actual information on the place: automatically generated web pages with skeletal information, but nothing of real value. No news stories, no mission trip reports, no Wikipedia page, no travel blogs. Nothing about its people; nothing indicating its people even exist. A ghost island.

Had I stumbled upon a place that might challenge Santa Cruz del Islote’s claim? Could this island really be the world’s most crowded?

Another, more ominous, revelation of the navigational chart is that Caye de l’Est used to be one of many sandy cays in the Baie des Cayes, the body of water that runs between Île-à-Vache and mainland Haiti. The map shows 15 islands; some named, others unnamed sandbars. Nowadays, per Google Earth, five remain: a small island near Île-à-Vache, two tiny sandbars, a large island with scores of houses called Caye de l’Eau, and, isolated miles from the others, Caye de l’Est.

Since no other information on the island was forthcoming, my next move was clear: Next time I found myself in Haiti, I would make the journey from Port-au-Prince to Caye de l’Est. Or whatever the island is really called — Haitians rarely cooperate with outsiders’ names. Most towns, streets, and intersections in Haiti follow an informal but exclusively-used nomenclature. I knew that, whatever Haitians call this island, it’s probably not “Eastern Cay.”

* * *

Haiti’s population density routinely surpasses what other countries consider extreme. The 14 square miles of Port-au-Prince’s city proper, a sprawl of mostly one-story houses, hold about a million people: It has a population density equal to Manhattan. Atlanta’s larger metropolitan area covers roughly the same land area as the nation of Haiti, yet Haiti’s overwhelmingly rural footprint packs in almost twice the total population of heavily-suburban metro Atlanta. If the state of Georgia had the population density of Haiti, its population would equal that of California and New York combined.

The high population density that defines the landscape of modern Haiti is a recurring theme from the country’s history: too many people on too small of an island. Early Haitian history is, as most people are aware, the story of humans shackled and abducted from their homes in Africa. In the colony of Saint-Domingue, which was later to become independent Haiti, France used a brutally efficient supply of slaves to establish one of the most lucrative cash crop colonies Earth has ever known. This was not farming; this was a factory plantation economy. The ability of the island to provide food to sustain its population was not a consideration of the French. The goal of Saint-Domingue was to maximize sugar and coffee production by whatever means necessary, and this meant a huge supply of slaves — roughly twice as many slaves were imported to Saint-Domingue compared with the United States — and a shockingly high mortality rate. The colony became one of the most densely populated places in the colonized Americas; its population quickly dwarfed the Spanish side of the island, the present-day Dominican Republic.

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The enslaved population rose up and obliterated the plantation system, seeing in the beginnings of the French Revolution an opportunity to break free from their chains. But before Haiti was even independent of France, the heroes of its slave rebellion debated how a country so packed with people could ever feed itself; surely a return to plantation economics and cash crops was inevitable to feed the overcrowded nation. It was ultimately this unpopular assessment that led to the legendary Toussaint Louverture’s downfall.

Haiti’s population has grown twenty-fold since those days.

The debate over whether Haiti was to focus on food or export crops was never settled, but was instead eclipsed by the second great theme of Haitian history: With disasters natural and human-made, big and small, the deck has been stacked against Haiti from the beginning.

Before Haiti was even independent of France, the heroes of its slave rebellion debated how a country so packed with people could ever feed itself.

The 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince was just the latest in a series of damaging tremors, but the scale of destruction and harm, still widely visible to this day, cannot be overstated. People have often asked me when I mention traveling to Haiti whether it has recovered from the hurricane. I tell them that they’re probably mistaking the 2010 earthquake for a hurricane — except, sadly, they might not be. Devastating cyclones came through in 2004, 2008, and 2016, flooding coastal areas, destroying crops and livestock, and spreading disease. Each one would probably be dubbed “the hurricane” in most places; in Haiti, you must be specific.

Diseases have also played prominently in Haitian history. Haiti was, cruelly, a byword for HIV in the 1980s, although changing behaviors and public health efforts have reduced the infection rate significantly. More recently, the UN’s peacekeeping force, MINUSTAH, spread cholera to the country through poor sanitation at a base in the center of the country, causing 11,000 deaths and stoking international outrage. Nonetheless, I learned that Haitians are equally angered by a completely different grievance against MINUSTAH: kadejak, a word my nascent Kreyòl vocabulary didn’t contain. Kadejak means rape.

I could go on about Haiti’s misfortunes, but that’s not the point of this — that story has been told before, and better than I can tell it. At the root of all these catastrophes is a human-made culprit: debt.

Shortly after independence, France forced Haiti to accept a crippling indemnity at the threat of a blockade or outright invasion. Haiti was to pay 150 million francs that it clearly didn’t have. This financial ransoming ultimately left Haiti indebted to French and American banks until after World War II. At one point, 80 percent of Haiti’s tax revenue went towards servicing debt on this indemnity, which was ostensibly compensation to France for the theft of French property during the Haitian Revolution, mortgaged all the way into the 1940s and paid for by the children and grandchildren of enslaved people who fought for and won their freedom. The exact toll is incalculable: Haiti’s government was, by design, unable to make a single payment on time, and conveniently had to take out loans from French and American banks at predatory terms. This was a much cleaner way of exploiting the island than direct slavery. Estimates place the present-day value of the payments between $20 and $40 billion. And that’s not the end of it. It’s impossible to know the additional damage caused by the creation of the Haitian police state by the United States during its occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 — an occupation to enforce Haiti’s debt to the United States, naturally — and by the subsequent deployment of this police state by future regimes against the Haitian people.

The powerful forces of the world ensured that a nation born in a slave rebellion could never stand among them as equals.

* * *

Haitians must resort to extreme means of survival in light of a densely overcrowded countryside and economic disadvantages. The country has routinely asked too much of its rugged terrain, pushing Haitians to cultivate marginal plots for meager yields. Less visibly, the same thing has happened to its waters. The need to fill hungry bellies yesterday created overfished reefs today. Haitian fishing is done by sailboat or canoe. Fishermen scour the remaining productive reefs. Since speeds are slow, being close to the fish means everything. A sandbar stable enough for thatch houses in the middle of a good reef opens the reef up to intensive fishing that would be impossible otherwise.

Sailing in a Haitian fishing boat sounds like a dicey proposition in theory: a handmade wooden vessel propelled by patched-together sails, out in the ocean without a lifejacket in sight. Friends and family seemed especially wary about this part of my admittedly unusual journey. But in the moment, setting off towards azure horizons, my mind was quickly put at ease. The skills of the two-person crew more than made up for the simple craft — I felt safer on one of these than on a hobbyist’s motorboat, lifejackets and all. These guys are badasses, and not just for their decades of experience dealing with every possible weather condition and vessel mishap that a lifetime of fishing in the Caribbean could throw at them: They used to make clandestine runs to Cuba during the tumultuous wind-down of the Duvalier era, across a hundred miles of open ocean, with perils awaiting them at both ends of the journey.

My errand was humdrum by comparison. We set sail from Île-à-Vache — a picturesque island of rolling hills, beaches, palm trees — on a seven-mile journey across the Baie des Cayes on a clear, calm day. The crew knew our destination well. They even had friends there — this is no ghost island after all! They also had a name for it. A real name.

Caye de l’Est is really called Ilet a Brouee.

The shoreline of Ilet a Brouee. (Alex MacGregor)

* * *

Apart from a handful of hotspots with enough tourism to be monetized by the locals, Haiti is an intensely emotional place for the independent traveler. A blan walking around unchaperoned by the dehumanizing security apparatus which typically accompanies aid workers presents a rare opportunity for real human interaction with a foreigner—and Haitians are often inclined to take it. It’s not uncommon to be invited to sit down and chat, whether taking refuge in a doorway during a rainstorm in Port-au-Prince or wandering the streets of a small town. Usually, it’s friendly banter — playful, poking fun at the blan. This adds another dimension to the emotional challenge Haiti can present.

On Ilet a Brouee I felt this emotional awareness pushed to an extreme.

Sure, mixed into my emotional stew was a sense of excitement, as I was finally getting to see this unacknowledged place after years of wonder. But my heart also dropped as the island came into focus on the horizon, a larger and larger wedge between the turquoise water and cobalt-blue sky.

Ilet a Brouee, with mainland Haiti in the background. (Alex MacGregor)

I’m certainly aware of the negative image the media exploits when Haiti makes headlines, but I was holding out hope that this crowded little island might have a measure of stability, permanence, and — dare I say it — prosperity. Like the stories of its cousin a few hundred miles to the south in Colombia. Or maybe a story of people living in harmony with the natural world, like you would see on Human Planet. But another lesson of Haitian history is that narratives imported by foreigners never hold in Haiti; Haiti writes its own narratives. Ilet a Brouee appeared, at a glance, to be a tangle of sticks, tarps, and thatch, of unstable structures huddled on a sliver of beach.

A typical street on Ilet a Brouee. (Alex MacGregor)

After we pulled as close as you can get to the island, I scurried over the side of our boat and waded carefully to shore. Suddenly more than a little overwhelmed by the situation, the crew navigated my introduction to some of the older residents. I was now doubly indebted to them. This island, apparently off the edge of most foreigners’ radar, is about as curious a place as any for a blan to wind up unannounced.

They graciously gave me permission to wander around and take pictures.

This is no mere fishermen’s retreat. Ilet a Brouee is more like a factory.

Ilet a Brouee is a maze of alleyways through crooked thatch- and tarp-covered houses—some more permanent than others—with a handful of turns before you reach the center of town or the shoreline. The main landmarks in town are the two concrete buildings—the church and the store—and the modest town square in the middle, outfitted with two solar street lights: a defunct old one and a shiny new one.

Men outnumber women and children, but not to the extent I would have guessed, this is no mere fishermen’s retreat. Ilet a Brouee is more like a factory: Many people are out fishing during the day, dotting the surrounding horizon with sails and pirogues, but others remain on the island, working all day repairing boats, mending nets, hooks, and traps, processing and preparing thousands of fish for shipment to Île-à-Vache and Haiti. Most of the kids seem to spend their days swimming.

The main square in Ilet a Brouee. (Alex MacGregor)

As is sadly common throughout Haiti, the landscape is harsh. Most of the shoreline isn’t beach, but rather makeshift levees of conch shells, broken concrete, and old tires, sometimes held together by fishing nets and much too jagged for unaccustomed bare feet. The island’s only natural feature, a coconut tree, was snapped in half by Hurricane Matthew. The trunk was used to build a ladder to the toilet, elevated over the sea just off the northern edge of the island.

Typical reinforced shoreline on Ilet a Brouee. (Alex MacGregor)
The coconut tree on Ilet a Brouee, broken during Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. (Alex MacGregor)

There are a few wells around the island — perforated plastic buckets dug a couple feet into the sand. They don’t provide drinking water, but supply water clean enough for bathing. Drinking water is imported from mainland Haiti in plastic bags. Each bag costs about a nickel, and contains 200mL of clean water. Cisterns are not used.

A typical well. (Alex MacGregor)

After a few minutes of walking around, I came across of one of the many canopies people congregate under as they work in the midday heat. Except that this one was different: It had an empty chair, right in the middle. A chair meant for me. Welcome to the conversation — time to explain myself.

A man began by telling me he’s very happy to see me here because if “someone like me” is coming to their island, it means I must be planning a project to help. He was keen to know my background and my religion—questions I wasn’t expecting nor eager to answer, knowing full well my answers probably weren’t the ones they were hoping for.

There was that sinking feeling again. If I could have picked any group of people in the world to avoid disappointing, it would have been these people.

Welcome to the conversation — time to explain myself.

I feebly explained that I’m not here to help, at least not right now, and not in that way. I’m not with an organization or a church, and I can’t plan a project. I tried to explain the unsatisfying fact that I’m just a guy with a fondness for Haiti who came here partly on a hunch that this might be the most crowded island in the world, and partly out of exasperation that I couldn’t learn a damned thing about this place otherwise. After all, I wanted to say, how could anyone plan a project here when the outside world barely knows Ilet a Brouee even exists?

Instead, I asked them, if an NGO were to come plan a project, how could they help?

The answer was as simple as it was tragic: metal roofs and a toilet.

The roofs are mostly thatch, and impossible to waterproof. The difficulty of keeping dry — a fundamental problem that plagues contemporary Haiti — is inescapable here. In a thatch house with a sand floor a few feet above sea level, how do you store the precious documents that establish who you are and what you own? Add to that the contribution to disease caused by excessive moisture in the home, and water is, perversely, a major problem for this place that has none to drink. Some people live in tents inside their houses, some put plastic tarps over their houses, and some install metal roofs and hope they hold out against the corrosive sea spray.

A typical house battling the elements on Ilet a Brouee. Tarps leak if penetrated, so they must be tied-down or weighted down. (Alex MacGregor)
The house belongs to Chery, who lives on the island with her two kids. A 20-meter wide swathe of Ilet a Brouee disappeared during Hurricane Matthew, forcing Chery to rebuild her house on a wedge of land dangerously close to the edge of the island. (Alex MacGregor)

The toilet, meanwhile, is a makeshift structure built over the water, so uncomfortable that people often use the adjacent beach instead.

Ilet a Brouee’s toilet. (Alex MacGregor)

I thought, who could be content with a world where these people, living on an island without power, water, sewer, medical care, or schools, complain only about a toilet and leaky roofs to the rare foreigner who passes through? But that’s not a question for these people; that’s a question for me.

Instead, I asked: Roughly how many people live here?

As you might guess, it depends. The fish and the rains cause the population to fluctuate during the year. Some children leave the island to board with family elsewhere and attend school; others don’t. Some people have family over in Haiti—the name they give the mainland proper. The people who own boats are more likely to have another place to return to; others wind up on Ilet a Brouee to work, and this is it for them.

I was told there are 97 houses on Ilet a Brouee. Adding up all the residents, including the children who stay with family elsewhere to attend school during parts of the year, Ilet a Brouee is home base to around 500 people.

Ilet a Brouee is almost exactly 4,000 square meters, or .004 square kilometers — just under an acre, after losing 20 percent of its landmass during Hurricane Matthew. If the locally-given population of 500 is taken at face value, that implies a population density of 125,000 per square kilometer, somewhat ahead of Santa Cruz del Islote’s 1,247 people living on .012 square kilometers. I later got in touch with Île-à-Vache’s mayor, Jean Yvres Amazan, who estimates the population of Ilet a Brouee at 250. Either way, if you’re going to talk about the most crowded island on Earth, Ilet a Brouee belongs in the conversation.

Another question I couldn’t help asking the islanders: Have you ever heard of Caye de l’Est? They chuckled politely when I told them that’s the name by which the world knows their island. Each foreigner must be entitled to a few ridiculous statements.

After asking and answering a few more questions, I returned to wandering around on the island and talking to as many people as I could. The buzz of the foreigner arriving was dying down, and I was only accompanied by a throng of curious children. A blan in their tiny world.

Some of the children of Ilet a Brouee. (Alex MacGregor)

I saw people busy processing hundreds of small fish, napping in the church or under canopies in the midday heat, mending nets, lines, and hooks. Powered by private solar panels that have become ubiquitous in Haiti, western pop music and kompa took turns drowning out the soft hum of waves breaking on the levees and the workday banter.

* * *

When they think of it at all, developing world poverty bothers most people who live in first world comfort. They react to it differently, but for compassionate people, it’s important to hold out hope for improving the lives of the world’s poor.

What about the people on Ilet a Brouee? I’ve racked my brain, before visiting and since, thinking of how to support those living there, of how to make Ilet a Brouee look more like the micro-island success story the papers peddled about Santa Cruz del Islote.

But the contradictions on Ilet a Brouee are intractable. Who can sell a western-friendly development vision in a place where sewage and trash go into the sea? What economic development plans exist for an island where the only possible economic activity is plucking the ever-smaller fish from an overfished reef? And what about sea level rise, and the fate of most of the other sandy cays in the Canal de l’Est?

To call Ilet a Brouee endangered is neither abstract nor hyperbole. Sandy cays are extremely sensitive to sea level rise; a few extra inches of water can increase erosion and ultimately doom an island. Google Earth shows the tragedy in real time. Off the north coast of Grand Anse, in a different archipelago from Ilet a Brouee, satellite images show that multiple islands inhabited as recently as 2014 have been wiped off the map.

Satellite imagery of another fishing island, located at 18.6156, -73.8403, lost to erosion. (Google Maps)

Should outsiders step in to reinforce the sandy banks of the island? Or perhaps restore the island to its former size, while they’re at it? This reef is less overfished than the others — that’s why people go to such lengths claiming a plot on this island.

Fish set out to dry on a lobster trap. (Alex MacGregor)
A fisherman showing his catch. (Alex MacGregor)

The hardest part of Ilet a Brouee for me to confront is the why, on a larger scale. Why do people live on a spit of sand in the ocean, with no water, no electricity, no sewer, no medicine, no services of any type? The sad reality is that the conditions on Ilet a Brouee aren’t all that different from what Haitians must endure across the country. Most Haitians lack these things; what difference does it make if you’re doing it on a sandbar a few miles out in the ocean? At least you’re in the middle of a big reef that’s a comparative bonanza of protein.

Modern society uniformly condemns the historical kidnapping and enslavement of African people. At times, we’re even willing to have conversations about the economic subjugation of developing nations and the blatant extortion of Haiti in the early nineteenth century. However, questioning the ongoing effective imprisonment of Haiti’s inhabitants remains the domain of only radical thinkers.

Humans, especially poor ones, must remain in their homelands. Haitians need a visa to travel to most nations on earth, let alone work in them—this includes the Dominican Republic and every nation with nonstop flights from Haiti. Haitians are confined to their overcrowded island, forever paying the price of the kidnapping and extortion of their ancestors for the benefit of foreigners.

Faced with life in a land that can barely feed its inhabitants, many Haitians flee to parts of the world where food, water, electricity, and medicine aren’t in critically short supply. There’s a saying in Haiti: A rich man travels, a poor man leaves. But this option is closed to most, and the peril Haitians face abroad is well-documented. From the 1937 Parsley Massacre perpetrated against Haitians in the Dominican borderlands, to the dehumanizing status many Haitian migrants suffer today, especially in the United States and the Dominican Republic, economic migration is a dangerous endeavor, and the supply of Haitians hoping to work abroad overwhelms the willingness of foreign countries to host them.

Ilet a Brouee and islands like it tell another, less visible story of people who fled a country unable to feed itself. Instead of migrating to foreign lands, these people fled Haiti and built a town on one of the last sandbars in a dying archipelago. Suffering from overcrowding, dwindling food sources, and even questions about the viability of sustaining life on the island in an ever-fiercer climate, Ilet a Brouee became a microcosm of Haiti itself. In the longstanding debate about whether foreign aid helps or hurts recipient countries, foreigners smugly assert that Haiti has a “culture of dependence” on foreign aid and charity; the extremes to which the residents of Ilet a Brouee resort to feed themselves and their country debunk this patronizing label.

Questioning the ongoing effective imprisonment of Haiti’s inhabitants remains the domain of only radical thinkers.

It is a perversion of conventional human rights that freedom of movement is granted for capital, but not for labor. Anyone who believes that a child born anywhere in the world deserves an opportunity for a stable, healthy life must advocate for steps towards freedom of movement. The only alternative would be a world where all states are truly on an equal footing, and that went out the window with gunboat diplomacy, with systematic looting of the developing world through debt, with colonization, with the slave trade itself. These misdeeds shaped the world as we know it. We cannot ignore this history and assert that feeding Haitians is just Haiti’s problem. Humans should have the right to migrate, especially to the places that benefited so much from the historical exploitation of their homelands. By barring free movement, we guarantee countless tales of people resorting to desperate measures to survive.

* * *

I’ll stop short of claiming a superlative, of claiming that Ilet a Brouee is actually the most crowded island on Earth. After all, if an obvious a candidate like Ilet a Brouee is beyond our readily-shared knowledge, what else might be out there?

We talk with derision about the “discoveries” of European explorers, and the contradiction of discovering a place already well within current human knowledge. Now, with most of humanity exchanging information in an open-source, global forum, it’s tempting to think that we’ve integrated the knowledge of Earth’s many places and peoples — that if somebody knows about it, it’s probably easily knowable by everyone.

This appears to be untrue. On a smaller scale, “discoveries” are still being made: Take Somoto Canyon in Nicaragua, a stunning 150m deep crevice that’s only 10m wide, which flew under the radar until 2004; or Fort Drouet in Haiti, a military fort and coffee plantation that contains the only known ruins of slave housing in the country, which was forgotten until a road was built nearby in 2009. These are both in densely populated parts of their respective countries, a short walk from farms and villages and well known to generations of locals. Not only is our planet surprisingly poorly-understood, but we’re also less adept than we might guess at gathering these threads of local knowledge and experience, scattered across the globe and frayed by borders, language, and economics, and weaving them into our collective understanding of the human experience. Our understanding of life on this planet is still mainly projected from narrow, elite corners.


* * *

Alex MacGregor is an Atlanta-based port and railroad consultant, an avid traveler, and a geography nerd.

Editor: Dana Snitzky