Haiti's Land Handout Only Scratches the Surface of the Need

The tiny town of Peyen is off a long, dusty road several miles from Haiti's National Highway. A cluster of clay houses with thatched or tin roofs, it has no electricity, no telephones, and no public transportation.

But Peyen is a choice location these days. It has been included in an agricultural reform program aimed at providing precious rural jobs for the people of the poorest country in the Americas.

On Feb. 7, one year after President Rene Preval took office, the National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INARA) gave 1,600 poor farmers from this area, known as the Artibonite Valley, 2,400 acres of land whose ownership had been "in conflict."

Land reform is a priority for President Prval's government, one of the few things it can do to pacify an increasingly discontent population.

Peasant organizations, political parties, and grass-roots groups are protesting the rising cost of goods, mounting violence, and a new program to privatize state enterprises. Some are even calling for the resignation of Prval, Prime Minister Rosny Smarth, and his Cabinet.

An alliance of opposition groups has called for a general strike later this month. The protests come as the Caribbean island nation moves toward April 6 elections for the Senate in which the government faces strong opposition.

Few are speaking out openly against the concept of land reform. There is widespread concern, however, that the government has pushed the program forward before it has been thought through. "It's not a real agrarian reform, it's a 'political reform,' " says Jean Robert Jeudi, a farmer in Peyen.

Critics charge that the program has no legal mandate and say that the land-distribution committee members gave parcels to their friends and family instead of to the poorest farmers.

The larger question is whether these small parcels will make an economic difference.

"The agrarian reform program continues on with the dream that there is [good] land to cultivate," says French anthropologist Gerard Barthelmy, author of "Rural Haiti." "That's a myth. It won't do anything unless it can increase production. It's like undressing one person to clothe another."

Rural sociologist Bernard Etheart, the director of INARA, agrees. He says that all the land that can be successfully cultivated is already in use.

"We have to improve our farming techniques so we can go from two harvests per year to three," Mr. Etheart says. "For the farmers who received land in the first distribution, we already have the seeds, fertilizer, and a credit system set up to help."

Etheart argues that the regulations governing the land giveaway are deliberately vague so that laws can be developed as the program unfolds. He says a legal framework does exist because the 1987 Constitution calls for the creation of INARA.

Haiti is one of the most undernourished countries in the Americas. In the last 30 years, it has dropped from being nearly self-sufficient in food production to being dependent on imported aid for half the food needs of its 7 million people. It spends $100 million annually on rice imports alone.

Prval has set a goal of increasing rice production from 60,000 tons to 300,000 tons per year by 2001, when his term of office ends.

One of INARA's biggest challenges is land titles. Nobody knows exactly what is state-owned or private land. Previous Haitian leaders, elected or self-appointed, gave away state land as political favors, so even "legal" owners may now be illegal. The state's official registry office is a disorganized nightmare. "If the government takes the land and provides compensation, that would go along way to resolve things. But right now it just muddies the water, which already pretty murky," one foreign diplomat here says.

INARA is studying the French system of land holding where peasants without titles receive security through long-term, renewable contracts. But even that might be difficult for Haiti's peasants, who after years of feeling exploited by land owners don't want anything less than ownership. Violent land conflicts have raged in the Artibonite Valley for decades.

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