After 10 years, Haitian farmers receive payment for land

Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, local farmers' land was taken to boost new developments. Now, those farmers are receiving reimbursement. 

Ramon Espinosa/AP
A woman walks in front of the building in construction of Best Western Hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on April 26, 2012. International investment in projects like this have helped Haiti bounce back, but have left land owners waiting for reimbursement.

On a hot morning in December, Haitian farmer Remy Augustin lifted a pickaxe that was taller than him and began digging holes in a small plot of land. In each hole he dropped a few kernels of maize, which he covered with loose dirt.

"I don't have money to pay for a tractor, so we're aerating the land ourselves," said Mr. Augustin, lamenting the days when the land he tilled was his own.

"The land I had was better – it gave me so many bananas, peas, beans."

Nine years ago, the father of five was working on government land he rented when "a tractor destroyed everything."

The land was earmarked for the Caracol industrial park, a venture led by South Korean textile firm Sae-A Trading Co Ltd and financed by international donors to spur development following Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake.

Located in Haiti's northern region, the $300 million park opened in 2012 and now employs approximately 15,000 people, most of whom work in clothing factories there, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), one of the park's main financial backers.

In 2018 farmers like Augustin who had been evicted from their land in 2011 struck a rare deal with the IDB to provide Caracol's 100 most vulnerable families with new, titled land.

But 10 years after the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and made 1.5 million homeless, the farmers are still waiting to receive compensation for their land used to build the Caracol park.

Augustin now works as a laborer on a plot owned by his niece, struggling to pay his children's school fees for the coming year.

"I have to share this land with my whole family," Mr. Augustin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "I don't have anything of my own."

International donors pledged nearly $10 billion to help Haiti recover after the 2010 earthquake, which destroyed or damaged 300,000 homes in the capital Port-au-Prince and surrounding cities, said the International Organization for Migration.

To make space for the park, in 2011, 366 Haitian families – including 720 farmers – were evicted from their land, according to charity ActionAid Haiti.

Neither the government, the IDB, nor USAID – another of the park's main funders – responded to requests to verify those figures.

A spokeswoman for Sae-A Trading Co Ltd described the textile firm as a "tenant of the park," adding it had been involved neither in its construction nor in the 2018 land deal.

Local farmer and activist Milostene Castin said that from 2011 to 2013 the IDB gave the farmers an annual living stipend of $80 per family member, and paid $1,450 for each hectare of land, well below the land's value.

"The cash compensation that was received by the vast majority of the farmers was not sufficient to purchase new land or to establish new livelihoods," said Lani Inverarity, a lawyer at San Francisco-based charity Accountability Counsel, which promotes human rights.

The IDB later promised the farmers new plots of land, but "year after year the land never came," said Mr. Castin, who works for local organization Action for Reforestation and Environmental Defense (AREDE).

Families that once lived off of the food they grew "were struggling just to eat," he said.

Eventually, the IDB identified a swath of replacement land, but when Mr. Castin went to inspect it, other farmers were there already, he said.

Collective action

Fed up with waiting, hundreds of farmers formed a collective in 2014 to fight for land.

In 2017, with the help of ActionAid Haiti and AREDE, the farmers filed a complaint against the IDB, demanding new land with legal titles to prove ownership so they could resume farming.

Their self-organizing paid off: After more than a year of meetings, the IDB agreed to purchase new, titled land for 100 of the most vulnerable families.

Others were offered alternative compensation such as irrigation schemes or money to invest in personal businesses. One member of each family will also be offered employment at the industrial park, according to the IDB.

"The farmers' story is a really incredible one of persistence in the face of incredible power imbalances," said Ms. Inverarity of the Accountability Counsel, which supported the farmers throughout the complaints procedure.

"Typically, IFIs [international financial institutions] try their best to stay out of these disputes, leaving it to the company or government entity to respond. However, here the IDB genuinely turned up," said Ms. Inverarity.

Andy White, coordinator of Washington-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative, agreed, calling the land agreement "groundbreaking for Haiti."

"We are seeing more and more cases like this around the world where communities have fought back against international investors to demand respect for their land rights," he added.

"But this is the first case I'm aware of this scale and this nature."

Complex process

Implementation of the agreement is behind schedule due to logistical challenges in identifying the most vulnerable families – among other hurdles – who are still waiting to receive compensation, according to the Accountability Counsel.

The counsel is meeting with all farmers to figure out how they would like to receive financing to obtain title deeds to a parcel of land.

Assuming the IDB disburses the funds soon, Accountability Counsel said what happened in Haiti's north could be seen as a successful model of how communities displaced by development projects can self-organize to demand new, titled land.

The group is currently monitoring more than 1,200 cases in which local communities are facing similar issues in 129 countries across the world.

"About 13% of concluded cases have gone through a dispute resolution process like in Haiti," resulting in 90 agreements globally, said Sarah Singh, the Accountability Counsel's global communities director.

'Just waiting'

Meanwhile, the farmers are trying to eke out a living with what they have got.

Ever since her father's land was taken over to build the Caracol park, Seliana Marcelus leaves her home at 5 a.m. to sell breakfast to the factory workers as they enter the industrial park gates.

All night long she fries potatoes, breadfruit, and other produce, things that her family once grew on that same land but that she now must purchase at the local market.

"I don't even go to bed. I work all night," said Ms. Marcelus. "It's the only work I have."

Since losing his plot, Rony Comper has been doing odd jobs, from temping as a motorcycle taxi driver to crossing the border into the Dominican Republic to work as a mason.

Like Mr. Augustin, he found a titled plot he will buy once IDB releases the funds – which is expected to happen this year. "We're just waiting."

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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