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14 Jan 2019

Lani Inverarity, Senior Communities Associate at Accountability Counsel

Haiti farmers demanded justice after losing their land - their victory shows what empowering workers can achieve

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The ninth anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010 holds new meaning for the nearly 4,000 people forced from their land to make way for the Caracol Industrial Park.

In 2011, farmers and their families were displaced from their agricultural land in order to construct the park - a half-a-billion dollar garment factory compound, funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and other donors with earthquake reconstruction funds.

After years of intense struggle, those farmers are now celebrating a livelihood restoration package they negotiated with the IDB and the Haitian Government, and formalized in an agreement signed last month. Eva Jean-Baptiste, one of the leaders of the Kolektif that negotiated the remedy package, described the relief she felt after the agreement was signed: 

“For us women in the northeast, when they took the land, we didn’t see any hope for the future … We have been looking for a solution. With this agreement, we are sure that we will restore our livelihoods. We will continue to live. Like all human beings, we need livelihoods to continue to live.” 

The earthquake and its impact has been a poignant thread connecting the critical moments in this case. Caracol Industrial Park was rushed into construction and operation after the 2010 earthquake, in order to create investment and employment opportunities far from the devastation in Port-au-Prince.

The IDB’s then Haiti Manager is on the record as saying that the “urgency of the project” required some shortcuts. “If one had to do this in the normal process of planning and then funding and then decision-making, and only then start looking for clients and only then start construction”, he said, “we would have gone ten years without having an industrial park”. 

The farmers paid a heavy price for that haste. The park site was chosen without any comprehensive analysis of the project’s environmental and social impacts. A feasibility assessment, funded by the IDB, wrongly described the chosen site as “devoid of habitation and intensive cultivation.” In fact, the park site was the most fertile land in the area, cultivated in plots by at least 422 farmers and their families, totaling nearly 4,000 people. 

Just days before the earthquake’s first anniversary, in 2011, those families were forced from their land. Almost overnight, they lost their primary source of income and food security. The farmers and their families then waited for almost three years for promised replacement land, only to be told that most would instead receive an inferior and inadequate cash compensation package - one insufficient to purchase new land or establish a new, sustainable livelihood.

Women and children were particularly harshly affected, as women have the primary responsibility for feeding the family and educating the children. Previously, women could satisfy both by harvesting and selling produce from the land. Once the land was lost, and families were left unable to afford basic needs, some women and girls reported an increase in exploitation and abuse. 

After realizing the full scope of the devastation, the farmers organized themselves into the Kolektif Peyizan Viktim Tè Chabè (the Collective of Peasant Victims of the Land at Chabert). With the support of local and international partners, on the 12th of January 2017 - the sixth anniversary of the quake - the Kolektif filed a complaint to the IDB’s accountability office, seeking a dialogue process to negotiate redress for the harm caused.  

The idea that the IDB and the Haitian Government would come to the table and negotiate a remedy with the farmers was considered so fanciful that it was described by many in the community as “the dream of a crazy person”. 

The complaint triggered an intense 18-month negotiation between the farmers, representatives of the Haitian government, and the IDB.

Despite facing an overwhelming power imbalance, on January 12th, 2019, those farmers celebrated an agreement they secured last month that will provide them with access to new land, jobs, modern agricultural equipment, small business development, and training opportunities. The "crazy dream" will now change the lives of thousands of people.   

That agreement did not come easily. It is the result of difficult compromises, and implementation will need to be closely monitored to ensure it lives up to its promise. Yet even now, it is a truly remarkable achievement.

It represents the first time that farmers — a critically important yet historically marginalized group in Haiti — have negotiated a remedy for the unmitigated impact of a project directly with an international financial institution like the IDB.

It recognizes the important socio-economic role of women in Haitian society, with aspects of the agreement specifically tailored to their needs. And it is a too-rare example of the intended beneficiaries of international development actually sitting at the table designing a livelihood restoration program that reflects their needs and interests.  

And so on January 12th, the farmers and their families rightly celebrated this historic moment - one unimaginable when their land was lost seven years ago. For these families, the earthquake anniversary - a symbol of devastation for themselves and their fellow citizens - now holds the possibility of transformation and renewal.

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