The phenomenon of "land grabbing" has developed into a major trend that has uprooted and destabilized rural agrarian communities around the world. Powerful foreign private and public investors have negotiated agreements with countries to take over large areas of land to further a flawed development model that maximizes private profit at the expense of these communities. The rising demand for agrofuels, high food prices and the pursuit of attractive investment opportunities has stimulated the growth of land grabbing in developing countries.
The story of Haiti’s post-earthquake reconstruction illustrates the problems with this approach to economic growth in poor countries. The January 2010 earthquake resulted in 230,000-316,000 deaths and left 1.5 million people homeless. The total economic loss was estimated at $7.8 billion, a figure representing 120 percent of Haiti’s GDP.
In response, international donors committed over $9 billion in aid. One of the "flagship" projects of the post-earthquake reconstruction effort was the Caracol Industrial Park (CIP). Action Aid, an international NGO working in 45 countries, just released a study on the CIP project’s impact on the local population: "Build Back Better? The Caracol Industrial Park and post-earthquake aid to Haiti" (January 2015). The report details the negative consequences of the CIP on 720 agricultural workers and thousands of other community members due to the "seizure of the land and livelihoods of communities" located 200 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake.
Over 60 percent of Haiti’s population relies on agriculture for food and economic security. When the U.S. government designed the initial aid package for Haiti, the promise was to "build back better" – to provide immediate disaster relief and fund economic development projects that improved the lives of poor Haitians. But the assessment of the results so far is disappointing – just 10 percent of the promised housing construction has occurred in areas most affected by the earthquake, and the displacement of farmers and families from their land has produced anything but a "better" outcome for the local population near the CIP.
The Caracol Industrial Park was "built on food-producing land in the midst of a complex and fragile ecosystem that included endangered species [and] a critical watershed in the Bay of Caracol." Alternate sites that minimized environmental damage and did not trample on the rights of poor communities were not considered. A June 2013 report issued by the Government Accountability Office characterized CIP as having "mixed results."
The original goal of 150,000 new houses by 2013 (via USAID money) was reduced by 80 percent, with most of reduction focused on the CIP area. One hundred thousand people still live in camps and many who received housing vouchers still lack permanent housing. The original plan called for 65,000 new jobs linked to the project, but just 4,500 new jobs have been created in the two years since the Park opened. A report by the Worker Rights Consortium examining wage theft found "widespread violations of human rights" in Haiti. S&H Global, one of the CIP tenants, pays its employees $3.75 a day, with no wage increases since the new national $5 a day minimum wage went into effect.
The Haitian government’s development strategy seeks to expand tourism and manufacturing, anchored by foreign investment. But this model neglects the fact that 75 percent of the rural population lives below the poverty line, with just 10 percent of the rural residents having access to electricity and only eight percent with access to clean drinking water. Of 129 countries ranked by food security, Haiti ranks tenth from the bottom, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. The conventional disaster aid model in Haiti fails to account for the critical role that farm land in the economic, social and cultural lives of the country’s rural population. The Haitian people call land ko`d lonbrik, or umbilical cord. Land ownership is not merely a means to an economic end, but the focal point of an entire way of life going back generations, often on the same land.
The UN Environment Programme underlined why the economic case for rural development should always consider the needs of the agrarian sector:
"Economic data has shown that a one percent rise in agricultural per-capita GDP reduces poverty five times more than a one percent increase in GDP in other sectors, especially amongst the poorest people. Ensuring that women and men smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisher folk have secure rights over land and natural resources is therefore essential to combatting poverty and hunger, to upholding people’s social, economic and cultural rights, and to ensuring they can live with dignity."
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations provides for states to "respect and protect the legitimate rights of communities to guarantee their food security," and both the U.S. and Haitian governments have endorsed the guidelines. The Action Aid report summarizes the flaws in the CIP project, citing "the lack of transparency, the lack of consent by the communities and the violation of human rights to food and livelihood."
As the Haitian disaster recovery model demonstrates, until protections against land grabbing are put in place, the needs and rights of poor agrarian populations will remain secondary to powerful state and private economic interests. The flawed development path taken in so many countries must give way to a new model that protects and respects the rights, dignity and way of life of rural communities that are so integral to developing economies around the globe.
From Action Aid:
The story of Marie Marthe Rocksaint illustrates the dramatic disruption the new Park imposed on long-term residents of the community. She is a mother of two and small farmer who was forced off her land when construction began: "I had farmed my land for 22 years, but was made to leave without any compensation. Afterwards, the government sent investigators who were asking for all kinds of information from us but they never told us how much compensation they were going to give us. There were no negotiations, we were told to accept the compensation that was offered. We thought the park was going to benefit us. First they promised land, then housing, then all we got was a small amount of compensation."
Photo by Marilla Leti