Haiti: fertile land seized for new sweatshop zone

Residents of Caracol, a village in Haiti’s Northeast department, say they were never consulted or even warned about plans to build a huge new “free trade zone” (FTZ, a complex of assembly plants) on land where many of them have been farming for some 20 years. “It’s the most fertile area we have at Caracol,” resident Renel Pierre told journalist Sylvestre Fils Dorcilus. “It’s inconceivable and unacceptable that the government could choose this part of the land to set up an industrial park.”

The Parc industriel du Nord (Northern Industrial Park, PIN) is a joint project of the US government, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB, or BID in French and Spanish) and South Korea’s leading apparel manufacturer, Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd. Together, they are putting some $300 million into the FTZ, which promoters claim will generate 20,000 jobs in the short term and 65,000 jobs over time. The Haitian government provided the land, which it says is state property; the administration of former president René Préval (1996-2001 and 2006-2011) promised to compensate the peasants who have been using it.

“The government has no respect for us,” Robert Etienne, a local farmer said to Dorcilus, whose three-part series on the project was produced with backing from the UK-based Haiti Support Group and was published by the online Haitian news service AlterPresse. “It was only one fine morning at the beginning of January—when a team of technicians came to explore the area—that we were told about the project.” The technicians used heavy equipment to remove everything in their way, including crops and part of a church that a pastor, Arnold Baptiste, built there 10 years earlier.

“Imagine for a moment the wrongs done to peasant farmers who are getting ready to harvest their crops or who had just finished sowing.” Etienne said.

Some of the farmers have formed the Association for the Defense of Caracol Workers’ Rights (ADTC) to demand compensation and new land from the government. They indicate that they don’t trust the government’s promises, remembering that peasants in Ouanaminthe, on the Dominican border 45 km southeast of Caracol, reportedly were never compensated for land used to build the Compagnie de Développement Industriel S.A. (Codevi) FTZ there, which opened in 2003. (AlterPresse, July 4)

Other Caracol residents are optimistic about the FTZ. A young woman identified as “Yole” told Dorcilus that unemployment was at “a high point” in the department, as in the rest of the country. “Sure, working conditions for employees in the industries are alarming, but I think the industrial park will help young people a lot on the economic level,” she said.

In a study submitted to Haiti’s Economy and Finance Ministry (MEF), the Boston-based consulting firm KOIOS Associates LLC notes environmental problems with the project, such as air pollution, residual waste and the heavy use of water resources by the plants. But many of these negative effects could be attenuated “[i]f a sufficient proportion of additional tax revenues [expected from the FTZ] were dedicated to the development and improvement of the region’s social and physical infrastructures,” according to the report. (AlterPresse, July 6)

The new FTZ is clearly a priority for the US government. In early June Cheryl Mills, chief of staff for US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, paid her second visit to the site, accompanied by a high-level delegation that included US ambassador Kenneth Merten, US Agency for International Development (USAID) deputy mission director Anthony Chan and Mark D’Sa, an executive from the US retailer GAP who is “on loan” to the State Department. (Haïti Libre, Haiti, June15)

According to Koios Associates, Oxford University economist Paul Collier, who wrote a United Nations “development plan” for Haiti in 2009, calls the project “development as it should be done.” “This will be a match that strikes a fire and gets things going,” former US president Bill Clinton (1993-2001) predicts. (Koios Associates website, accessed July 10)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 10.

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