Haiti: islanders protest tourism project

The president of the Haitian Senate's Justice and Security Commission, Pierre Francky Exius, announced on Feb. 27 that the commission had summoned Justice Minister Jean Renel Sanon and the command of the Haitian National Police (PNH) to testify about a crisis situation on Ile-à-Vache, a small island southeast of the city of Les Cayes in South department. Over the past month the police have beaten and shot at Ile-à-Vache residents protesting plans for a major tourism project on the island. Some protesters have fled the island, and one protest leader, a local police agent, has been arrested.

The "Ile-à-Vache Tourist Destination" project was first announced in December 2012 by Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. The plans include an international airport, a hotel, bars, restaurants, spas, a theater and a museum. According to Haitian journalist Dady Chéry, there will also be "‘agricultural infrastructure' to allow [tourists]…to learn to farm sustainably as part of their full ecotourism experience." "I think Ile-à-Vache has great potential," Lamothe said, "and it doesn't present the challenges for land titles that you might face on the mainland." US companies interested in investing include Holmes International Development, while the leftist government of Venezuela is partnering on the project, according to Lamothe.

Ile-à-Vache residents, who live by farming and fishing, were never consulted. In December 2013, after the island's only forest had been destroyed to make way for the airport, they formed the Konbit of Ile-à-Vache Peasant Organizations (KOPI) to resist the tourism plan. ("Konbit" is a Creole word for a communal work project.) A series of protests followed KOPI's formation, scaring off some of the investors. The government responded by sending police agents, who landed on the island the night of Feb. 8-9 and reportedly beat two residents in the La Hatte area. The next day they beat a girl in the Madame Bernard area, according to residents, and forced protesters to take down barricades they'd built. Some 100 heavily armed Motorized Intervention Brigade (BIM) agents invaded a school and destroyed several houses on Feb. 20. The next day the police arrested KOPI's vice president, a local police agent whose name is given variously as Jean Matulnès Lamy or Jean Lamy Matulnes; he was taken to the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince. On Feb. 25 BIM agents used live ammunition to break up a demonstration; two people were arrested and 12 were injured.

The government of President Michel Martelly ("Sweet Micky") insists that tourism projects like the one on Ile-à-Vache will help advance Haiti's economic development. But economist Camille Chalmers of the Haitian Platform Advocating an Alternative Development (PAPDA) dismissed the projects as "selling the country's resources and patrimony to the highest bidders, in the framework of imperialist interests." He said that the government's slogan, "Haiti, open for business," "means liquidating national interests for the benefit of foreign capital." In a statement backing the island protesters, the Patriotic Democratic Popular Movement (MPDP), a coalition of 30 grassroots organizations, noted that while the government pours money into the tourism project, "in Ile-à-Vache there are big problems with schools, hospitals, water and other basic services…. [I]t's not improving the life of the population that interests those in power. What interests them is making money and facilitating the looting of the island!" (AlterPresse, Haiti, Feb. 25, Feb. 27; MPDP statement, Feb. 25, via PAPDA; News Junkie Post, Mar. 1)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 2.