Haiti: new sweatshop zone will displace farmers
Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd, South Korea's leading apparel manufacturer, is pushing ahead with plans to open a large garment assembly plant next March near the coastal village of Caracol in Haiti's Northeast department. The firm, which supplies garments to such major US retailers as Target, Wal-Mart, Kohl's and GAP, claims the factory will create 20,000 jobs paying at least four times the average Haitian's share of the annual gross domestic product (GDP)—which would work out to a wage of about $8 a day for the factory workers. The operation is to include the country's first facility for producing textiles, a knit and dyeing mill which will use some 6,000 tons of ground water a day.
Sae-A will be the main tenant in the Northern Industrial Park, a new 617-acre "free trade zone" (FTZ, a complex of assembly plants). The park may also house two other apparel companies and a furniture manufacturer, according to Mark D'Sa, a Miami-based GAP executive who has been "on loan" with the State Department to work on Haiti trade policy.
In what US officials call an "unprecedented collaboration," the US is providing the Northern Industrial Park project with $124 million for constructing 5,000 houses, a 25-megawatt electricity grid, and a waste and water treatment plant, while the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB, or BID in French and Spanish) is putting in more than $100 million for buildings and roads. Sae-A's investment is $78 million, bringing the cost of the FTZ to more than $300 million. The administration of Haitian president René Préval is donating the land, which the government says is state property, and has committed to compensating the farmers currently using it—illegally, according to the government. (The sources didn't specify whether the Haitian government would also grant the manufacturers the duty and tariff exemptions that usually benefit assembly plants producing for export.)
The Caracol industrial park is one of two complexes covered by an agreement the Haitian and US governments signed last September. The other factory complex is to be built near a displaced persons camp in Corail-Cesselesse, north of Port-au-Prince. The Northern Industrial Park is the second FTZ in the Northeast department: the first was built at Ouanaminthe, near the Dominican border, under the second administration of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1991-1996, 2001-2004).
The US government has been a major force in pushing for the industrial parks. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) calls them "smart economic investments" that will "allow the Haitian people to help themselves." According to the Miami Herald, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton personally brought the issue up during a visit to South Korea; Sae-A had been apparently been hesitant about the deal, fearing political instability in Haiti. "So much is at stake" in the project, the Herald reported, "that some Haiti observers mused that it was perhaps one of the reasons for the United States' heavy involvement in the Nov. 28 presidential election debacle." (MH, March 29; USAID Frontlines, February/March 2011)
Another project that USAID says allows "Haitian people to help themselves" is the agency's agricultural program, WINNER (Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources), which in 2010 "helped more than 10,500 small- and medium-sized farmers grow corn, sorghum, beans, potatoes and other vegetables…. Overall, the campaign increased production by 75%." (USAID Frontlines, February/March 2011)
A March 30 report by a group of Haitian media organizations, Haiti Grassroots Watch (Ayiti Kale Je, "Haiti Keep Your Eyes Open" in Creole), gave a very different view of the WINNER program.
Following the January 2010 earthquake in southern Haiti, WINNER and other organizations began distributing donated foreign seeds to Haitian farmers on the assumption that there would be a shortage. But the report found that there was "no seed emergency" in Haiti and that the donated seeds undercut local seed producers and distributors. WINNER was in charge of distributing hybrid seeds donated by the Monsanto Company, a giant US-based biotechnology multinational. The Haitian journalists found evidence that "[a]t least some of the peasant farmer groups receiving Monsanto and other hybrid maize and other cereal seeds have little understanding of the implications of getting 'hooked' on hybrid seeds" and "also don't appear to understand the health and environmental risks involved with the fungicide- and herbicide-coated hybrids" and might be using the seeds without the recommended masks and gloves. In one case, the farmers were "planning to grind up the toxic seed to use as chicken feed."
USAID refused to be interviewed by the Haitian reporters and told farmers' groups not to talk to them. (Haiti Grassroots Watch, March 30)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 3.
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