MAY 1983 - VOLUME 4 - NUMBER 5
Haitian Peasants Protest Dam Project
by Jeanie Wylie
In the center of Haiti, is a comparatively lush expanse of land that runs along the Artibonite River. For centuries, it has been used by the peasants that own it to grow rice, potatoes, corn, and beans. The produce is sold in outlying areas where soil erosion has jeopardized once arable farms.
The Inter-American Development Bank has plans to flood this land to accommodate two new hydroelectric plants that will supply electricity to factories in Port-au-Prince. If completed, the project will take thousands of acres out of agricultural usage and displace an estimated 7,000 people.
For one of the first times in recent Haitian history, peasants are organizing to fight a project that has the tacit approval of their government. But despite protests, the international lending community is proceeding with preliminary studies for the project.
Historically, the Haitian government has been extremely hostile to foreigners' attempts to own or monopolize Haitian land. Since the slave revolt that freed Haiti from French dominion in 1804 more than 90 percent of Haitian land has been in the hands of peasant families. It was not until the U.S. Marines invaded in 1911 and forced a new constitution that it was even legal for foreigners to own land. Even now, Haiti has no huge, corporate plantations.
However, Haiti's government may no longer be in a position to protect peasant land. One-third of Haiti's $372 million yearly budget is now provided by international lending agencies. These organizations have imposed an austerity budget on Haiti - the poorest country in the western hemisphere - and adjusted its fiscal policies for the benefit of foreign investors.
The international lending institutions, which control much of Haiti's purse, regard the development of a physical infrastructure for industry as Haiti's first priority. Millions of dollars have been poured into roads, communications, and electricity, while the Haitian people continue to exist without adequate potable water, medical care, and schooling. One out of three Haitian children dies before reaching the age of five.
Officials in the Haitian government express ambivalent feelings about the role of international development banks.
The director of the planning department in Haiti, Yves Blanchard, talked positively about Haiti's efforts to compete for foreign investment. But he complained that the United States is most interested in building assembly plants where Haitians earn $2.60-a-day assembling baseballs or clothing. Blanchard stressed the importance of industry that would manufacture products using Haitian raw materials. But he added that the "ways to resolve the two goals are not plentiful."
Asked about the dam projects, Blanchard indicated that their status was still indefinite.
"We're in the course of studying it," Blanchard said. "If it's too expensive for the public, we won't do it. But if the impact will encourage development and yield wages and health benefits for the peasants, then we will.
"If there is displacement, we will offer them a better situation," Blanchard added. "Perhaps they won't like it in any case. But one can't be against the project for this."
Public opposition to any government -sanctioned project is extremely rare in Haiti, where the last two decades have seen systematic arrest and deportation of outspoken community leaders and journalists.
However, the Artibonite dam projects led local Roman Catholic priests to introduce a petition to stop the project. Signed by 5,500 people the petition reads: "We, the priests in this area, have received a dossier. We are struck by the human consequences of this construction project. While it is the role of the government to search for energy, it is our role, as Christians, to open our eyes to evil."
The petition went on to condemn the dam projects because they promise to ruin good land in a country that already has 700 people for every square kilometer of arable land. It also questioned where the thousands of displaced people could be relocated, since all of Haiti's land is already owned by subsistence farmers.
Officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development are not impressed by local opposition to the dam project nor by the land in question.
"I don't have any idea who decided to make this a cause celebre," complained Harlan Hobgood, director of the agency's office in Haiti. "It seems to me to involve minimum displacement and to utilize land that is not currently productive."
"No more than 250 families would be displaced," Hobgood said without clarifying that this could easily mean 2,500 people at the smaller flood site would have to be relocated.
But two U.S. Congressmen have voiced strong objections to the plan to the Inter Development Bank (IDB). Last year a member of the Congressional Black Caucus visited the dam sites with bank officials, urged that one of the dams be cancelled, and recommended that peasants displaced by the dams be given jobs in the Haitian energy sector, according to a congressional source.
These concerns were also expressed at a meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank earlier this year, and may have led the bank to cancel the project. "We have been told that it's been cancelled," the source said. "There's no question that they understood the concerns." But at Monitor press time, reports on the cancellation had not be confirmed.
There is very little residential use of electricity in Haiti, since three-quarters of its people live in absolute poverty on $140 a year. Only the elite and the new middle class, which now account for about 15 percent of Port-au-Prince's population, can afford electricity at home.
The vast majority of the electricity generated from the Artibonite River will be provided to industrial facilities in the nation's capitol. These facilities are already profiting from cheap labor, tax holidays, duty-free entry for goods to be reexported, discrimination-free status for foreign firms, and guaranteed repatriation of all profits.
A question which seems to have an obvious, though disappointing answer, is whether the Haitian government can afford to refuse its international lenders. When foreign bankers control one-third of a country's budget and have the power to overhaul its accounting policies, banking system and foreign trade regulations, is it possible for that country to shelter peasant land from inappropriate development?
"We can go to the hills," the peasant position opposing the dam projects reads. "We can get on a boat. But everywhere, we see death before us. If this project is done, you can dig a hole and bury us. The land is our life, our breath, our food and our means to put our children through school. This evil will fall on the head of everyone in the country, if it is done."
Jeanie Wylie is a freelance writer based in Detroit. She visited Haiti in March