Originally published in The Washington Post.
Five years ago this month, a terrible earthquake struck my country. I was in the capital city, Port-au-Prince, when suddenly the earth shook and buildings around me and across the city collapsed—taking with them hundreds of thousands of lives and the hopes of my nation. The world stood with us that day and in the weeks and months that followed. Donations poured in; the United States and many other governments pledged to help us rebuild Haiti. But five years into the reconstruction, as a Haitian, I must ask: For whom are we rebuilding our country?
Haitians are not benefiting as fully as they should from this global aid. Despite billions of dollars earmarked for Haiti, nearly 100,000 people still live under plastic tarps in displacement camps. Poverty has worsened all around the capital: more beggars on the streets, an increase in teen pregnancy, and more people turning to sex work. A cholera epidemic has wrought further devastation, killing thousands; the CDC and others have suggested the strong possibility that cholera was brought to Haiti by United Nations peacekeepers, the very force tasked with stabilizing the country. In truth, a great deal of the “redevelopment” has gone to help the rich and powerful, not the impoverished and displaced people who need it the most.
The Haitian government is using its scarce resources to invest furiously in tourism, the mining of gold and other natural resources, massive industrial construction projects and the exportation of our agricultural products. There are reasonable arguments for each of these strategies—after all, stimulating Haiti’s economy could increase the quality of life for people at all economic levels. But it takes little digging into recent investments to find stories of criminal abuses of power that have provoked outrage from Haitian citizens, whose land is being taken to make room for these projects without their consent.
Haiti’s building boom often appears to serve the purposes of Haiti’s elite and of outsiders, who stand to benefit from the land, resources and untapped potential of our country. Take, for example, Île-à-Vache, a tiny, pristine island off Haiti’s southern coast that remains unknown to most of the world. The island holds Haiti’s sole remaining untouched forest, a green oasis in a country where all but 1.5 percent of the land has been stripped bare by logging. Île-à-Vache is home to tens of thousands of villagers who have lived there sustainably and peacefully for generations.
All that changed in 2013, when the government declared the island a public utility and launched plans to build an international airport, 1,500 hotel rooms, a golf course and night clubs—a plan completely out of scale in a place formerly without cars, technology or government infrastructure.
The government promotes the project as a shining example of land, community and development existing in harmony, with equitable distribution of benefits for all. But villagers tell a very different story. The government forged ahead without assessing how the project will affect the land and its people. The islanders have not been compensated for their land and will likely be forced to migrate to the cities in search of jobs. And contractors have brazenly razed a virgin old-growth forest, dredged the untouched Madame Bernard Bay and cut down fruit trees that families depended on for their livelihoods.
When the community protested peacefully, requested information about the plans and asked to be included in decision-making about the project, the government sent heavily armed law enforcement teams to the island to suppress dissent. Local police officer and community leader Jean Mathelnus Lamy was arrested after organizing peaceful protests.
Elsewhere in Haiti, citizens are concerned that officials will not be able to properly regulate the burgeoning mining industry, which has the potentialto displace farmers from their land and negatively affect the environment; already, mining contracts have been awarded to foreign companies without public or parliamentary scrutiny. Meanwhile, the government is building industrial parks, including one for a South Korean clothing manufacturer on a tract of fertile farmland, instead of housing for earthquake survivors, even as the displacement camps that house them are closing. With no long-term plan to house them elsewhere, many of these displaced people may find themselves homeless again soon.
Fortunately, there are Haitian activists seeking to redress these wrongs. As a consultant to American Jewish World Service (AJWS), I work with 29 Haitian grassroots organizations that are using AJWS’s support to advocate for accountability in how relief funds are spent. These groups are working to rebuild Haiti for the benefit of all of its people, including those living in poverty and other groups that have been traditionally excluded, including rural communities, women and LGBT people.
One such organization, Collective for Île-à-Vache (Konbit Peyizan Île-à-Vache, or KOPI), is behind the peaceful protest movement on the island. It is demanding that construction stop and that the government consult the community and conduct an environmental assessment (which is required by Haitian law) before the project resumes. If the government continues to threaten this community and the land, KOPI plans to bring the case to international courts.
The world’s attitude toward Haiti and my own government’s attitude toward its people must radically shift. The U.S. government has taken steps in the right direction with last summer’s passage of the Assessing Progress in Haiti Act, which insists that the State Department be more transparent and accountable in the use of reconstruction funds. If Haiti fails to ensure that development benefits its people—something the government might be likelier to do with international oversight that the act promises to provide—then the earthquake will have meant not only a natural disaster, but also a radical redistribution of assets from the poor and vulnerable to the rich and powerful.
Nixon Boumba, born in Haiti, works as an in-country consultant there to American Jewish World Service, an international aid and human rights organization.