Land Grab at Ile a Vache: Haiti’s Peasants Fight Back

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Before Haiti’s Prime Minister declared all of Haiti’s offshore islands to be Zones of Tourism Development and Public Utility, he did not consult with the residents of the islands whose lands would be appropriated. Instead Mr. Laurent Lamothe went to a favorite online magazine in December 2012, to promote his plans. “[W]e have decided to take the tourism development to the island of Ile a Vache, so there we’re going to build an international airport, and then the tourism [infrastructure] to attract investors — we have several investors already…. I think Ile a Vache has great potential, and it doesn’t present the challenges for land title that you might face on the mainland.”

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As Ile a Vache, a 20-square mile island off of Haiti’s southern coast was promoted to investors in Qatar, the Dominican Republic, China, the wider Caribbean, the United Kingdom, and United States as being a jewel of the Caribbean and a potential draw for eco-tourists, the residents of the island, mostly small farmers who had cultivated food crops and fished sustainably for more than century, and who occupied homes that had been in their families for many generations, were ignored. The islanders’ requests for meetings with government representatives went unanswered, even while Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin found ample time to report the details of the $230 million project in March 2013, once again, to a magazine.

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The island’s coasts and beaches, normally used for fishing, would be appropriated for the construction of several resort hotels (about 1500 hotel rooms), plus 2500 villas and bungalows for a “laid-back, low-density eco-tourism-style development, highlighting areas like cultural heritage, agro-tourism…” Initially, an area called Anse Dufour, near the currently touristic Madame Bernard area, would be developed into the “Village of Marie Anne,” with a community center, radio station, restaurants, bars, cafes, arts and craft shops, theater, school to train hotel workers, pirate museum, health clinics and spas, heliport, villas, and bungalows. Later, there would be yet more bungalows, villas, pools, restaurants, floating bars and ports for hydroplanes. There would also be “agricultural infrastructure” to allow wealthy members of the diaspora, adventure travelers, wellness travelers, and honeymooners to learn to farm sustainably as part of their full eco-tourism experience.

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By December 2013, after the island’s only forest had been razed, with assistance from the Venezuelan government, to build an airport with a 2.6-km (1.6 mile) runway, the islanders formed the Organization of Ile à Vache Farmers, or KOPI (Konbit òganizasyon peyizan Ilavach), and began to take to the streets in regular protests. The farmers refused to accept the presidential decree that had appropriated as “state assets” all properties and lands in Haiti’s offshore islands and unilaterally annulled all legal property rights that had resulted from either sales, leases, or bequests from individuals retroactively for five years.

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On January 6, 2014, the residents issued a one-week ultimatum to the Haitian government, demanding that it immediately stop all plans for “tourist destination, Ile a Vache.” They were especially incensed by the fact that their need for a hospital and high school had been ignored in favor of hotel rooms and golf courses for tourists. Moreover, they noted that local masons, foremen and technicians had been rejected for construction work in favor of people from out of town. One KOPI leader reported that KOPI members had received death threats, but “even our bones will not leave Ile à Vache.”

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The Minister of Tourism did visit Ile a Vache on January 16, 2014, not for a discussion but a presentation that disappointed the residents. The residents complained that Mrs. Villedrouin had merely presented them a slide show, when they had expected to examine detailed plans of the tourism project and participate in an extensive discussion of these plans.

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The islanders then undertook a new series of protests in which they blocked the roads to paralyze all business activity and construction work on the island. “Ile a Vache is not for sale, not in bulk not in retail,” they chanted. Soon a group of paramilitaries appeared, who began to attack the people in advance of their protests. On the evening of February 8, 2014, for example, police beat up Charles Laguerre, Bertin Similien, Lethe Feguens, and Maxo Bell and forced them to remove the barricades they had erected for their protest; they also beat up a young woman, Rosena Masena, merely for walking in the area of Madame Bernard.

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The protests have caused several of the companies for the tourism-development project to leave the island. On the other hand, the campaign to persecute the residents, especially the KOPI leaders has gone into full swing. On Thursday February 20, 2014 over 100 heavily-armed police from the Motorized Intervention Brigade (BIM) invaded a school and destroyed several houses. The following day, a government delegation inaugurated a new community center, restaurant and radio station even as people protested and KOPI’s Vice President (a well-known policeman on the island) Jean Matulnès Lamy was arrested.

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On Tuesday February 25, 2014, despite a heavy rain, a spontaneous protest broke out when the islanders learned that Matulnès Lamy had been taken to the national penitentiary without being allowed to see a judge. A group of BIM policemen arrived at the protest, along with the local interim governor Fritz Cesar, who singled out the KOPI members for arrest. Live ammunition was fired into the crowd to break up the protest; two people were arrested and 12 were injured.

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Residents are outraged by the violence that the government has brought to a bucolic agricultural island that had traditionally needed only two policemen. Children can no longer go to school because of the invasion of their school by heavily-armed police. KOPI members have gone underground and say they are being called “bandits” and accused of poisoning people’s minds.

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Seventeen Haitian organizations have signed a communique to demand the release of Jean Matulnès Lamy, and pledged solidarity with the Ile à Vache residents. “We, the signatory organizations bring our solidarity to the struggle of the people of Ile a Vache to stop the island from being turned into a zone for tourism, and we denounce the arrest and imprisonment [without trial] of Jean Matulnès Lamy for having supported the mobilization of the people of the island. We denounce the attacks and other arrests by police to intimidate the population. We believe that these actions against the Ile a Vache population fit in with the logic of macoute power, at the service of the international, that does not respect the principle of the right to self preservation, which is a fundamental democratic principle.”

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Senate Committee for Justice and Security Chairman, Pierre Francky Exius has qualified the arrest of Mr. Jean Matulnès Lamy as being politically motivated. Senator Exius announced on February 27, 2014 that he will call on Justice Minister Jean-Renel Sanon and the Chief of Police to discuss the Ile à Vache situation.

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As Haitian businessman Antoine Izmery remarked in 1993, during a similar administration when Haiti was run by a US-controlled military junta: “This country is so corrupt that the Americans do not have to do the corruption. They let you steal your own country, just giving you a little protection.” Haitian culture and agriculture are being dismantled, not by foreign interests this time, but by corrupt Haitians, with a nod and a wink from their foreign handlers.

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The people of Ile a Vache do not recognize the May 10, 2013 government decree that wants to divest them of their lands and declare the entire island a zone of public utility. KOPI President Marc Lainé Donald (Jinal) said: “This is a lousy decree. This project reflects a macabre plan, a rat trap, a collective suicide, that aims to drive all the residents from the island. It is a cultural genocide that puts everyone in the island’s storm and dispossesses people of their lands. No one has the right to build on the island any more. If Ile à Vache is a hidden treasure, its people should enjoy it and get integrated into the proposed developments. We are craftsmen who have worked to beautify this corner of paradise that is so coveted by Lamothe’s administration.”

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Ile a Vache residents call on people everywhere, especially Haitians on the mainland and the diaspora, to support their struggle. They caution everyone to remember the proverb: “When chicken passes by and sees turkey being feathered, chicken should check if it is wet.”

Editor’s Notes: For frequent updates on this story, click here.  Photographs two, three, four, six, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen and fifteen by Marie Chantalle. Photographs one, five, seven, nine, eleven and thirteen, and radio reporting in Kreyol by Radyo VKM, Vwa Klodi Mizo.

 

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18 Responses to Land Grab at Ile a Vache: Haiti’s Peasants Fight Back

  1. +5 Vote -1 Vote +1Lucius
    March 2, 2014 at 4:21 am

    Thank you for reporting this.This story needs to be distributed to all media.
    It is extremely disturbing.

  2. +4 Vote -1 Vote +1Paul Frank
    March 2, 2014 at 10:07 am

    Thank you for the report Dady.

  3. Dady Chery
    +4 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    March 2, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    You are welcome, Lucius and Paul. Yes, this story needs broader exposure, although it is circulating in various forms (audio/print, English/French/Kreyol) through Haitian communities at home and abroad. The last time I reported on a land grab for tourism (at La Visite, Haiti), it was after the activist farmers from the area had been killed. The more people know about the current story, the lower the likelihood of such bloodshed.

  4. +4 Vote -1 Vote +1Michael Arnold
    March 3, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Friends of ours just visited Ile a Vache on their sailboat and wrote of their welcoming experience there. I’m shocked to read of another assault on the Haitian population by greedy politicians and corporations. Almost all of the islands in the Caribbean chain appear the same to me with few exceptions: expensive resorts, has-been resorts, golf courses, spoiled nature reserves with zip lines, and economic conflict. The idea of a population living off of the land and sea in peace is almost unthinkable, but there it is in Ile a Vache.

    This article is important as it reveals the social manipulation that will turn a self-sustaining population into a dependent population, dependent on their corporate bosses for survival. I hope to visit in our sailboat in the near future and will report on this subject on the sailing forums I frequent.

  5. Dady Chery
    +4 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    March 3, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    I hope you will write about Ile a Vache in your sailing forum, Michael.

    There is so much that I could have written about Ile a Vache, such as the fact that it is a hot spot of biodiversity, and that this biological wealth is closely linked to the farmers’ sustainable practices. Indeed, the attacks on the farmers illustrate how capitalism makes people dependent. Turn a fisherman or farmer into a hotel worker, and you’ve got him in a box. You completely control his earnings (minimum wage in Haiti is less than 54 cents/hour) and where (bribes, taxes, etc.) they go. Furthermore, this looks great on paper: so long as international bankers can monetize the activities of a population, the GDP keeps climbing.

  6. -2 Vote -1 Vote +1Roger Cherlin
    March 3, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    The problem is Haitians don’t even care about their homeland any more. I contacted director Ronald Cesar of VOA en creole and many other diaspora media. I didn’t even get a reply.

    Moreover in Haiti this problem is silenced. The only radio station in Haiti that dares to voice it is C. CHARLES Vwa Klodi Mizo.

    Mwen bouke, m’gen plis pase 20 an ke m t’ap fè goumen pou pèp m’nan. Se zansèt nou ki te goumen pou ban nou libète. M’ap koumanse kwè nou pa merite libète a ditou. Lè m’ap pale ak zanmi’m yo sou dosye sa a yo di ki mele’m. So go figure!

    Just check out the Haitian so-called professional forum on LinkedIn. Just silly posts, trash I never saw a single discussion.

    Good luck. Farewell

    Roger

  7. Dady Chery
    +4 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    March 3, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    Roger: Surely you don’t mean Voice of America Creole? Why should a US propaganda radio be interested in publicizing a rebellion against the plan to sell Haitian territory illegally to foreign concerns that include the US?

    Vwa Clodi Mizo is not the only radio station that has carried this story. Radio Metropole did a story on Ile a Vache on Monday March 3, 2014 titled “Ile-à-vache : l’arrestation du policier Jean Maltunès Lamy ne fait qu’envenimer la situation.” Jafrikayiti has been having regular radio discussions on the topic; the story has been reported in print/audio, English/French/Kreyol by people everywhere: small efforts that have been quite big in the aggregate.

    The professional forums are not good places to approach, since they tend to be highly focused, and as you say, quite stupid sometimes. Also, many Haitians know nothing of Haitian life outside of Port-au-Prince and take for granted the country’s agricultural workers.

    Our ancestors did a kick-ass job, but they never said the revolution was finished. Again and again, there will be attempts to turn free Haitians into slaves: farmer/fishermen into 54 cents/hour hotel workers. Revolutions are continuous. They must be fought again and again. Of course, we get tired, but we cannot quit. We quit, we lose. Very simple.

  8. Vote -1 Vote +1Roger Cherlin
    March 4, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    Hi Dady Chery

    Nice reply.

    I just wanted to let you know that Mr. R. Cesar of VOA creole did get in touch with me. He informed me that VOA creole is aware of the situation and is working on this issue.

    Regards

    Roger

  9. Dady Chery
    +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    March 4, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Hmmmm…

  10. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Mark Folse
    March 9, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    Is there a list of companies involved in the development, particularly large US design and build firms, and resort/hotel companies?

  11. Dady Chery
    +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    March 9, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    The short list of potential investors, released by the Haitian government in August 2013, was: Blue Marlin Development, SA; Charles Fequiere, SA; Royal Oasis; and Holmes Haiti International Development Limited, LLC. The Venezuelan government has also invested in the tourism project. Madonna was given a tour of the island by Haiti’s Tourism Minister in November 2013, and the British Soccer player David Beckham expressed an interest in investing in the island in February 2014. The accounting firms for the project are Merove-Pierre and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

  12. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1cynthia hart
    March 15, 2014 at 4:26 am

    This just makes my blood boil. I had the privilege to be part of the M/V Sea Hunter crew who brought aid to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. We spent a few weeks off loading the 200 tons of supplies, which gave me time to meet so many wonderful Haitian people (in Les Cayes, Marigoanne and Ile a Vache); however, I was also exposed to their corrupt government. It saddens me that some will exploit others for their own profit. Ile a Vache is so beautiful and peaceful, and as I walked around and observed some of the people going about their day, I thought how wonderful that there were still places like this to live. My thoughts and prayers are with the people.

  13. -2 Vote -1 Vote +1Fred S.M.
    March 17, 2014 at 9:26 am

    It’s unfortunate that the current government did not include the population in their decision making, that was a terrible mistake.

    However, many Haitians who are still fighting the war of independence should also think that their country need to progress and be developed to move it out of the deep hole of misery and abject poverty.

    Therefore, a well planned with a participative objective such as this one is, and will be necessary to develop Haiti, and for now tourism is the best and logical solution, as adopted by our island neighbors.

    Progress is necessary, and must sometimes be imposed, like a medicine to improve Haiti’s economy.

  14. Dady Chery
    +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    March 17, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    It is unfortunate that the government has issued warrants for the arrests of the representatives of the Ile a Vache residents who want to have a discussion with them. In fact, one of these people, Jean Matulnes Lamy, has been imprisoned without charge or trial since February 25, 2014. That is indeed a terrible mistake, and one that the government can fix at any time.

    Our island neighbors who have experienced tourism do not recommend it. They report that it ruins the environment and brings along problems that include organized crime, prostitution and a host of sexually-transmitted infections, such as HIV.

    Progress is not the destruction of virgin coasts to dredge ports or forests to build airports. It is also not the replacement of an agricultural economy with minimum-wage 54-cents-per-hour jobs in sweatshops and tourism. China is out-competing the sweatshops while paying better wages to its workers. A single health advisory, and the tourism disappears.

    The agricultural economy that some so-called educated people in Haiti disparagingly call a “rice-and-bean” economy is what paid all of Haiti’s debts and kept Haiti independent for three centuries. If nobody buys your rice and beans, you can always eat them. Try that with tourism.

  15. +3 Vote -1 Vote +1D. Jean-Jacques
    April 9, 2014 at 7:58 am

    I left Les Cayes in 1972 at the age of 12. My family still owns land in Cayes. It is sad to hear that the government in Haiti remains corrupt in today’s age, and it is not fair how the lands in Ile a Vache are taken away from their owners. I am praying for the owners to keep their lands in Ile A Vache.

  16. -1 Vote -1 Vote +1adfd
    April 11, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    The island does not even have drinking water or electricity. They are trying to improve life on the island and you come and write this as if they are doing a bad thing. If someone has an issue with his land, he can get a lawyer and go to the court system, but when you start burning tires or create disobedience they have to arrest you. Your article only represents just one side of the story.

    • Dady Chery
      +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
      April 11, 2014 at 1:35 pm

      In any prosperous country with a democratic government, where people can afford to hire lawyers, etc., this might be the way to proceed, but Haiti is neither of these. For more information, I recommend that you read my most recent article about Ile a Vache, which deals with human-rights abuses on the island.

      To summarize: The Martelly-Lamothe regime spoke to everybody about the Ile a Vache “development” project except the people who would be affected, and it still is not engaging in a dialogue with them. The regime’s response to the protests in February 2014 was to replace the local police chief and judiciary for the island with people who had been hand picked by Martelly. In real democracies, this does not happen. Furthermore, the regime has unleashed 115 militarized police on the island who have been abusing the inhabitants.

      No, I do not pretend, like the wishy-washy mainstream press people to “tell both sides of the story.” I tell the side of the Ile a Vache peasants and do it truthfully. Haiti’s regime can put out press releases, call press conferences, and give dictations to the mainstream press any time it wishes. Moreover, by convention, the mainstream treats as newsworthy anything that government officias say, without verification. Had it not been for the alternative press (radio/print/video in Kreyol/French/ English), the peasants on Ile a Vache would have been voiceless.

  17. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1rk
    April 11, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    I had Ile a Vache on my travel plans for this year. Was hoping to spent six weeks but after reading this report, it doesn’t sound like such a happy place. Guess I’ll give it a skip and take my money to Port Antonio, Jamaica.

    If this is how the Haitian government treats its citizens, I encourage everyone to boycott the country. Who needs to support another dictatorship!

    My best to the good folks on Ile a Vache. Sorry I’m going to miss visiting with you and getting to know your island. My thoughts are with you.