What Kind of Tourism Is Sustainable for Haiti’s Ile a Vache? Interview With Melinda Wilson
In the wake of natural disasters, or in advance of events such as World Cup or Olympic games, various governments and private concerns have connived to appropriate coastal lands. Ile a Vache is a case in point. For over a century, this 20-square mile island, about seven miles from the southern Haitian city of Cayes, has not received government services as basic as electricity or municipal water. Nevertheless, the residents, mostly small farmers and fishermen now numbering about 20,000, have beautified and reforested Ile a Vache to the degree that it has become recognized as the most pristine island in the Caribbean. This, after one Haitian administration permitted logging of the island by a United States businessman and acquaintance of President Abraham Lincoln, Bernard Kock, who re-enslaved freed African Americans for this labor in 1863.
The Haitian executive branch is back, ostensibly to “develop” Ile a Vache “sustainably” for ecotourism, but in reality to gather all aspects of the island’s administration under the central government so as to appropriate its coasts and much besides. The residents, who were last to learn about this project, are resisting it with regular blockage of all construction. They have formed several groups to represent their interests. One of these is the Organization of Ile a Vache farmers (Konbit Peyizan Ilavach, KOPI), whose vice president, Jean Matulnes Lamy, has been imprisoned in Port-au-Prince’s infamous National Penitentiary without charge or trial since February 25, 2014.
At News Junkie Post, we looked more closely at Ile a Vache tourism with award-winning Quebec author and speaker, Melinda Wilson. Ms. Wilson is an expert on the biological and ornamental aspects of horticulture and an environmentally conscious traveler who is well acquainted with Ile a Vache.
Dady Chery. Thank you for agreeing to this interview with us, Ms. Wilson. Please tell our readers: when exactly did you last visit Ile a Vache? Was this your first time?
Melinda Wilson. I stayed for three weeks on the island in February 2014. I came with two friends, Alain and Serge. For me, it was a third visit: the previous ones being in 2011 and 2013. For Alain, it was his second, and for Serge, his first. There was a change in the atmosphere this year. People were more wary. Tensions were palpable. We dealt with verbal aggression, roadblocks, demands for money. People who mistook us for investors told us to go away, and so on. We had to take the time to talk to them and explain to them that we were against the development project and with them in their struggle. Alain was in Kay Kok when a protest started. He got singled out and heckled by a group of people. Things got very close to taking a wrong turn.
DC. How was the police presence this year compared to previous ones?
MW. I personally never noticed police before on the island. I think there were two officers for the entire county. We witnessed boat patrols around the island and the landing of an armed force called BIM [Motorized Intervention Brigade]. These people were heavily armed with automatic weapons and traveled in jeeps all over the place to get noticed and intimidate the population. There are now over 100 of them. At first they lived in Abaka Bay Resort, but the plans for the island show that a building will be constructed to house them, meaning that their presence would become permanent. These police have requisitioned an area of Kay Kok for something like a nightclub and several small buildings.
DC. Did you see any of the construction work?
MW. We went to the new airport’s site. The work was stopped then, but workers for the Dominican company Estrella were staying in an adjacent camp that had been built to house them pending resumption of the work. The airport is in the Eastern end of the island, on land that was used for farming and grazing. The topsoil has been completely scraped off. Despite this, you can see the outlines of the farms and houses that were destroyed. To build the road from the airport to the Western tip of the island, they encroached, without any compensation, on people’s lands. Now some of the homes are right on the edge of the new road, and their fruit trees have been cut or damaged without compensation. This road replaces footpaths that had respected the environment, and it is much too large for the proposed use. We also visited Abaka Bay Resort, which had started to cut the mangrove behind the hotel to expand and build new bungalows. We witnessed the delivery of stones, possibly from the seabed, for the construction of walls for the hotel.
DC. Thursday is market day on Ile a Vache. Did you go to the market during your visit? Has the new facility changed things?
MW. The market in Madame Bernard is every Monday and Thursday. Many merchants come from Aux Cayes, but there are also traders who come from all over the island to sell their small production. I went there every week. The vendors aren’t installed in the new market, which is, by the way, very poorly designed, with spots for the vendors that are reminiscent of stalls for livestock.
The new building was built by Brazilian MINUSTAH troops. The vendors would rather stay on a dirt floor or even in mud! The roof leaks. After it rains, the water just stays there because of the poor drainage. Also, they want to charge the vendors a fee — a small one, but still too much for some — and assign them a fixed location, which does not sit well with them.
DC. Did you witness any protests?
MW. We saw at least three protests, all of them peaceful, involving several thousand people. The main demand of the population is withdrawal of the decree [to make Ile a Vache a zone of tourism development and public utility]. To this are added the calls for negotiations with the government, and more recently, the demands to release Jean Matulnes Lamy.
DC. Any police brutality?
MW. We witnessed intimidation, like armed militias driving around the island in groups, and threats, like the owner Abaka Bay Resort saying that all the demonstrators should be arrested for the sake of peace, and people surveying the island and connecting the names of people to their places of residence. We also heard that some people were pushed around and injured during the protests.
DC. KOPI members Louis Jean Gadi and Jean Matulnes Lamy have noted that the main hotels, Abaka Bay Resort and Port Morgan, employ people from the mainland and not the locals. Would you agree?
MW. There are hotel employees who come from the island. How many, I can’t say, but they tend not to hold high-level jobs and are used as laborers, guards, waiters or maintenance employees.
DC. In your view, Ms. Wilson, does the Ile a Vache population benefit from the tourism currently on the island?
MW. During our own visits, we stayed with the locals, and this gave money directly to the people who hosted and fed us. Our expenditures on site included: overnight stays, meals, boat trips and bike guides, purchases from small traders, and various services. For my part, I also did volunteer work at the Saint Francois welcome center, run by Sister Flora, from Québec. I pay for my board when I’m there. We didn’t stay in the hotels, first because of ethical considerations and second because of their practices, such as minimum wage and lack of respect for the population. Besides, they charge very high rates that hardly benefit the local population.
DC. You interviewed Jean Maltunes Lamy shortly before his arrest and imprisonment. What were his concerns?
MW. He was mostly worried about the people who’ve been deprived of their rights and lands by the decree and who’ll lose their work and food sources. But he was also concerned about the environmental degradation that would occur and that had already begun with the cutting of mangrove trees, the golf course project, the loss of arable land, paving for the harbor, and so on, and also the regulations being put in place, like the types of equipment allowed and licenses required, that will affect artisan fishermen.
DC. Anything else you’d like to say?
MW. I would add that Ile a Vache is a jewel that people have treated respectfully and managed for decades without government assistance and in total oblivion. It is ironic that, in the name of “sustainable and ecological development,” they’ve begun to damage one of the last pristine Caribbean islands, instead of preserving it, making it a natural park, helping the people to live a less difficult life, and ensuring that the place retains its authenticity and unique style. They’re preparing, under the pretext of development, to destroy all this beauty and harmony. To think that they want to build an international airport, and the population does not even have a decent ferry to get to Cayes!
Let us ask the question: what kinds of tourists want to vacation on an island where they have trampled the rights of people and destroyed the environment?
UPDATE. A judged finally heard Jean Matulnes Lamy and gave him a sentence of one month in jail (he had already served 10 months), plus a fine of 32 gourdes ($0.69). He was released from prison on December 12, 2014.
This interview is also available in French.
All photographs courtesy of Melinda Wilson.