Fight for Haiti’s Ile a Vache: Interview With KOPI’s Jerome Genest
The Organization of Ile a Vache Farmers (KOPI, or Konbit Peyizan Ilavach) has been at the vanguard of a fight between the residents of this traditionally agricultural 20-square mile island off of the southern coast of Haiti and the country’s executive branch. The conflict began after the administration decreed Ile a Vache to be a Zone for Tourism Development and Public Utility. Among other things, the decree withdrew the island from local governance and put it directly under the control of the central government’s Tourism Ministry. Indeed, members of the executive branch have been accused of having a personal financial interest in the island and its potential proceeds as a tourist destination. The conflict between the islanders and the Clinton-backed Martelly-Lamothe administration has been exacerbated by the government’s refusal to consult the population on how best to develop the island. The residents erupted in spontaneous protest when they first learned of the implementation of the tourism project from the appearance of survey personnel throughout Ile a Vache and groundbreaking crews from a Dominican construction company, Ingenieria Estrella.
Since the initial appearance of construction crews in September 2013, large swaths of mangroves have been cut down, a broad east-west road has been carved partly through the only forest, and excavations for a major port to accommodate cruise ships have started in a patch of virgin coast, all for the sake of ecotourism and without compensation to the land owners. Discussions between the Tourism Minister, Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin, and the residents, who have forested the island and farmed and fished there sustainably for a century, have left them uninformed, frustrated, and convinced that they would be expelled to create room for rich tourists. To make matters worse, the government’s response to a series of peaceful KOPI-led marches and actions to block construction, has been to replace the local administration with Martelly cronies, introduce a heavy paramilitary police presence, and arrest KOPI Vice-President, Jean Matulnes Lamy. Mr. Lamy has been imprisoned in Haiti’s infamous national penitentiary without charge since February 25, 2014, and the police force on the island now stands accused of numerous human-rights abuses.
News Junkie Post recently caught up with KOPI member Jerome Genest for a discussion of the history of Ile a Vache, an update about the situation on the island, and KOPI’s ideas on how to preserve the island’s beauty and culture, and secure the release of Jean Matulnes Lamy.
Dady Chery. Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Mr. Genest. As a representative of KOPI, would you tell our readers how much of the Ile a Vache population holds rural grants or farming rights?
Jerome Genest. In the 1950s, during the Papa Doc/Francois Duvalier era, lands were given to 300 families on Ile a Vache, who were then about 40 percent of the population. Before this, the residents had been paying rent for farming. Taxes were also waived and the lands declared to be tax-free so long as they were farmed. Around 1990-91, with the construction of the Port Morgan Hotel, the owner, Didier Boulard, was taxed. Currently in Ile a Vache, the farmers do not pay taxes on their lands.
DC. The rural grants and farming rights that were awarded: were these mostly for coastal lands?
JG. The lands given under François Duvalier’s government were everywhere on the island. Not just on the coasts or the interior.
DC. Have farming and ranching changed over the last 60 years?
JG. The methods are old. There’s no machinery. Everything is done by hand or with oxen. There are agricultural technicians, however, who cultivate plots of land and use their knowledge to try to maximize yields and diversify the crops.
DC. The tourism minister has complained that the fishermen’s nets are unacceptable. How is fishing done in Ile a Vache?
JG. Yes, the nets that fishermen use often have meshes that are too small and catch small fish. There’s an effort to raise awareness about this with fishermen to encourage them, to use nets with larger meshes so they preserve the resource by letting out the smaller fish. Let’s not forget: fishermen often are very poor and practice subsistence fishing to feed themselves. They fish with whatever they’ve got and don’t always have the means to buy better or more appropriate equipment. Rather than blame them, we should help them.
DC. The government has said that it will take 12 beaches.
JG. Ile a Vache has a total of 10 beaches. If the government takes possession of all of them for its tourism plan, there’ll be no access for fishermen and the general public. Currently, the fishermen continue to fish as they’ve always done. We still don’t know what will happen if the project gets implemented.
DC. In a radio interview, Jean Matulnes Lamy said that the Tourism Minister wants to take beaches starting from Grand Sable, then along the west coast and south until Skannot. Would these be all the beaches on the island?
JG. Communication with the Tourism Ministry is minimal, if not zero. So people are unaware. It’s impossible to know precisely what will happen, where and when. The residents are the last to know. But the original plan was to appropriate all the beaches for construction of bungalows and hotels.
DC. What has been bulldozed on the island by the construction work and what was there before?
JG. The area where the airport runway was constructed has been removed from the public as a commons: a place that could be considered a surplus area for the benefit of the population. Let me explain. In that area, there used to beehives; vegetables like yucca and potatoes, fruit trees and even fungi, djondjon, were cultivated. It was also a place to graze sheep and goats. It was, in short, a place where people could grow and gather in addition to what they grew on their own lands. This allowed them a surplus that was well appreciated.
The construction of an east-west road through the island, to make possible transport of equipment and tourists from the airport and the future Madame Bernard port, has not only encroached on land, but also damaged houses. Some houses have been brought right up to the road, and there are others whose foundations have been damaged by the vibrations from the construction machinery. In addition, many fruit trees like mango, coconut, citrus, and avocado trees were felled or damaged during the process. And, of course, without any compensation to the farmers.
DC. There are also the planned 18-hole golf course, villas, cafes and restaurants. Is there support among the population for these?
JG. The people who are well informed — and this is one KOPI’s jobs — are against the project as it was presented.
The proposed location for the golf course is one of the most fertile parts of the island, where many vegetables are grown in a soil that is rich and productive. This would be a huge loss for the population.
They want to build a port at Madame Bernard to accommodate large boats, and they’ve to started to dredge the sea bottom for this. This will be exclusively for tourists and not for small boats coming from Cayes for the weekly market.
Ile a Vache is populated everywhere. Of course, when you fly over in a helicopter, you can’t always see all the homes, because they’re well integrated with the natural world. They’re small one-story “cayes.” What will happen to the residents with the construction of the villas? The residents will necessarily have to be moved. Where will they go? How will their compensation be calculated? We have no information about this at all. The displaced will lose not only their lands but also their living environment and their livelihood.
DC. Already, the airport area is cleared, and the port is currently being dug up. That kind of damage is almost impossible to repair. In this sense, time is not on your side. Are KOPI and other organizations, or people, formulating an alternative development plan?
JG. There does exist an alternative development plan, drawn up by Architecture for Humanity, but that plan was not accepted by the Haitian government. Then again, how can you propose an alternative plan if you don’t know what’s in the current plan?
DC. Mr. Genest, KOPI has said that it welcomes development but wants to see a different kind of development from what the government has in mind. What do you have in mind?
JG. KOPI advocates a kind of ecotourism that would preserve the nature of the island and also be inclusive. This would be really beneficial to all strata of the population, not just hoteliers. An ecotourism plan could, without excluding some luxury hotels, offer cottages and restaurants that are run by residents of the island, which would directly help the local economy. Why not help the people to start businesses that will preserve the island’s culture and unique atmosphere?
There are lands that are less cultivated and that could be used for building infrastructure. But the plan, as it currently stands, takes absolutely no account of the residents. KOPI isn’t against development, but it’s against the exclusion of the island’s inhabitants from the development plan.
DC. The Haitian government announced in early April 2014 that Cuba might build a hospital on Ile a Vache and do a six-month literacy campaign. Does this fit in with the kind of development that Ile a Vache residents have in mind?
JG. A government worthy of the name has a duty to provide its people with services and infrastructure for their welfare like hospitals, water, electricity, transport, and education. This is an integral part of its mandate. This is not supposed to be part of a “plan,” and especially not a tourism plan, because if so, then one can assume that these services and infrastructure will be put in place, not for the population but primarily for tourists and investors.
There are already 20 schools on the island, two in Kay Kok. So why build another? Education must be a priority, but a literacy campaign is not an emergency now because about 98 percent of the island’s population can cope well enough with reading, writing and arithmetic, although the level is sometimes quite low. A priority with regard to education would be, for example, a school where future anglers would learn the trade and acquire practical knowledge. The already established schools should also be helped. There’s been no proposal in this regard, and so education does not really seem to be a priority of this government.
DC. Other people say that the island has great need for a high school and do not like the fact that students of that age must go to Cayes.
JG. There are 20 schools on the island but, as a matter of fact, no high school. It would be unrealistic to think, however, that a high school would keep all the youth on the island. Many must learn trades. What would be really useful would be schools for agronomy and fishery to continue the vocations of the island and provide relevant training.
DC. What is KOPI doing practically for the release of Jean Matulnes Lamy and the repeal of the decree?
JG. KOPI has asked to meet with President Michel Martelly, because he’s the one who’s preventing Matulnes’ release. KOPI, together with the population, is prepared to drop some of its demands, as long as Matulnes Lamy — imprisoned without charge for more than three months, remember — is freed.
DC. How can the general public, Haitians in Haiti, in general, and in the diaspora help the people of Ile a Vache?
JG. By asking questions and demanding answers from the officials; denouncing the situation to the media; highlighting the damage that is being done and will be caused to the environment, ecosystem, and rural population; denouncing the human-rights violations and Matulnes’ arrest; pressuring the government and its ambassadors; directly communicating with the Tourism Minister and, finally, coming to the island to talk to the residents and assess the situation for themselves. Many people talk about the island and discuss the project with great enthusiasm, but they have never set foot here.
DC. Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Genest.
Editor’s Notes: News Junkie Post thanks Melinda Wilson for her help with this interview. Photographs one, four, five, ten, eleven and fourteen by Noah Darnell. Photographs two, six, seven, eight, nine, twelve and thirteen by Melinda Wilson. This interview is also available in French.