Dappiyanp sou Tè: Seizure of Land, Rights, and Sustainability in Haiti
by Lois Wilcken
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The month of May in Haiti has customarily celebrated the worker, and until very recent times people understood “worker” as one who tilled the soil. The month kicks off with Labor Day conflated with May Day, the former rooted in labor organizing and the latter in rural festivals marking the start of summer. Practitioners of Haitian Vodou salute Azaka Mede, spirit of the earth and farmers, throughout the month.
How bitterly ironic that the authors of a notorious land grab (dap piyanp tè) should choose the month of May to seize a tract of land granted to Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen (Haitian Women in Solidarity, or SOFA). In 2016 SOFA had opened Délicea Jean, a school for organic farming that served struggling cultivators, most of them women, while addressing both environmental and economic challenges. In 2017 it acquired 13.75 hectares (≈ 34 acres) of land for hands-on experience. The tract was located on Savane Diane, a stretch of fertile land at the intersection of three administrative departments (North, Center, and Artibonite). Despite a ministerial designation of the land in 2018 as a priority area for food self-sufficiency, the same ministry (Agriculture) revoked SOFA’s legal rights in May 2020 and used an armed group of men to forcibly close down the project. According to witnesses, some women sustained injuries. Appeals to the judicial system went unheeded as the ministry classified the incident a “dispute.”
In February 2021 the national government decreed Savane Diane an agro-industrial free trade zone. The decree threw a cloak of legitimacy over the May 2020 seizure of SOFA’s land by Stevia Agro Industries, a venture under the control of wealthy businessmen André Apaid. The order allocated 8,000 hectares, including SOFA’s land, to produce the sweetener stevia for companies like Coca Cola. The reader may find further firsthand details of the story in Lamour (2021).
We currently understand a land grab as a large-scale acquisition of land through lease or purchase, for the most part by transnational corporations, sometimes with the cooperation of local elites and often in violation of local law and/or custom. While such appropriation of land has a long history, Transnational Institute (TNI) noted a re-emergence of the term in the context of the global food crisis of 2007–2008. TNI argues that power and profit drive the land grab. Examples proliferate: one wealthy family in Guatemala outbids a group of landless peasants for the land on which they had been tenants, a sugar mill benefits, and the peasants are forcibly evicted (Transnational Institute 2013, 8–9; downloadable English, French and Spanish versions); indigenous Ethiopians are dispossessed as the government leases fertile farmlands to foreign and domestic companies, and dam-building sprees in Laos and Cambodia dispossess indigenous communities (International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs 2018).
Land grabs have a history in Haiti. The lack of a well-founded system for recording land ownership has opened the peasant class to expropriation on the part of powerful families since the early years of the Republic and foreign businesses more recently—like the sisal plantations operated for the benefit of the US Department of Defense beginning in the years of the first US occupation (1915–1934). Haitians have recorded an uptick beginning with the earthquake of 2010 and escalating further since. In 2020 a coalition of grassroots peasant and human rights organizations conducted “solidarity and informational visits” in the North and Northeast Departments (Louis, Jean-Pierre, and Piervilus 2020). They documented illegal land seizures, often violent, throughout the region.
In June 2022 Ayibopost published its investigation of recent land grabs in the Northeast Department (French version here), particularly in the vicinity of Terrier-Rouge. Based on interviews with farmers, members of peasant organizations, municipal agents, a local notary, and a spokesperson for a foreign firm benefitting from one seizure, the investigation found that more than 300 farmers belonging to an association for small planters lost more than 7,000 hectares of land to a proposed hospital that would occupy no more than ten hectares; that land in the area had been used to construct an air landing strip and a port, possibly for drug trafficking—locals have implicated a former senator, now sanctioned for drug trafficking by the US Treasury Department—and that other forcible evictions cleared the way for a luxury hotel and a road that never materialized. Speaking with Ayibopost, the leader of a reforestation organization identified as most vulnerable the areas near cities, the coastline, the national route, and—especially telling—metal mines. Critics associate industrial parks in the area—including Caracol, Codevi, and Agitrans—with environmental degradation and “forced expropriation of peasants.”
Many and various enticements thus motivate land-grabbers, and the potentially lucrative cash crop, however non-essential to human welfare, ranks high among them. The cash crop entails monocropping, that is, minimal or no crop rotation, like the kind currently in place in Savane Diane (stevia only for the transnational Coca Cola). Research has demonstrated that monocropping damages soil ecosystems. Farmers following ancestral methods seem know this science already, and women farmers arguably know best. The rights of women and the Earth intertwine like root systems. Martha Merrow, reporting for ClimateXchange in 2020, notes the social benefits that accrue when women own land, including increases in food security and nutrition for women and children, improved health and educational outcomes, and a reduction of gender-based violence in the home. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) points to ecological benefits in a general recommendation published in 2018 (for download in multiple languages).
the traditional knowledge held by women in agricultural regions is particularly important…because those women are well positioned to observe changes in the environment and respond to them through adaptive practices in crop selection, planting, harvesting, land conservation techniques and careful management of water resources.
For these reasons, Haiti’s SOFA created a program in organic farming primarily for women, and for these reasons the Haiti-based Nègès Mawon, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), and the Global Justice Clinic (GJC) in March 2022 collectively submitted input to the report on Haiti of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. See a press release about this input (Kreyòl version here); and find a copy of the input at Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti 2022 (downloadable and with Kreyòl version here). See also Bell 2016.
Besides the work of journalists and human rights organizations cited above, activists in Haiti are organizing to take control of the land for permanent, sustainable use. The coalition of grassroots movements cited earlier for conducting an investigation in 2020 published a list of demands signed by a dozen organizations, including Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (Haitian Peasants United), Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA), and the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP). The Kolektif Jistis Min (Justice in Mining Collective, or KJM) networks civil society organizations and community-based groups and individuals in all ten departments (Gray et al. 2015). Young Haitians are participating in grassroots organizing across borders. Activist Islanda Micherline belongs to both Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen and the Caribbean branch of the international Via Campesina (CLOC), Micherline worked on a documentary about youth and agroecology in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic.
Those of us outside of Haiti must support such movements—join them if we can. We must use our available platforms to educate and to highlight justice as the bedrock of a sustainable world, one in which the people of the land can resume their labor and their May Day celebrations without fear of expropriation. In that spirit, please share this article!
Capire. 2021. “Women Resist Land Grabbing and Free Zone in Haiti.” Capire, March 26. https://capiremov.org/en/experience/women-resist-land-grabbing-and-free-zone-in-haiti/. French version at https://capiremov.org/fr/experiences/les-femmes-resistent-a-laccaparement-des-terres-et-a-la-zone-franche-dans-la-region-dhaiti/.
Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. 2022. Input for SR VAW’s Report on Violence Against Women in the Context of the Climate Crisis: Observations on Challenges and Opportunities in Haiti. Report submitted by Nègès Mawon, Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), and the Global Justice Clinic (GJC) to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, March 31. http://www.ijdh.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Input-for-SR-VAW-re-VAW-Climate-NegesMawon-IJDH-GJC.pdf. Kreyòl version at http://www.ijdh.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Input-for-SR-VAWs-Report-on-Violence-Against-Women-in-the-Context-of-the-Climate-KR.pdf.
Lamour, Sabine. 2021. « Note de protestation de la SOFA contre le projet de zone franche à Savane-Diane ». Le Nouvelliste, 5 mars. https://lenouvelliste.com/article/226777/note-de-protestation-de-la-sofa-contre-le-projet-de-zone-franche-a-savane-diane/.
Merancourt, Widlore. 2022. “Large-scale land theft operation in the Northeast.” English translation by Didenique Jocelyn. Ayibopost, June. https://ayibopost.com/large-scale-land-theft-operation-in-the-northeast/. French version at https://ayibopost.com/vaste-operation-de-vol-de-terrain-dans-le-nord-est/.