"We're Seizing Your Land to Help Free You"
'Forced Free Trade' Crushes Freedom, Land Rights
This is one of the worst tales of corruption and injustice that we have ever seen. Land rights are being trampled in order to give special privileges to a tiny handful of fatcats.
Private property is key to a sound economy, but in the cult of so-called "free trade" even private property can be trumped by a corrupt government.
Our thanks to Latin America Press for permission to share this important article.
by Jane Regan“That land is the mother and father of my children”
Alberta, a peasant leader and the head of a women’s organization in the Maribaroux Plain in northeastern Haiti, arrived at her small field one day last February to find government authorities from the capital, businesspeople from the Dominican Republic and heavily armed guards working with surveying equipment.
As the weeks went by, more officials and businesspeople, including the US ambassador to the Dominican Republic, came. Then one day a bulldozer showed up and plowed down a number of gardens.
Alberta and other peasants, most of whom are sharecroppers working tiny plots, went to local authorities to demand an explanation, but the mayor and council claimed ignorance. Across the border in the Dominican Republic, however, newspapers had been writing about the region for several months.
While keeping the Haitian Parliament, local authorities and the public in the dark, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government had negotiated a deal with Washington and Dominican politicians and businesspeople to turn 80 hectares in northeastern Haiti into a so-called free trade zone.
According to the plan, rather than pay back debt to the US government and multilateral lenders, the Haitian and Dominican governments will pay into the "Hispaniola Fund," which will be used for infrastructure projects and free trade zones on the border between both countries.
But Alberta and other peasant farmers say they are not planning to give up their land for a free trade zone without a fight. "That land is the mother and father of my children, and now they want me to accept a little pile of money and walk away," she said. "That money won’t do anything for me, but we can always eat the rice we plant. We will not negotiate." Peasants, their supporters and development specialists, furious about the secrecy surrounding the plan, are also outraged that the first site chosen is one of the few fertile areas in the region.
The Maribaroux Plain produces rice, corn, beans, manioc, avocados, mangos, plantains and bananas, feeding not only its inhabitants and the nearby town of Ouanaminthe, but also sending truckloads of produce across the border to the Dominican Republic. A recent study indicates that with proper irrigation and agricultural support, the plain could produce much more and could boost the country’s yearly rice production by 6,000 tons.
Coercion Masks Itself as 'Free Trade'
Dominican textile "entrepreneurs" have other ideas when they think about the plain.
The details of the free trade zone became public in Haiti on April 8, when Aristide and his Dominican counterpart, Hipólito Mejía, suddenly appeared on the leveled Maribaroux fields.
While Haitian riot police kept protesting local peasants away and before a crowd of mostly trucked-in peasants, the two presidents broke ground. Aristide solemnly said he was "baptizing... the first child" of a "marriage without prospective divorce" between two countries which he hoped would produce "many more children."
More than a few remarked on the choice of metaphor, since relations between the two governments are usually marked by animosity due to the frequent forced repatriation and repression against Haitians. Furthermore, Dominican authorities often refuse to grant Dominican citizenship to children born to Haitians working on sugarcane plantations in that country.
Inaugurated before Parliament had approved a pending free trade zone law, the agreement violates Haiti’s laws, according to Haitian nongovernmental organizations.
A coalition of nongovernmental organizations and peasant groups says the plan follows the coercive free-market economic policies Aristide’s government is implementing in Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest nation.
Haiti has opened its economy more than any other Caribbean country, including the Dominican Republic. While Haiti has dropped its import tariff on foreign rice to about 7 percent, the Dominican rate remains over 40 percent, for example. Citizens scoff at the promised 1,500 jobs to be created by the free trade zone, saying that even if the jobs were created they would not be filled by residents of the Maribaroux Plain, where illiteracy plagues most of the population. As with the maquiladora phenomenon in Central America and Mexico, opponents say the jobs will go to urban residents drawn to the free trade zone looking for work.
Haiti’s unemployment rate is currently estimated to be nearly 70 percent.
"They say they are only going to take 80 hectares of land, but we know the damage will be much greater," says Colette Lespinasse, a representative of the Refugees and Repatriated Support Group. "The result will be an environmental and social catastrophe."
The government has so far chosen to ignore the rising tide of criticism and instead is working on getting its free trade zone law passed by Parliament, which is controlled by Aristide loyalists.
The government is trying to stay one step ahead of protesters. On May 1, International Day of Workers and Agriculture in Haiti, peasants and supporters from around the country and across the border planned a massive protest rally. Port-au-Prince authorities got wind of it and announced a counter-demonstration with music, free drinks and the distribution of free agricultural tools for the exact same time. Peasants from other communities were brought in by government trucks, while heavily armed riot police did their best to intimidate the protestors.
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