Haiti’s earthquake shattered several cities, but it also birthed another.
When a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince in 2010, it sent the concrete floors of buildings toppling down upon one another, crushing people beneath. It sent mothers and fathers digging for their children, sent tens of thousands of people abruptly into early graves. Their bodies were buried by the thousands at Titanyen.
But a place with space for the dead is a place with space for the living, and in post-earthquake Haiti, space was in short supply. Some 1.5 million of them—one out of every six Haitians—were displaced by the earthquake, and many were left homeless. International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began eyeing the vast stretch of vacant land east of Titanyen as a place to house them, and with the help of the United States Navy and the United Nations, they erected hundreds of small, temporary structures to house 7,500 people at a spot called Corail-Cesselesse. Haiti’s president used eminent domain to declare the land public, which Haitians took to mean free. Within days, people began flocking to the area around Corail, building shacks out of tarps and wood. Soon thousands of people were migrating north to this once-empty landscape, lying down bricks that would become the foundations of their future homes.
Haiti’s earthquake shattered several cities, but it also birthed another. Called Canaan, after the biblical holy land, a place defined by death has come alive.
Can cities function without a government? In Canaan, Haiti, residents give it a try.
CANAAN, HAITI — NINE years ago, Canaan 1 was little more than a nameless, hilly swath of land patchworked by boulders and cinder blocks marking where people hoped to one day see proper houses, a hospital, a school, a police station and a basketball court. The land was so rocky that only motorcycles, trucks and the rare four-wheel-drive vehicle could pass.
Today, the neighborhood is one of many rapidly expanding areas of Canaan, Haiti’s newest city – named for the biblical promised land – home to between 280,000 and 320,000 people. Soda stands, two-story houses and hardware stores line many of the dirt roads, and a handful of public plazas dot the city. The crown jewel of the Canaan 1 zone is a beautifully painted public plaza complete with benches, a table for playing checkers – and the basketball court residents had hoped for.
“We wanted to show the state who we are – that we can put down more than just one or two dollars here,” says Evenson Louis, a smiling man with a soft voice and big plans as a member of Canaan’s informal city council.
But what the city doesn’t have is running water, legally wired electricity, a hospital or many of the other basic amenities cities in Haiti offer. That’s because, since the city’s inception as a haven for people who were displaced by Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, its residents have been largely left to themselves.
Without titles, residents risk losing any investment they make and cannot use their property as collateral
CANAAN, Haiti – On a street of rocks and white dust in the centre of one of the world’s newest cities, Alisma Robert pointed to an array of electric cabling strung between rickety wooden poles.
“It wasn’t EDH that built that pole,” said Robert, referring to Haiti’s national electricity provider.
“It was us.”
Nearly everything in the city of Canaan, which was founded in 2010 after a catastrophic earthquake, was built by residents without government help.
After waiting two years for electricity, Robert and his neighbours collected money from each household, erected the wooden poles, and wired up the cables to the house of a family who were connected to the grid.
“I’m a citizen – but not for the moment. I don’t have the benefits of a citizen. We don’t have drinkable water … No public toilets. The government doesn’t do anything for the people who live here.”
A short drive north from Haiti’s overcrowded capital of Port-au-Prince, a metropolis is rising from a previously desolate landscape. Some 250,000 people have flocked to Canaan in the eight years since an earthquake ravaged Haiti, destroying 100,000 homes. Born out of a disaster, it’s a city without a government, and for many, it’s an experiment in self-determination. But its future is increasingly uncertain.
Built from scratch by people in poorly governed, disaster-stricken Haiti, the city is emerging as an alternative model of urban existence — and its struggle is holding out lessons for similar future pockets that spring up in the aftermath of disasters.
In the aftermath of disaster, Haitians ask what makes a city.
Port-au-Prince was decimated when a magnitude 7 earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010. Buildings crumbled, the parks turned into tent camps for the displaced, rubble blocked the streets. But as the years progressed, from the balconies of Pétionville you could see something new taking shape in the distance, several miles north. Settlements began to appear on a barren landscape, shacks and tents spreading over dusty plains.
No land titles were given, and there was no guarantee of how long people would be allowed to stay. Nonetheless, desperate for space, tens of thousands of Haitians flocked to the area, arriving from the camps that had erupted throughout the capital. Some came from places that were hardly affected by the earthquake at all but who’d been living indebted to landlords, paying hundreds of dollars in rent each year, in a country where most people live on less than $2.50 a day. Establishing a foothold here was a way to become homeowners for the first time, and to finally escape the noise and hustle and violence of the cities they found so suffocating.
Before the earthquake, the only people who visited these remote mountains did so to pray. It offered a quiet reprieve from the city, a place to be alone in nature. They referred to it as Canaan, the biblical promised land where Moses led the Israelites out of slavery, the land of milk and honey. “This Canaan has the same history,” one Nazarene pastor, who was among the first to move there, told me. “This is our honey.”
Honey or not, this emerging city is the earthquake’s most visible legacy: an enormous expanse of winding dirt roads lined with houses, scattered among which are thousands of shops and markets. Into this labyrinth, an army of NGOs, charities, and international agencies have arrived to infuse Canaan with public parks and plazas, drinking water and money for schools—things the Haitian government has neglected to provide. But with these gifts come tension: Suddenly there are resources to compete for, and an incentive to be the one in charge of allocating them.
NGOs aren’t the only force complicating Canaan’s fate. Haiti’s government itself has been playing catch-up, struggling to create a social contract between people and their government. As to which comes first—the rights or responsibilities of citizens, the roads or the taxes—the state and the citizens don’t easily agree. And if that weren’t enough, Canaan’s very existence is being threatened by a man who claims that the land upon which it was built was taken from him illegally—a claim Haiti’s government has every incentive to ignore.
In Canaan, as in any city, people—the rich and the poor, the powerful and weak, the complacent and the desperate—were destined to get in one another’s way.
The death toll from Hurricane Matthew in Haiti—now officially at 336, though likely far higher—is a big part of why the world is paying attention to Haiti right now. It’s in the headlines, it’s in the ledes. It’s the reason news agencies continuously hunt for the highest figures: The higher your death toll, the more fresh, the more ominous your reporting appears, and the more likely it is that TV news stations, newspapers and news websites will choose your story over your competitor’s.
We should care that hundreds of people have died. But we shouldn’t only care when a storm hits. More than 9,000 Haitians have died from cholera in the six years since the United Nations introduced the disease there. Diarrhoeal diseases kill at least 4,600 Haitians each year. Those diseases are usually brought on by lack of clean water and sanitation — things with relatively simple and low-cost fixes that neither Haiti’s government nor the international aid community has invested in sufficiently to fix.
A friend of mine who works for a major aid organization in Haiti messaged me last week that “it’s awful trying to get to the south with the bridge down, blocked roads, etc. So sad.” She’s talking about a bridge on the same road I traveled back in 2010 to cover hurricane Thomas as it struck Haiti’s south. Indeed, bridges in Haiti fall frequently when storms hit. Without them, aid workers can’t get to the affected areas easily, or at all.
How many of us have opened our wallets in the past five years to donate to the construction of bridges in Haiti — or roads?
More to the point, how many news outlets that are gaining clicks and ad revenue by reporting on the current death toll in Haiti bothered to report on any solutions to Haiti’s chronic infrastructure or health problems in the past? Absent any solutions-oriented coverage, the recent barrage of news about the tragic toll of Hurricane Matthew feels an awful lot like disaster porn.
Several years ago, when I was working as a reporter based in Haiti, I came upon a group of older Christian missionaries in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, struggling with heavy shovels to stir a pile of cement and sand. They were there to build a school alongside a Methodist church. Muscular Haitian masons stood by watching, perplexed and a bit amused at the sight of men and women who had come all the way from the United States to do a mundane construction job.
Such people were a familiar sight: They were voluntourists. They would come for a week or two for a “project” — a temporary medical clinic, an orphanage visit or a school construction. A 2008 study surveyed 300 organizations that market to would-be voluntourists and estimated that 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation, spending around $2 billion annually.
Read the full essay at the New York Times Magazine.
The Dominican Republic built its economy on the backs of Haitian immigrants and their descendants. Now it wants them gone.
FOND BAYARD, Haiti—On April 28, 2009, Julia Antoine gave birth to a girl in a hospital in the town of Los Mina, in the Dominican Republic. Her husband, Fritz Charles, couldn’t be there—he was busy working his job at a chicken farm.
In the coming days, the couple named the girl Kimberly. When the family went home, Antoine was given a document from the hospital noting the birth, the date, and the word hembra, or female. They didn’t bother trying to get Kimberly an official birth certificate. Although Antoine and Charles had spent many years living and working in the Dominican Republic, they were Haitian citizens, and it was well known that Dominican officials routinely denied birth certificates to children born to Haitian parents if, like Antoine and Charles, the parents couldn’t furnish passports or other legal documents.
Still, Kimberly was, by law, entitled to Dominican citizenship. Yet in 2015, she was deported along with her mother.
Kimberly and her mother now live in a lean-to hut made of sticks in a refugee camp on borrowed land in Haiti. Their predicament offers a glimpse into what happens when a nation that bestowed citizenship on people born within its territory decides to take that citizenship away.
Read the full longform feature at TakePart. Reporting for this article was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and through a Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative Fellowship from Moment Magazine.
In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the lakes are flooding farmland, swallowing communities and leading to deforestation, baffling climate scientists.
LETANT, Haiti—On a recent calm day, the surface of Lake Azuéi has no waves, not even any ripples. Pillars of pastel-colored concrete break the still surface, the tops of what once were houses. They are all that’s visible of the community that once thrived here.
Alberto Pierre, a skinny, wide-eyed 25-year-old, said the submerged village where he grew up wasn’t even near the lake. “The water used to be many kilometers from here.”
Lake Azuéi, the largest lake in Haiti, lies about 18 miles east of Port-au-Prince, the capital, nestled along the border with the Dominican Republic. Also known as Étang Saumâtre, the lake rose so much between 2004 and 2009 that it engulfed dozens of square miles.
“At first we put rocks so it wouldn’t come into our houses,” Pierre says. “But then the water just overran the rocks.” Families in the village of Letant began abandoning their houses, building huts on higher ground using wood, tarps, whatever they could find. By 2012, all 83 houses had been vacated.
“We don’t know why the water is rising,” he says.
In fact, nobody does. There seems to be no logic to the lake’s rise. Experts from the United Nations, a French engineering firm, a Dominican Republic university, a New York City college and many others have looked for clues to explain the rise of Lake Azuéi and neighboring Lake Enriquillo, just across the border in the Dominican Republic. But few of the theories seem to hold water. Some now hypothesize the phenomenon is related to climate change, but the evidence is counterintuitive: Unlike ocean levels, which rise with climate change, lakes tend to shrink.
Haitians today face all manner of stigma—for perennially being “the poorest nation in the western hemisphere,” for devolving into political chaos every few years. Much of that prejudice takes root just next door, in the country with which it shares the island of Hispaniola.
In January of last year I met Felix Callo Marcel, a 22-year-old born in the Dominican Republic but who was refused a Dominican identity card and even had his school enrollment certificate confiscated by the Dominican government. His parents were immigrants from Haiti. Marcel is one of an estimated 200,000 people who have had their nationality officially stripped away from them. Now, tens of thousands of people of Haitian heritage are being deported or fleeing for their own safety to Haiti, where many live in refugee camps akin to those that popped up after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake.
Dominicans take pride in their recent emergence as a middle-income nation. And yet, there’s no denying that Dominicans built their modern economy on the backs of their other half. Now it is the kids and grandkids of those Haitian immigrants whom the government says no longer belong.
Read the full article at Columbia Global Reports.