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 Haitians—one out of every six—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.”
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.
HISPANIOLA – On the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, home to the sovereign nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, two large lakes are rising dramatically.
Lake Azuéi in Haiti submerged an entire community; across the border in the Dominican Republic, Lake Enriquillo has risen nearly 33 feet in just 10 years. As their land flooded, many farmers began cut-ting down trees to make charcoal to earn a living, leading to deforestation.
Scientists from across the globe have tried to solve the mystery behind the rising lakes. Some think climate change is to blame, arguing that warming sea created more evaporation and clouds, which led to more rainfall. But if true, that would be strange, because in most of the world climate change is causing lakes to shrink.
The phenomenon is spur- ring calls for more research to help explain – and mitigate – the situation. Until scientists are able to identify the cause and work toward a solution, thousands of farmers on this Caribbean island will have to adapt.
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.
JARABACOA, Dominican Republic—The Dominican Republic is the Western hemisphere’s most dangerous place to drive, and 15th worst in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Each year, 29 out of every 100,000 people in this Caribbean nation die in road accidents, according to the2015 Global Status Report on Road Safety.
In 2013, the Dominican Republic saw more roads deaths per capita than any other country in the world, but it has since been eclipsed by nations including Libya, Thailand and several African nations. But that doesn’t mean things are improving: in fact, the death rate is still on the rise, up from 21.6 per 100,000 people in 2010.
The vast majority of the fatalities—63 percent—involved 2 and 3-wheeled vehicles, ie. motorcycles.
Francis Ortiz, a paramedic at the public hospital in the small mountain city of Jarabacoa, says hardly a night goes by that he doesn’t see at least one patient in the hospital for a motorcycle accident, and on the weekends he says the numbers become hard to fathom.
“Just last night a moto driver crashed into an older man,” said Ortiz one day in December. “The driver’s entire face was cut open. He had to have intensive surgery.”
In 2013, the Haitian government began seizing land on a picturesque island to construct a $260 million tourism hot spot. Two years later, the country’s opaque land laws have all but sunk the project.
ILE-À-VACHE, Haiti — Last October, an elderly couple watched a tractor plow over a grove of fruit trees and vegetables on the small Haitian island of Île-à-Vache. For decades, Mescary Mesura, 81, and his wife, Fanfan Clery Romany, 80, had harvested the grove, a 10-minute walk from their home, and sold the produce as their primary source of income. But that day, the island’s mayor, local police, and the tractor operator approached the octogenarians, informing them that the state required the land. “The police told us to stand there with our hands up,” Mesura said. “We … watched them finish off our garden.”
The grove is among the casualties of a $260 million development project planned by Haiti’s central government. It is designed to turn Île-à-Vache into the Caribbean’s next tourism hot spot. With an annual per capita GDP of less than $900, Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. Five years after a devastating earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and caused some $8 billion in damage, Haiti’s leaders are banking on tourism to help buoy recovery and drag the nation out of poverty. The Île-à-Vache project is ground zero for these hopes. Wooing investors with tax breaks and the promise of internationally funded infrastructure upgrades, the government has developed a plan that includes a new airport, a series of hotels, and an 18-hole golf course.
But just two years after it began, the project has stalled. As of March, not one of the 2,500 hotel rooms anticipated by Haiti’s government has appeared. The stoppage is not for lack of commitment from Port-au-Prince: Haiti’s annual investment in travel and tourism is estimated to have jumped from 4.3 percent of the national budget in 2013 to 6 percent last year, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Rather, the Île-à-Vache project has been stymied by conflict between the government and local residents over ownership of the island’s land.
Read the full story at Foreign Policy. Reporting for this piece was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Today on Here and There we talk with reporter Jacob Kushner, who has spent recent months and years in Haiti, where the President now rules by decree…the Parliament has passed its re-elect-by date and gone home, where hundreds of thousands are still homeless, and disputes over who owns land threaten to paralyze economic development.
Listen to the full interview.
Reporting was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.