Uncertainty over land ownership is playing out across Haiti as the country attempts to attract foreign investment in tourism, mining, manufacturing, and agriculture—often without clear knowledge of who, precisely, owns what.
In the aftermath of disaster, Haitians ask what makes a city
Port-au-Prince was decimated when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010. 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. Desperate for space, tens of thousands of Haitians flocked to the area.
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. 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.
Haiti’s earthquake shattered several cities, but it also birthed another. 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. Called Canaan, after the biblical holy land, a place defined by death has come alive.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for Artists For Peace And Justice
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 the white men and women who had flown in from the United States to do a mundane construction job.
Such people were a familiar sight: They were voluntourists. Each year, an incredible 1.6 million of them descend upon the Haitis of the world.
A decade after an earthquake killed more than 200,000 people, farmers in Haiti are waiting to receive compensation for their land used to build an industrial park. Located in Haiti’s northern region, the $300 million Caracol Industrial Park opened in 2012 and now employs approximately 15,000 people, most of whom work in clothing factories there.
In 2018, farmers who had been evicted from their land in 2011 struck a rare deal with the IDB to provide Caracol’s 100 most vulnerable families with new, titled land.
A decade after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, nothing symbolises America’s failure to help the nation “build back better” than a new port that was promised, but never built.
After sinking tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars into an ill-advised plan to build a new seaport, the US quietly abandoned the project last year. It is the latest in a long line of supposed solutions to Haiti’s woes that have done little – or worse – to serve the country’s interests.
Can cities function without a government? In Canaan, Haiti, residents give it a try.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
Mona Augustin stands on land near the Village Grace de Dieu in Canaan, Haiti, with some of the 126 families who have been together since they met in a tent camp called Mozayik after the 2010 quake. After being evicted from Mozayik in 2012, they bought title to this property. The group was later forced to move from the land by armed men who claim their own title to that land. / Allison Shelley
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.
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.