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Behind the “Banana Man”: Haiti’s Only Presidential Candidate

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If nothing changes, Haiti is scheduled to have a run-off election this coming Sunday, January 24. Only one candidate is running, a situation that has received the blessing of the European Union, United States, Organization of American States, and United Nations. The candidate is from the ruling party of Michel Martelly. Jovenel Moïse is also known as the “banana man.”

Who is this “Banana Man”? What have been the impacts of the much-touted project?

Agritrans SA, a large-scale banana export plantation, was designed and implemented in 2014 by Jovenel Moise in accordance with a public-private partnership with the Government of Haiti. The banana export plantation has so far converted 1000 hectares of the planned 3000 ha of state land in the Northeast Department that was previously utilized by small peasant farmers. The farmers, before the conversion, had grown food for their households and for small economic projects, as well as free ranged milking cattle for Veterimed.

Agritrans follos a foreign model. A 2009 report from British economist Paul Collier outlined export-oriented agriculture, using such “public private” partnerships, as blueprint for Haiti’s development. This report also hailed Bill Clinton as U.N. Special Envoy.

Agritrans, Haiti’s first agricultural export trading zone, has received US$27 million according to the Center for Facilitation of Investments. This is composed of $10.2 million from hundreds of shareholders, and $6 million from the Government of Haiti’s Industrial Development Fund. Its “free trade zone” status will allow it to benefit from tax-free status for 15 years, including exemption from the communal taxes as well as having special customs treatment.

According to the mayors from Trou de Nord and Limonade, the tax collection office Direction Generale Impots (DGI) and Institut National de la Reforme Agraire Haitienne (INARA), who organizes state land use, the land officially belongs to the state and was leased to peasant organizations for farming activities.

All five peasant organizations who were interviewed in April 2014 opposed the land conversion. They were all informed with short notice that the conversion would occur, but the actual physical work came with no warning. Many lost cattle and crops in the transition. Local organizations asked for a meeting to discuss land changes, but their requests were ignored.

Over 3000 jobs were promised, however employment is closer to 600, with the majority of these for initial construction, including workers from Israel, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic to install the irrigation system. Promoters for Agritrans suggest employment numbers are closer to 3000, but these include the membership of farmer organizations and are not direct employees of the plantation. In these failed promises, Agritrans is much like neighboring project Caracol, also championed by Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, supposed to provide 60,000 jobs yet to date have hired only 4500.

Why did local peasant leaders oppose the project?

Multiple generations of peasants have used the state land since the late 1970s, and in 1996 gained legal access by INARA in recognition of their contribution to national production. The peasants opposed the project on many fronts – first due to the loss of area for free ranging cattle, growing food, collecting wild food and charcoal production.

Research conducted in 2014, when the Agritrans project took over the land, demonstrated a negative impact to small and medium economic enterprises, household income, and household nutrition. The loss of cropped, wild food collection and charcoal production resulted in lost household income and a decline in dietary diversity. The loss of cattle grazing land resulted in reduced milk availability and consumption and increased price of milk based products produced by Veterimed. The decrease in available grazing land caused a short term increase in meat consumption as peasants slaughtered their herds and flooded the markets with reduced-price meat. In addition to losing money on the sale of their cattle, households lost future income earning potential.

Policymakers ignore the fact that local residents are using the land that projects like Agritrans claim. Local populations are dispossessed from the resources that make up their economic livelihoods. The loss of livelihood, agricultural knowledge exchange, and sociological ties to land triggers social instability.

Social stability is linked to dignity. It is well documented that populations who have a hand in designing and implementing their own future have a strong sense of belonging and responsibility to that place. Haiti was established as an independent nation through the efforts and lives of the Haitian peasantry. And despite a collusion of foreign and national elite interests, Haiti’s peasantry established an internal food system capable of feeding the nation and exporting food, until neoliberal policy “reforms” thrust Haiti into an uneven global market. Once able to feed itself, Haiti is now the 3rd largest importer of U.S. rice in the world, 82% of local consumption, according to Haitian economist Camille Chalmers.

Food security has diminished as food previously harvested from the land is replaced by production for export. In the long term, much needed sharing of traditional agricultural knowledge and the opportunity to practice agriculture in changing climatic conditions is lost, increasing future risk. This project heightens poverty now and in the future.

The Agritrans project represents a continuation of class division and exclusion of the poor majority. Enshrining the value of local participation, the Haitian Constitution Title V National Sovereignty, Chapter 1 Territorial Divisions and Decentralizations, Section B Communes, Article 74 mandates the use of participatory decentralization, or more specifically that local administrations (called ASEC and CASEC) and local populations are the leaders in designing local state land use. The land grab serves only a handful of people and not the majority and this, according to interviewees is a moral offense to Haitian culture and practices.

While often overlooked in financial spreadsheets, culture is important for social stability.

What seems missing in this public-private partnership is the importance of a caring community, identity and belonging from working together to produce organizations that respect the needs and desires of the local population.

As Haitian organizations like ITECA, PAPDA, Tèt Kole, and MPP, the latter members of international movements like Via Campesina have argued, food sovereignty based on a self-sufficient peasantry, based on economic justice, is the key to development. Economic development, or “decentralization,” should not just leapfrog over the peasantry to create large scale development that appeals to investors and turns peasants into dispossessed laborers.

Local farmers expressed dismay with the Agritrans project, demanding that “the government should put the time, money and effort into understanding and addressing local production problems.” They argue that Agritrans has “sociologically changed the habit of the farmers.” In other words, agriculture means more than just efficient production and profits, it is a way of life: caring for community, identity building, cultural traditions and belonging to place.

Jennifer Vansteenkiste is a PhD Candidate studying at the University of Guelph. She has been researching and evaluating projects in Haiti for the past 10 years. Her work focuses on Haiti’s development industry, food security, gender, and community based organizations. Mark Schuller is Associate Professor of Anthropology and NGO Leadership and Development at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. He is the author or co-editor of six books, including forthcoming Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti. Schuller is co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy (2009), and active in several solidarity efforts.

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