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The Blood of the Earth: Agriculture, Land Rights and Haitian History

Yesterday, January 12, on the sixth anniversary of the 7.0 earthquake, Haitians mourned the countless lives lost. Among the many aftershocks they face is disaster capitalism, in which the Haitian elite and foreign corporations – backed by the US government, World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank – are grabbing lands for extraction and mega-development projects. Ricot Jean-Pierre, social worker and program director of the Platform to Advocate Alternative Development in Haiti (PAPDA), tells how inequitable control of land has devastated the vast majority throughout Haitian history, from enslavement to today.  

Today we live in a crucial moment in which peasants are confronting challenges as they grapple with global warming, with the power of multinational companies over what they eat and how they live, and with an agricultural model that can’t provide them livelihood. Among the risks and catastrophes the peasants confront are lack of quality and quantity in food production, and their right to live as human beings. They also face a challenge in accessing the basic resources they need to produce, especially seeds and water.

The biggest problem has to do with access to land. Land defines social relations and economic systems in communities and countries. The right to land is linked with the agricultural system peasants want and to the kind of economic model that can buttress it. We see this in Haiti as all over in Latin America, Africa, and other parts the world.

There has to be a battle over the future of the global economic model, linked with the agricultural model as defined by Via Campesina. That model has to be family-oriented, peasant-oriented, and ecological. It has to adequately address questions of land ownership, of what and how peasants produce, of all the questions linked to their future and the future of the planet. Today, all of this is greatly threatened by the agro-industrial model of production, within the broader model of capitalist production that threatens life itself. That agro-industrial model does not augur a good future for the world’s people.

Land: Lynchpin in Haitian History

Let’s look at the issue of land in the Haitian context. Even though Haiti has a specific history, it must nonetheless be placed in a context of global forces. These processes have been more acute in Haiti than in many countries, being an area that – since 1492 with the arrival of Columbus – was subjugated sequentially by Spain, France and others in the triangular trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. The colonizers used Indians first, replacing them with Africans next, to work the land as slaves and produce great wealth.

In 1791, we had a slave revolt driven by two major demands: freedom and access to land. The latter was the central concern of the peasantry vis-à-vis winning the country’s liberation, under generals who promised access to land as a major incentive. The struggles of the dominated were to achieve control over their lives, the land, their own production processes, their own economy and, ultimately, the political independence of country.

Since [the liberation from both France and enslavement in] 1804, we have seen a fight between two models of production. One was driven by the generals promoting large plantations, producing for export to generate income while disregarding the needs of the local population to achieve food sovereignty. This led to the exploitation of the peasantry, and their spiraling fall into poverty.

This also led to more resistance resulting, as one example, in the rise of the peasant leader Jean-Jacques Acaau in 1843. Through the 19th and 20th Centuries, the resistance was met with massacres. This happened, for instance, in 1987 in the area of Jean-Rabel [when landowners and hired goons killed 139 peasants in one day] and Piatre [when paid killers assassinated 11 people in one day in 1990].

Global forces have continued to control land ownership and agriculture. They include international institutions like the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO, in complicity with countries and governments [everywhere]. Between 1983 and 1996, in accords with the European Union, CARICOM and the WTO, we underwent a very harmful process of liberalization. One result of this process is that small farmers can now only produce 40% of the food the country consumes.

These actors have made land into a resource that has to be controlled as a central nexus of all processes of production. They have pushed small producers, peasants, and even states out of the way.

In recent years, we’ve seen a shift towards agro-industry, involving large agricultural plantations and mono-cropping [the cultivation of a single crop on large scale] with a negative impact on the environment, the quality of life of people, the de-structuring of the local economy, and greater dependence on the international economy.

Anti-Peasant Government Programs

The current [Martelly] government is fundamentally anti-peasantry, returning the peasantry to slavery without control over their own means of production, and without the necessary tools to be an actor in the social and economic life of the nation. The government has implemented laws, measures, and projects that exclude the peasantry, such as trying to expropriate people on [the small island of] Île-à-Vâche to make way for tourism. Similar projects are being considered for the islands of La Tortue and La Gonâve.

Beyond tourism, a second target area is exploitation of mines. The World Bank has helped draft a mining law would benefit multinational companies – American, Canadian, European and others – and displace an unknown number of peasants. Both exploration and actual mining are underway even though there hasn’t been a functioning parliament that could pass the law.

The third area has to do with the creation of free-trade agricultural zones to seize the land from peasants for the benefit of investors. Peasants who used to cultivate the land to make a living are reduced to finding daily work in the free trade zone for a few dollars a day. Agritrans [a company led by heir apparent to the presidency, Jovenel Moïse] aims to do just that, to produce bananas for sale in Europe.

In fact, 25% of the country’s GNP comes from peasant agriculture. Even with their simple tools, peasants play an important role in the economy of the country. Yet they are treated dismissively as poor country cousins.

A fourth action on the part of the government, resulting in loss of peasants’ rights to land and life, is the creation of free-trade industrial zones in rural areas. The industrial park in Caracol is a good example of what has happened since 2012, with the complicity of USAID and the Clintons. Another example is in Maribahou, in the North East where Codevi, a Dominican outfit, created a free trade zone. In Caracol, with the displacement of the peasants in a most fertile area, hunger has grown.

The government has abandoned any idea of agrarian reform, contrary to the demands of the peasants. Instead, through land ownership reform, the government is aiming at the expulsion of the peasantry with violence. They are planning to seize the land and eliminate the actors that have prevented the economy and country from sinking since 1791.

The Need for Democracy in Land and Agricultural Policy

Peasant groups are fighting to protect their rights, to get land, to undo the public policies being adopted by the government. They are working to defend a peasant-, family-oriented and ecological agriculture, to promote food sovereignty, and to fight rural poverty through economic and social policies. The mobilizations that have taken place since 2012 are to do away with multinational organizations and companies working endlessly to be the lords and masters of the land. The mobilizations are to let the citizens take control of the country and draft public policies to satisfy their demands. These include the right to land, water, seeds, local markets, food; and to reshaping the connection between agriculture and the larger economy.

We need to create strong organizations and networks to empower people so they can serve their role as citizens and have democratic control of public policies. These organizations and networks must link with their counterparts everywhere to promote food sovereignty in global public economic policy.

This series was made possible through generous funding from the 11th Hour Project, American Jewish World Service, Anderson-Rogers Foundation, Ansara Family Fund, Bridge Fund of Tides Foundation, Mary N. Lloyd Memorial Fund of the Peace Development Fund, Maverick Fund of the Peace Development Fund, Presbyterian Church Hunger Program, Sisters of Mercy, and Small Planet Fund of RSF Social Finance. Many thanks to Roberto (Bear) Guerra for use of his photo.

Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Beverly Bell and Other Worlds.

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Beverly Bell is the founder of Other Worlds and an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. 

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