Farmers Protest Duty-Free Industrial Zone

By Ives Marie Chanel, Inter Press Service,, Mon May 27 2002, 6:39 PM ET

PORT-AU-PRINCE, May 27 (IPS)—Small-scale farmers in the northeast are protesting construction of an export-processing zone on the border with the Dominican Republic, saying the project will destroy arable land.

The farmers, affiliated with the Frontier Solidarity Network, also say Haitian and Dominican officials failed to consult them and other local residents before deciding to build the duty-free industrial park.

The idea was first presented to the Haitian government in December 2001 and is the brainchild of Dominican investors, who have secured financing from Groupe M, SA, a Dominican financial group.

Groupe M plans to invest enough to create 1,500 jobs during the project’s first three years and project sources anticipate raising that number to 8,000 as textile factories set up production operations aimed at the U.S. market.

The farmers say the government-selected, 15,000-hectare construction site sits on cultivable land in the Maribaroux region.

President Jean Bertrand Aristide and his Dominican counterpart, Hypolito Mejia, attended the Apr. 8 groundbreaking. Aristide said similar projects are being planned elsewhere along the 360-kilometer border. Mejia added that construction had begun in several Dominican border towns.

Non-governmental human rights and environmental organizations also have protested the project, saying it will have disastrous consequences for the environment and for the quality of life of the local population.

The Haitian Advocacy Platform for Alternative Development (PAPDA) and the Refugee and Repatriates Support Group (GARR), in a statement, expressed their keenest concern and indignation regarding initiatives which will effect Haiti’s future, but which were undertaken in quasi-secrecy.

We want to know if the government has a plan for the northeast. What is it that they want to accomplish? There are studies that have been done. They talk about tourism and building hotels, but the whole thing seems murky right now, one activist told IPS.

A hotelkeeper wondered whether it made sense to build an industrial zone next to an area where officials have announced plans to promote eco-tourism and attract golfers.

Earlier this month, the environment ministry asked government higher-ups to pick another site; officials have not responded.

In Haiti’s northeast, farmers cross the border each day to work in the rice fields and sugar plantations of the Dominican Republic.

Because of drought and lack of training, the past 16 years have seen rice fields disappear from the Maribaroux plain, some 340 kilometers north of here.

In this region, considered one of Haiti’s poorest, the government and non-governmental organizations have no presence. Farmers are forced to accept loans at exorbitant interest rates, sometimes up to 85 percent, to buy planting supplies. Crops sometimes fail because of extreme weather.

On the other side of the border, there is work in the rice and cane fields of Manzanillo and Monte Christi.

Dominican small-scale farmers, attracted by jobs in the tourist industry, leave agricultural work available to Haitians. The Haitians are paid one-fifth what Dominicans were paid but for the border crossers, earnings nevertheless amount to twice what they can earn at home in Haiti.

However, the road to a job in the Dominican Republic is full of risks. Growers and Dominican soldiers regularly hunt down Haitians and rob or kill them, at times mistaking the farmers for the area’s numerous cattle thieves.

Daily forced migration is more and more common, given the region’s growing impoverishment. Population density is such that there are only 0.3 hectares per person of arable land.

The 15,000 hectares of land owned by the government and chosen for the export-processing zone were abandoned in 1984 after being leased and farmed by North American companies interested in cattle breeding and sisal production.

The government’s decision to turn the land over to industrial development has proven provocative: The Association of Small Planters of the Northeast (APPNE) recently occupied some 2,500 hectares. The group’s 2,000 members farm under makeshift conditions with no title to the land.

In 1996, former President Rene Preval tried to revive rice production in the region. The APPNE farmers have restored a small irrigation system on the land and are now growing rice on more than 600 hectares.