While Haiti landowners feud, homeless await recovery
six months after quake, disorganization stymies plans for development
CORAIL-CESSELESSE, Haiti — The sun was beating down on the rocky plain when men with machetes came for Menmen Villase, nine months pregnant, shoved her onto her bulging stomach and sliced up the plastic tarp that sheltered her and her four children.
The family was among thousands of homeless who had come to this Manhattan-size stretch of disused sugarcane land between the sea and mountains north of Port-au-Prince after this year’s massive earthquake.
But this real estate is earmarked for building a new Haiti. Villase had walked into one of the fights over land that have slowed recovery to a near-standstill in the six months since the quake leveled much of Port-auPrince and killed as many as 300,000 people.
The government, already weak before the magnitude-7 quake struck on Jan. 12 and still hobbled by its aftermath, is trying to build anew in places like Corail-Cesselesse, a nearly empty swath of land about 9 miles north of the capital. But the effort is paralyzed by disorganization, bitter rivalries and private deals.
Multiple families claim title to almost every scrap of the land. Already one reconstruction official has been forced to step down for steering a public project to his company’s land at Corail-Cesselesse.
Caught in the middle are the homeless, looking to grab a patch of ground. Even facing machetes, Villase had to be dragged from the tarp that was home for her and four children.
“I didn’t want them to take the tent away,” she recalled. “They said, ‘We don’t care. We can rip it up while you’re inside.’”
A few miles from Haiti’s biggest ports and safely past its northernmost slums, Corail-Cesselesse is a blank canvas. On this vast stretch abutting one of the Caribbean’s largest cities, in a nation more densely populated than Japan, will rise factories, homes, stores and restaurants in one of the country’s first planned communities, the planners say.
A few hundred acres here were picked out for the city’s first, longawaited relocation camp. U.N. and U.S. military construction teams flattened the land for a camp of deluxe “Shel- terBox” tents. About 5,000 residents of the Petionville Club camp, run by actor Sean Penn, were bused in. Thousands of squatters who couldn’t get into that camp followed, staking their tarps and poles on its outskirts.
In Corail-Cesselesse, houses are to be built for 300,000 people — transitional shelters at first, but each with a permanent facade and capable of expanding to six rooms, said government planner Leslie Voltaire.
It will become the key industrial city of the Caribbean, Voltaire said.
But with Haiti’s barely functioning government, Corail-Cesselesse might be built according to backroom deals, not planners’ blueprints.
The government had appointed Gerard-Emile “Aby” Brun, president of Nabatec Development, a consortium owned by some of Haiti’s most powerful families, to be in charge of relocating the squatter camps in Portau-Prince.
For that first relocation camp for 5,000 people, with clinics, food on premises and some electricity, he chose a piece of Corail-Cesselesse land owned by Nabatec. The company now stands to gain part of $7 million the government will spend compensating landowners.
That’s just a small part of the potential payoff.
Nabatec is also a lead negotiator with South Korean garment firms to build factories that Haitian officials say will likely go into Corail-Cesselesse, and the camp he set up is a potential source of workers for those factories, which can take advantage of generous U.S. import laws for Haitian-assembled textiles.
Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said he had Brun quit his government position because of the apparent conflict of interest. But the deal Brun negotiated for his company stands.
Meanwhile, squatters keep pouring into Corail-Cesselesse.
Maxo Jean-Charles, 26, lost his Port-au-Prince home and both his children, 4-year-old Claudia and 3year-old Marco, in the quake. He’s desperate for a place to start over.
“This is where they’re sending everyone to live. That’s why we’re building our tent here,” he said.
The landowners suspect the government is sending the squatters so the land can be taken for the “new Haiti” at a low price — or for nothing.
Land ownership has been a sensitive issue since Haiti’s 1804 slave revolt, when it was wrested from French planters and distributed among the people, only to fall back under the ownership of a few powerful families — the “grands-hommes” (big men) in Haitian parlance.
The land registry hasn’t been updated for decades, and many of the records that did exist were lost in the quake.
People who claim to be the landowners say it’s worth $20,000 an acre.
“My fair price is a negotiation between the market price and the price the owner declared to the income tax,” Voltaire said. “And it’s always very low.”
Bellerive said that landowners will be compensated but that housing the homeless takes priority.
“If we take the time to resolve it one by one, the people are going to stay on the streets,” he said.
The landowners say if they’re not compensated, the “new Haiti” in Corail-Cesselesse will make the violent slums of pre-quake Port-au-Prince look tame. Landowner Jean-Claude Theodore calls the squatters invaders who are attacking private property.
Every squatter seems to have had an encounter with gangsters they believe are sent by landowners.
Sadrak Abane, 60, said they beat him with a rifle.
“Any time we pick a spot to build a place, there’s always the ‘grandshommes’ claiming the land is theirs,” Wisner Jerome, 37, said.
When Villase was stripped of tarp and land, she and the children fled to a crumbling concrete cabin in a remote corner of Corail.
“I’d love to live under a plastic sheet,” she said, “but I can’t afford it.”
A few days after being driven from her makeshift home, she lay alone on the cabin floor and gave birth to her fifth child.
Menmen Villase is squatting with her children north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Homeless Haitians came to the Corail-Cesselesse area because a development is planned there, but they are caught in a battle over multiple claims to the land.
Six months after a magnitude-7 earthquake destroyed much of Port-au-Prince, the government remains in chaos. So far, development appears to be guided as much by backroom deals as planners’ blueprints.