While Haiti landown­ers feud, home­less await re­cov­ery

six months af­ter quake, dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion stymies plans for devel­op­ment

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Jonathan M. Katz

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.

Alexan­dre Meneghini pho­tos

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.

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