Two weeks ago, Haitian President Michel Martelly toured Caracol Industrial Park in the Northeast Department with stops at the Park’s power plant and future employee housing site. He also used his visit as an opportunity to urge the project’s construction workers to “give the best of themselves in building this new Haiti.”
Caracol, arguably the largest foreign investment project undertaken in Haiti since the earthquake, will house manufacturing companies on 600.46 acres of prime agricultural land once completed. Although Caracol will be owned by the Haitian government, it will be managed by a private management company. Plans for the project began a mere few months after the earthquake, while 1.5 million refugees were living in tents and rubble from the earthquake was a common feature in Port-au-Prince. According to Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW), the desire to build an industrial park in the north existed long before the earthquake, though the earthquake might have precipitated the rush to build. Why Caracol was chosen as a site is a mystery to most Haitians, especially people living in the community in which it's located. Some have speculated the selection is based on the abundance of both surface and underground water in the area, which will be needed for water intensive industries. Signed off under Haiti’s previous president, Rene Preval, and approved by the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, Caracol has been heavily promoted by the Martelly administration as a successful foreign investment model as well as an example of the type of development project needed in the county.
The Caracol model of development is an unfortunate return to Haiti’s past. Low-wage assembly jobs were introduced to Haiti in the 1970s during Francois Duvalier’s ill-conceived idea to turn Haiti into “the Taiwan of the Caribbean.” Factories were created in Port-au-Prince, which led to rapid migration and slumification —a problem that still plagues the capital. Back then, people who found factory jobs making baseballs and Disney merchandise earned just enough to keep them in poverty. 40 years later, Haiti has come full circle.
Caracol is funded by USAID, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the Haitian government through in-kind contribution of State-owned land. According to the IDB, “The 366 people who used to farm state-owned land on the Caracol site have received a total $1.2 million in compensation (about $3,500 per household, or five times the Haitian per capita income). All were offered access to a nearby plot with similar characteristics that will be improved with irrigation. Those who prefer to enter a new trade will receive job training. In addition, the elderly and more socially vulnerable, such as single mothers, will receive housing assistance.”
However, a recently published New York Times report questions the amount farmers’ received in compensation and whether interested farmers were given new plots to farm. If these farmers leave farming, this would represent a net loss of fresh, local food for their community. In April 2012, USAID released a factsheet on Brazil, U.S., and Haiti Food Security Cooperation, which included the following facts: “Haiti imports more than 55% of its food needs, and the average Haitian diet is 73% of the daily minimum recommended by the World Health Organization.” The remainder of the factsheet focuses on USAID’s past and future commitment to increasing Haiti’s agricultural productivity. Of course, this overlooks USAID’s involvement in Caracol which undermines food availability in the area and agricultural productivity in the country in general. As one Haitian farmer explained, “The best land for growing, the land we grew up on, is the land they took from us.” A country that imports 55 percent of its food needs can’t afford to have hundreds of farmers displaced, or its best farmland converted to industrial use, as is the case with Caracol. Haiti’s overdependence on food imports leaves it vulnerable to fluctuating global prices and shortages.
Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd., a South Korean garment manufacturer with a spotty labor rights record, was the first tenant recruited to Caracol. Sae-A Trading was enticed to Haiti through a combination of free infrastructure, extremely cheap labor, and preferential access to the U.S. market: a win-win-win scenario for any profit-seeking enterprise.
The Martelly administration is currently recruiting additional companies to the Park, the most recent being Peintures Caraibes SA, a Haitian paint manufacturer. USAID, IDB, and the Haitian government claim Sae-A trading alone will generate 20,000 jobs. If this figure is correct, those 20,000 people will earn $5 per day. The cost of living in Haiti is low, but $5 dollars a day cannot support a typical Haitian family, not when the average Haitian family spends 55 percent of their income on food.
The New York Times report and accompanying video on Caracol highlight the closed-door deals and disregard of ‘best practices’ that made this project possible. According to the report, Caracol represents USAID largest "development" project in Haiti since the earthquake. Touted as a decentralization model, the project does not include a master urban plan for the hundreds of thousands of people who will flood the area or measures to assist surrounding communities that must deal with the influx of job-seekers. As made evident in the video, local residents are worried shantytowns will soon become permanent fixtures in the area. Shortly after the New York Times published its report, the Haitian government issued a Fact Check describing how it engaged the local community about the project and measures in place to mitigate labor rights abuses, adverse environmental impact, and rapid urbanization and migration.
With an unemployment rate of nearly 60 percent, Haiti has a severe and chronic employment problem. Every Haitian administration must contend with how to move millions of uneducated people out of poverty. According to experts, the only sector of the Haitian economy capable of absorbing massive amounts of people directly and indirectly is the agricultural sector. This doesn’t necessarily mean that millions of Haitians will turn to farming, that’s not practicable—there’s simply not enough land. However, the agricultural sector can employ people indirectly through agricultural schools, distribution networks, industries to transform primary products into finished goods (for example, peanut into peanut butter), and industries that can provide farmers with inputs, such as organic compost.
Caracol Industrial Park will not save Haiti; it might just send Haiti further down the path of food dependency, rather than food sovereignty. Every tract of farmland converted to factory use represents local food not grown and Haiti’s continued dependency on imports to feed its people. In the long-term, only a serious investment in education, health, agriculture and land reform will save Haiti.
Photo Credit: Flickr/USAID_Images