Concern: Ouanaminthe Free Zone
Posted: Wed Aug 06, 2003 1:04 am
Submitted to The Sunday Times
By Jacqui Goddard in Ouanaminthe, Haiti.
5 July 2003
Farmer Jean Eugene gazes wistfully through the tall wire fence that has been built across his Caribbean farmland, shaking his head as he reflects on the bad fortune it represents for his family.
Just weeks ago, his fields were rich with corn and vegetables - treasured assets in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. But then the bulldozers arrived. Mr Eugene's crops were ripped from the soil by government contractors and he has been barred from his own land to make way for the construction of an industrial Free Trade Zone (FTZ) that will house cheap-labour factories producing clothes for leading brands including Levi's, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss.
"This is a crime against humanity," says Mr Eugene, 43, whose elderly father was chased away by armed
Haitian police when he tried to access the plot to pick ripened mangoes from a tree. "While these big companies are getting rich, we will be struggling to even feed ourselves. Planting crops is how we survive here - our life comes from the earth. We cannot eat rocks and cement, we need plantains and corn."
The Maribahoux Plain is one of the country's most fertile agricultural regions. Located on Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic, it has a production capacity of more than 30,500 tons of food per year, enough to feed half a million people.
But under a scheme jointly approved by the two countries' governments and funded by the World Bank, 54 peasant farmers including Mr Eugene have been evicted to free up land for the first phase of the FTZ.
Ultimately there will be around 40 factories along the 360km border, creating a 500,000-sq.metre trading park from which goods will be exported free of taxes and tariffs.
The first phase involves the building of a 150,000-sq.metre w
orksite for Grupo M, a Dominican Republic textile company that will lease the land from the Haitian government for 25 years. It supplies some of the world's top clothing outlets, boasting: "We dress the world, stitch by stitch."
Grupo M and the World Bank say the first phase will generate up to 4,500 jobs for Haitians, while the entire project could provide more than ten times that number. The firm will provide workers with housing, a training unit, a day care centre and a clinic.
"There has been a lot of discussion about the social and environmental aspects and we have offered to move farmers to new land. We are very sensitive to the issues," said a spokeswoman at the company's headquarters in Santiago,
But Mr Eugene claims the bulldozer teams that seized his fields in March came unannounced and there has been no offer of new land. Whereas he could previously expect annual crop profits of around 70,000 Haitian Gourdes (£1,300), he says the government has offere
d around a third of that sum as total compensation. "I don't want the money," he said defiantly. "My land is not for sale."
A kindly-faced man, he lives with wife Anouse, 33, and their seven children in a cramped concrete home in Ounaminthe, a town of 70,000 people located a three-hour drive along a rocky unmade road from the second city of Cap Haitien. Pigs, goats and chickens wander the streets, mingling with donkeys and horses carrying farmers and their produce to market. Few people here have even heard of the multi-billion pound designer brands for whom their crops have been sacrificed.
Gaston Etienne, coordinator of Komite Defens Pitobert, a farmers' advocacy group, said: "you will be buying your fashion items while we are earning a pitance making them."
Mr Eugene has now taken work as a teacher, earning 2,500 Gourdes (£62) a month, but needs a minimum of 200 Gourdes (£5) a day to feed his family, including daughter Aisha, born only ten days ago. "My dreams for Aisha's future ha
ve completely changed," he lamented. "I will not be able to even afford her powdered milk. "
For each of the 54 farmers who lost land, up to 50 farmworkers - many of them elderly - have also lost their livelihoods, but only those under the age of 35 will be offered factory jobs. It is not yet known how many others will lose land in the next phases of development.
In addition, critics condemn the factories as "sweatshops," farmworkers who have been offered jobs there reporting that their wages will be just 10% of what they used to earn.
Leading Haitian economist Camille Chalmers, citing the example set by FTZ sweatshops established in Haiti in the 1960s under former president JeanClaude Duvalier, predicts a swift "ghetto-isation" of the Maribahoux area as cheap housing springs up and thousands pour in searching for work.
"The job creation rhetoric is propaganda," said Mr Chalmers, founder of PAPDA, the Haitian Advocacy for an Alternative Development Programme. "They talk about jobs
being created, not the jobs that are being lost. There will be a real human cost."
"They should work with farmers to increase agricultural productivity and feed Haiti's people, rather than destroying the country's bread basket to benefit foreign investors."
There are also concerns that the region's four rivers will be polluted by the industrial activity.
At the World Trade Organisation summit in Cancun, Mexico, this September, the British government will be pushing for a new agreement that will govern foreign investment in developing countries such as Haiti. The government, along with the EU, claims that the deal would create fairer trading practices and protect the poor.
But non-governmental groups including the development agency ActionAid, which will tomorrow (Mon) lobby Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt in London, complain that the deal would actually make it easier for big corporations to expand their wealth at the expense of some of the world's most poverty-st
ricken people. They say Haiti is a prime example of how things can go wrong.
"While foreign investment can help combat poverty, it can only bring benefits if carefully managed," said ActionAid trade analyst John Hilary.
In Ounaminthe, there is fear over the insecurity the FTZ has brought. Farmer Francis Bosse, 74, another of the towns' farmers who lost their land, said: "Land is your inheritance, but now I have none to hand over to my son. This was the pearl of Haiti, but what they are building on this land is misery."
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The Haiti Support Group hopes that your organization will decide to support the civil society organizations in Haiti that have serious concerns about the Ouanaminthe free trade zone project that is due to be funded by the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC).
We are asking you to send letters to the address/email below stating that
you want the World Bank board of directors to ensure that a comprehensive and meaningful consultation with relevant Haitian civil society organizations occurs before any decision on proposed funding for the project is taken. You can also ask that the World Bank insists that Grupo M includes a commitment to permit union organizing and collective bargaining in their factories in the Ouanaminthe free zone, in line with agreed International Labor Organization core conventions.
The USA's executive director at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund is:
World Bank Group
1818 H Street, NW,
Washington, D.C. 20433,
Please cc to Carole Brookins' alternate:
Robert B. Holland, III,
The Haiti Support Group
For more information on this issue see the Haiti Support Gro
up's special feature page at: www.haitisupport.gn.apc.org - What's New.
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The lease of 65 hectares of prime agricultural land outside the town of Ouanaminthe near the border to the Dominican apparel company, Grupo M, has caused much controversy in Haiti. Local farmers and progressive organisations in Haiti are outraged that the Haitian government should authorise such a dubious development project.
In June, the HSG discovered that the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC) is preparing to loan Grupo M US$23 million loan, and that part of this loan will finance the construction of the free trade zone. Armed with this information, the HSG has begun an international campaign to press the IFC to acknowledge the concerns of our partners in Haiti. We have sent letters (and are asking others to write too) requesting that the World Bank board of directo
rs ensure that a comprehensive and meaningful consultation with relevant Haitian civil society organisations occurs before any decision on proposed funding for the project is taken. We are also asking that the World Bank insists that Grupo M includes a commitment to permit union organising and collective bargaining in their factories in the Ouanaminthe free zone, in line with agreed International Labour Organisation core conventions.
You can send your own protest letters to:
Brian McNamara, Investment Officer (Textiles),
Global Manufacturing and Services Department,
International Finance Corporation,
2121 Pennsylvania Avenue
NW, Washington, DC 20433, USA.
Tom Scholar, UK Delegation to the IMF and World Bank,
Room 11-120, 700 19th Street,
Washington, DC 20433, USA.
The HSG has also contacted the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome and at its Haiti field office. We asked how th
e environmental degradation and unregulated shanty-town development that will inevitably accompany the free zone at Ouanaminthe squares with their ambitious and costly plans for sustainable development and environmental protection in the border region.