Haitian ‘Je Nan Je’ voices speak up for land and housing rights

By Leah Cullins

“Haiti cannot rebuild unless land and housing tenure is reformed. “ That became the unofficial theme of ActionAid’s Land and Housing Rights Workshop, held on September 22. The event featured three Haitian grassroots leaders: Marie Andree St Aubin from ActionAid Haiti, Gerald Mathurin, former Minister of Agriculture under Rene Preval and current executive director of KROSE, and Pierre DouDou, National Coordinator of RENHASSA. All three a members of the ‘Je Nan Je’ Haiti Land and Housing Rights Platform. This platform is made up of a dozen Haitian grassroots, women and peasant movements, who in turn represent over 800,000 Haitian country wide. The workshop was an opportunity for platform members to meet with other international NGOs, so that everyone could share their work and experience working with civil society in Haiti.

Stressing the importance of including civil society, particularly women, in the planning and implementation of development projects, St. Aubin delved into the lives of women and the deplorable conditions in the tent camps. She said women are being subjected to violence on a daily basis in the camps, not only physical and psychological, but economical as well. She described how men will sometimes refuse to pay for the children’s schooling as an indirect way to punish the women.

Mathurin discussed the problem of lack of land ownership by the peasants who work the land. Seventy percent of the population is made up of peasant farmers, yet they do not own the land and therefore have no control over it. Past protests on the issue have been squashed, some violently. DouDou explained that over the course of 200 years, Haiti has been unable to develop. Yet, during these 200 years, they “haven’t been left alone,” referring to the international community. DouDou pointed to the common bond that Haiti and the U.S. share in their people fighting for and therefore greatly valuing their freedom. It is this same sense of freedom that explains why so many Haitians are calling for the withdrawal of UN troops under MINUSTAH. DouDou believes that if Haiti can be allowed to develop and have ownership over its own reconstruction, it indeed grow into a strong country that can equally contribute to the international community.

Exploring the issue of the northern industrial zones, DouDou expressed concern of how new economic development initiatives are forcing peasants off prime agricultural land and leaving them few options for work beyond the factories. Believing agrarian reform is key to reconstruction, he stated that the government’s meager 3% allocation for agricultural development should in fact be closer to 30% to support the need. In the 1980s, Haiti produced 80% of it’s own food, now it only produces less than 40%. In addition to increased agricultural development, investments, though, the careful geographic planning free trade and economic zones is crucial. These zones can no longer be built on prime fertile land, when Haiti has so little of it left for its agricultural producers.

Listening to these three speakers finally made it click for me as to why land and housing reform is so vital to Haiti’s ability to development. Unless people have rights to their land and more importantly the roof over their head, Haitians will never be afforded the stability and safety that so many of us in the United States take for granted. Haiti’s redevelopment still has a long way to go. Yet, every journey begins with a choice. The international community must be part of this choice to support the Haitian population’s ownership over their own reconstruction and access to land and housing. Spending the day with our Haitian partners from the ‘Je Nan Je’ Land and Housing Platform left me more optimistic than ever.