Local authorities violently evict peasants from the land they’ve occupied for over 30 years, without compensation
The tractor’s fangs were tearing down fences and plantings on a Tuesday in May last year in Terrier-Rouge, in the Northeast. Cabbage, cactus, and fences were bowing down, one after the other. Dozens of oxen were running away at a gallop. The goats leapt away from the violence of the vehicle.
Out of nowhere, a man suddenly stood before the iron machine. Anatole Clervil is unarmed. But the farmer with calloused hands had no intention of letting a stranger continue to destroy his sixteen hectares of land, which he has occupied by his own account since 1975, under the dictatorship of Jean Claude Duvalier.
The 83-year-old man had lost seven oxen, a pregnant mare, three pigs, and five goats when city hall employees ransacked his pens during their previous raid a few weeks earlier.
Anatole Clervil had had enough. While Jovenel Moïse’s administration imposed a nationwide confinement in April 2020, allies of his administration were using public force, armed gangs, and City Hall equipment to violently evict peasants in the Northeast from farmland that had been occupied for decades, without any explanation or compensation, according to some fifteen interviews conducted by AyiboPost amongst the victims, one of the alleged “land thieves” and technicians in the area.
This situation shows a wave of spoliation that began several years ago in the entire Northeast region, which is frequented by drug traffickers and known for its mineral reserves. According to the residents, land insecurity has accelerated under Jovenel Moïse’s five year tenure.
On this Tuesday in May, a timid sun shone over the vast expanse of wetland occupied by Anatole Clervil’s cattle. When the peasant decides to oppose the steamroller of one of the five machines sent to tear down the fences and evict the animals, witnesses feared a fatal outcome.
“Anatole has a reputation for being a rebel,” said Ziliora Souffrant, another 90-year-old peasant, victim of expropriation. There was a persistent rumor that the assailants knew he would oppose their actions, and they said they wanted to run the tractor over him.”
In May 2021, the mayor of Terrier-Rouge, Nadège François, and agents of the municipality came to take possession of approximately four hectares of land occupied by Joceline Iréné for the construction of the Saint-Pierre Hospital, funded by Taiwan and championed by the First Lady, Martine Moïse. The agronomist Iréné says she was not informed of the project nor was she compensated for the land, the block enclosure, her plants, and materials which were destroyed. Her family has lived on this land since 1996, according to her.
“It’s more of a political project than an administrative one,” says Eddy Félix, an urban planner in the municipality of Terrier-Rouge, who is also accused of being a major participant in the “theft of land” in the municipality.
According to Felix, the municipality’s technical unit has no knowledge of the project. “If it were a serious project […], I would have a detailed plan to grant a building permit.”
Excavators and motorized shovels were not limited to the boundaries of the Iréné family’s land. The authorities in Terrier Rouge took advantage of the hospital construction project, which was praised by the community, to seize more than 7,000 hectares of adjacent land occupied by the Association des petits planteurs (Association of Small Planters) of Terrier Rouge, of which Anatole Clervil is a member. The area, used by 300 farmers for ranching and farming, was ransacked, livestock driven away, and plantations destroyed. The farmers report that they were threatened by armed individuals in civilian clothes, on behalf of City Hall.
The mayor of Terrier Rouge, Nadège François, says she does not know the size of the space needed, nor whether the land has been legally declared to be of public use. Eventually, she said, the project should include “a school and a green space”.
The mayor could not provide a plan for the current project or for future initiatives. She says having served as the intermediary between the First Lady and the farmers. “The DGI and the like responded, in the face of refusal from some peasants to leave the land to the First Lady, the mayor claims, adding that some received between 100,000 and 300,000 gourdes as compensation.”
Nadège François could not indicate how many people received said compensation. A dozen farmers from petits planteurs, along with leaders of the organization deny having received any money whatsoever.
The Taiwanese Embassy did not respond to requests for interviews. When contacted, two lawyers of the former First Lady did not react before publication. GOM International, the firm in charge of building the hospital with Taiwan’s Overseas Engineering Construction Company, did not respond to questions regarding compensation for the Iréné family. “The government has furnished the land for the construction of the hospital,” a representative of the firm said via WhatsApp, also confirming that the work began last May.
Near the “petits planteurs” land is an improvised airstrip, suspected of being used for drug trafficking in the community, according to four passersby on site. A private port has also been built in the area. Two farmers confirmed regular visits by Hervé Fourcand, a former senator and ally of the governing party. When questioned over the phone regarding the spoliation case in the Northeast, Hervé Fourcand promised to call back. He did not do so before the publication of this article.
The largest health institution in the country, the Hôpital de l’Université d’État d’Haïti (State University of Haiti Hospital), will occupy only 5.7 hectares after renovations. Many residents of Terrier Rouge question the necessity of dispossessing 300 peasants of 7,740 hectares of arable land for a project requiring no more than ten hectares in the most ambitious projections.
“There is absolutely no need for so much land to build a hospital,” says notary Chrisné Baptiste, drowning in paperwork in his office, during an interview with AyiboPost late last November.
In June 2019, the keeper of the “petits planteurs” records says he was visited by an individual claiming to be an emissary of the First Lady. Baptiste withholds the name of this person for security reasons.
“I asked them to take the steps to have the project written, and then to define the necessary portion to be allotted to public utility, as is required by law,” says the notary. The emissary leaves the office without making any promises. “He will call me on the phone a little later to offer me a bribe, explains Baptiste. I told him that I don’t get involved in such shady business.”
One of the three mayors will lose their job for publicly opposing these disorderly expropriations. Marie Evena Daniel Pompilus, former mayor of Terrier Rouge, said she had spoken to the First Lady on the phone shortly after the “dechoukay” (pillage) of last March.
“I do not participate in the expropriation efforts underway in Terrier-Rouge,” claims Marie Evena Daniel Pompilus, who declares that she had demanded respect for the law and compensation for the farmers. Faced with the increasingly violent actions from agents of the mayor’s office and politicians in the commune, Pompilus wrote a letter of denunciation to the Ministry of the Interior, the Directorate of Territorial Communities, and the Association of Mayors of the Northeast. She pointed to Mayor Nadège François and the mayor’s urban planner, Eddy Felix, for their attacks on the peasants.
But Marie Evena Daniel Pompilus had signed her political death. When she was reappointed to the mayor’s office after the expiration of her term in June 2020, “employees of the municipality did not want me to return,” she reports. Faced with threats of physical violence, the mayor had no choice: “I withdrew myself”.
And the forced evictions continued… ” About a thousand people are directly or indirectly victims of forced spoliation ” in the department, estimates the notary Chrisné Baptiste.
While many special cases are noted, land maintained in association seems to be particularly vulnerable, as is illustrated by the case of the Mouvement des paysans de Terrier Rouge (MPTR; Peasant Movement of Terrier Rouge).
Peas, corn, peanuts, bananas, cassava, cabbage, carrots, spinach, vegetables… were competing for the 20 hectares occupied by the 150 members of MPTR. The organization launched in 2000 after the donation of the plot by a prominent person, had obtained contributions from international institutions to build a functional building, a cassava factory, and a solar irrigation system with a tank. The World Food Program bought cassava and peanut butter for distribution to schools in the area.
Until the morning of March 9, 2020…
Dozens of individuals, led by the urban planner of the City Hall of Terrier Rouge, Eddy Felix, invaded the land of the association. They quickly ransacked everything: solar panels, beds, chairs, sheet metal roofs. All the buildings are knocked down and members of the group begin to carve the land out into small pieces.
“At one point, they started arguing among themselves for the best spots,” testifies Bruno Amicile, MPTR coordinator, who was present at the scene during the incident. “The urban planner from City Hall personally threatened me,” reveals the woman, whose home was subsequently the subject of an attempted arson attack.
Eddy Félix confirms his presence on the MPTR property at the time of the incident. “Mayor [Nadège François] requested my presence for the opening of a road in the area, he explains. The population took the opportunity to pillage, hoping that we would make subdivisions.”
Eddy Felix admits to the illegality of the subdivisions observed on site today. “The biggest problem for the peasants of Terrier Rouge remains the land grabs with no mechanism in place to curb this phenomenon,” he says.
Nearly two years later, no road or construction site led by City Hall has materialized in the area around the MPTR site, according to AyiboPost’s own observations.
The land problem is not new in Haiti. The father of the nation, Jean Jacques Dessalines, will be assassinated due to disputes over land division after the revolution in the early 19th century. And throughout the country’s history, governments, and powerful individuals, aided by the absence of a formal land registry and clear rules on land ownership, have used legal and illegal strategies to snatch up land.
According to a 2010 USAID research study, 60% of Haitian households have no formal documentation of land ownership. This probably explains why most of the peasants interviewed for this article rely on custom and a presumption of ownership dating back some thirty years for most of them.
Whatever the case may be, the land elicits covetousness.
“Four areas are threatened in the Northeast Department, according to Milostène Castin, coordinator of the local organization, Action pour la reforestation et la défense de l’environnement: these are the lands located near route nationale #6, the grounds containing metal mines, and centrally located areas near the cities and the coastline.”
The activist dates back to 2010, the beginning of a sustained assault on the lands occupied by peasants. “In Ouanaminthe, we recorded three victims, says Castin. In Troud-du-Nord, four farmers were arrested for opposing expropriation. A farmer in Prevoyance died in the hospital in Milot. He fell on a spike after being chased off by armed bandits.”
By filing a complaint, the farmers are using the formal judicial system to defend themselves: without much success. “Justice is instrumentalized by the party in power”, reports Castin. The activist, as well as three farmers, denounced Senator Wanick Pierre, elected by the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK), in several cases of “land theft”, particularly in Caracol.
The land granted to l’Association des petits planteurs de Terrier Rouge by former president René Préval in 1991, belonged to American manufacturers starting in 1927 who planted sisal, a strategic commodity in the United States at that time. Sisal was used in the production of rope and rubber, particularly during the Second World War. In the 1970s, the plantation was returned to the state for non-payment of taxes, until it was invaded by peasants after the end of the Duvalier dictatorship.
Land – its ownership, use, and transfer – is at the center of debates surrounding development in the Northeast.
According to a development plan elaborated by the Comité interministériel d’Aménagement du territoire (CIAT; the Inter-ministerial Committee for Regional Development) two years after the 2010 earthquake, modernizing agriculture and supporting population growth in the North and Northeast are among the challenges to be surmounted by 2030.
Nine years later, the situation in the region is still critical. According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published last June, the Northeast is among the areas in food crisis, even though most of its land is arable, according to experts.
Several industrial parks, including Caracol, Codevi, and Agritrans, are in this department. But the first two structures, although they create jobs, are often criticized for their negative impact on the environment, the forced expropriation of peasants, unfavorable salary structures, and the lack of real added value for the economy.
” It is necessary to define a new vision, in order to change the development model, to get out of the current exploitative model, and to rely on the real strength of the country, in particular the strength of the peasantry,” observes Ricot Jean-Pierre, whose organization, the Plateforme haïtienne de plaidoyer pour un développement alternatif (PAPDA), accompanies peasants who are victims of forced expropriations.
One of the cases observed by PAPDA concerns several hectares of land granted by the state in the Casimir neighborhood to survivors of Rafael Trujillo’s massacre in the Dominican Republic in 1937. “I am 56 years old, says Jasmin Augustin, one of the heirs to the land. I grew up on this land and I also gave birth to my nine children here.”
As the area begins to see some early investment – a hotel is being built right across from the Jasmin family’s land – a powerful citizen in the Northeast, along with members of the judicial system, is trying to dispossess the family of the site, organizing police raids to evict the residents and stop all activities on the plantations. They issued a judgment against them at a time when the court was on vacation,” reports Ricot Jean-Pierre. The family was never summoned to court to assert its rights.
The dispossession of peasants affects the quality of life in the Northeast. At 58 years old, Frantz Salomon lives off of the land and its ups and downs. He raises livestock and harvests fruit. When he was expropriated without warning or compensation last year by the Terrier-Rouge City Hall, he lost the fruits of his labor and a horse. “I was stunned and shocked by such a crime,” he says.
Despite the risks and disproportionate forces at play, some farmers join the resistance. ” I come to my land regularly, says Anatole Clervil. They say they want to run me over with their bulldozers, but I’m not afraid of them.”
When the farmer stood in front of the machine on his “bitasyon” (farm) on a Tuesday in May 2020, the driver left the car and stepped aside, to the surprise of passersby. “They are the ones who should be afraid, says Clervil. They are thieves.”
English translation by Didenique Jocelyn.