Pristine white beaches, turquoise seas, palm trees swaying in the gentle breeze. This is the very image of the tropical paradise promoted by high-end tour operators. This is Île-à-Vache.
Until quite recently, this 20-square mile island off the south-west coast had been neglected by the Haitian authorities. The island has no real road, electricity or running water, but its 20,000 residents have subsisted for over one hundred years by farming its fertile land and fishing the coastal waters.
The first cloud appeared in its limpid blue skies in 2011 when President Martelly and then Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe paid the island a surprise visit. Initially the duo had their sights set on Abaka Bay, one of the few developments on the island, a small private hotel run for the most part by its in-residence owners. Part-owned by an American businessman, who claims that Martelly contacted him to ask about buying a fifty-one percent share in the resort. He refused, but that set-back did nothing to dampen the regime’s appetite for development.
The project was entrusted to the youthful and ambitious Stéphanie Balmir Villedrouin, Minister of Tourism since 2011, who survived the ministerial cull in April 2014 to have the portfolio of Creative Industries added to her title.
At the start of 2013, Villedrouin put out a call for expressions of interest for Île-à-Vache. The plan was eye-catching: 1,000 hotel rooms, 2,500 villas, a golf course, a new $13 million airport, and the dredging of the port were just some of the proposed developments. Boutique style accommodation, a tourist village with restaurants, cafés and shops and a plan to introduce an underwater museum also featured prominently in blueprint designs.
Although local residents have resisted them, for outsiders unfamiliar with the tense situation on the island, proposals for Île-à-Vache seemingly considered their needs. They included sustainable projects promoting biodiversity and cultural patrimony as well as an internet café, community radio station, library, public market and training programmes to benefit the local population.
Yet all were decided without consulting the islanders. Requests for information were ignored. The authorities pushed ahead with their plans as quickly as possible.
On 10 May 2013, the government passed a decree which declared the island and its surrounding areas to be of “public utility”. That is, a zone reserved for “tourist development”. In effect, the government had unilaterally annulled all existing legal possession of the land – whether through purchase, lease or inheritance.
The announcement caused fear and resentment amongst the population.
Not long after the decree was passed, those fears were realised. When the contracted construction company broke ground in August 2013, no members of the community were invited to join the celebrations. As the developers began work on the new road, farmland, plantations and homes that lay in its path were destroyed.
In May 2014 the coastal village of Madame Bernard was bulldozed and its residents expelled. The inhabitants of neighbouring village Kay Kòk have been told they are next: “We’re being threatened with expulsion – said Kay Kòk resident Jenest Jérôme – This just confirms our fears that the ‘Tourist Destination’ project will be implemented by force.”
The islanders are not taking it lying down: by the end of 2013, they had begun to mobilise. A local farmers’ organisation, Konbit Peyizan Ilavach (KOPI), became heavily embroiled in the dispute and organised protests. Prior attempts to open a meaningful dialogue with Villedrouin had failed. She deflected demands for the decree to be rescinded and gave vague assurances of compensation.
In March 2014, she announced that in order to make way for resorts on Île-à-Vache, at least 100 families would have to be evicted; local estimates put the likely number of victims of expropriation and expulsion at 2,000 to 3,000 individuals. Continuing resistance from residents – largely in the form of peaceful protest – has resulted in a number of arrests amidst accusations of police brutality.
In 2014, a delegation of civil society organisations (CSOs) including Défenseurs des Opprimés (DOP), the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organisations (POHDH), the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH) and the Collective for Housing Rights visited Île-à-Vache to investigate alleged human rights abuses and met with groups representing the islanders, including Action Citoyenne pour l’Île-à-Vache (ACI), KOPI, Oganizasyon Fanm Ilavach (OFAIV) as well as members of the Police Nationale d’Haïti and other groups that had been involved in the protests. Their report demanded that the state engage more closely with residents to involve them in development plans. It identified a lack of communication between the Haitian authorities and the residents on Île-à-Vache as the principal grievance of the islanders. Most do not oppose plans to develop the island but they do deeply mistrust the Martelly government. They are suspicious that the full details about the proposed project have not been fully disclosed. In an interview carried out by the late radio journalist Sony Esteus in March 2014, Jean Matulnes Lamy from KOPI stated, “We don’t want people to think that KOPI is protesting on Île-à-Vache because we don’t want development. We want development, but we say that this development must be defined. We should be in it.”
Lamy had himself been one of the two permanent policemen on Île-à-Vache; he was also a farmer, and was rewarded for his involvement with KOPI with almost ten months imprisonment, without charge, in a Port-au-Prince prison. In April 2014, the CSO delegation published the paper “Investigative Report Concerning Tensions on Île-à-Vache”. It stated that with Lamy out of the picture, police officers were deployed to the island to reinforce the Haitian National Police presence there. The forty officers included agents from the special police units UDMO (a kind of Departmental riot squad) and BIM (Mobile Intervention Unit). Those who protested for Lamy’s release were met with violence by the BIM. Two men accused the police of beating them brutally.
More beatings, threats and intimidation followed. Activists have also reported anonymous phone calls and death threats. Lamy himself claims that some members of KOPI are on a government hit list. Laurent Lamothe attempted to discredit the protestors by accusing them of involvement in marijuana smuggling, claiming that their objections were merely a ruse to divert attention from their illegal activities.
In an effort to cut off protestors and stifle their demands, people navigating the small boats leaving Les Cayes to transport passengers to Île-à-Vache were reportedly paid to allow only foreigners to travel with them, effectively cutting off vital modes of transport for locals. In a petition protesting the government’s actions, CSOs called the stand-off between islanders and the Martelly regime “a David and Goliath scenario”.
The strong militarised presence sent a clear sign to local residents: not only was the government starting to make inroads into Île-à-Vache, it was going to stop at nothing to achieve its goal.
Today, over 100 armed guards are permanently based there, contracted by the state to intimidate and threaten. While Lamy was incarcerated, the President of KOPI, Marc Donald Laine, carried on the struggle. On his social media page he wrote: “In this country when you try to do the right thing they either kill you or put you in jail while the criminals and kidnappers are rewarded. The country is upside down.”
It appears that Laine might have paid the price for ‘doing the right thing’: in October 2014, he died from head injuries sustained in an apparent motorbike accident. The dealings around the struggle for Île-à- Vache have been predictably opaque. This lack of transparency is not unique to tourism projects. Earlier this year CSO platforms KJM (Kolektif Jistis Min) and Observatoire Méga-Project, concerned respectively, with mining and tourism, got together to denounce the veil of secrecy obscuring the award of contracts and concessions to foreign mining corporations, developers and tour companies alike. In the case of mining contracts, that secrecy is even enshrined in law: the latest government Mining Bill provides for a ten-year embargo on all information deemed ‘commercially sensitive’.
The common denominators of these two areas of development? Expropriations, forced evictions and contracts as lucrative for the foreign corporations as they are for the Haitian officials who discreetly facilitate them. Île-à-Vache should have been a nice little earner for Haitian officials. Not only did it present the perfect opportunity to satisfy the international community’s prioritisation of tourism as an important ‘development’ model for the country, but it also allowed them to do so out of sight and out of mind. In a place where they thought fewer people would be watching, the government rolled out its plans, bulldozing over the rights of local residents and destroying livelihoods in an effort to silence opposition.
Rather than have to find secluded bays to welcome package tourists to its shores, the government could offer a whole island! After all, stealing land from peasants who have limited links to CSOs or resources to mobilise against the state should in theory have proved much less of a problem than elsewhere in Haiti. But that was to count without the resistance of local residents.
There are signs that foreign investors may already be getting cold feet because of the Haitian government’s inability to deal with this ‘little local trouble’. The residents of Île-à-Vache may yet win the day but one hopes that it will not be at the price foreseen by one resident of Kay Kòk: “If they want to take these lands, they’ll have to kill everyone on the island.”
www.haitisupportgroup.org & on Twitter: @HaitiSG The Haiti Support Group (HSG) seeks to amplify the voice of progressive civil society organisations (CSOs) in Haiti to the public, the press and politicians in Europe and North America.