The ‘Caravan of Change’ has passed through central Haiti, leaving only poverty in its wake

A report by Snayder Pierre Louis for Equal Times.

On 1 May 2017, Agriculture and Labour Day, Haiti’s new President, Jovenel Moïse, officially launched the ‘Caravan of Change’, in Bocozelle, a district in the Saint-Marc commune in central Haiti. The Head of State’s programme aimed to improve agricultural and road infrastructure with a view to increasing national production and its distribution to urban markets.

“The Caravan will not leave the Artibonite valley until the irrigation canals are completed, as well as the roads and drainage to develop 32,000 hectares of land in the valley. When the improvements to this land are guaranteed, I will come back to celebrate with you,” he said at the time.

According to official forecasts, 100,000 hectares of land were to be irrigated, 197 kilometres of canals cleaned up and 100 kilometres of agricultural roads resurfaced. The government allocated 197 million gourdes (or US$1.67 million) for the work.

Coordinated by Jacques Thomas, the former Minister of Agriculture whom some consider to be the brains behind the project, the Caravan, composed up of an imposing fleet of construction machinery, spent 54 days in this region which covers an area of 180 km2.

The President’s office took every opportunity to vaunt this initiative, by means of a publicity drive. The President himself made several visits at the time to supervise the work’s progress. He made a lot of promises including the construction of public schools, several housing units and a toilet block (including public latrines). The government also supplied farmers with rice mills.

Saint-Marc is 100 kilometres from Port-au-Prince, the capital. One of the country’s major roads, Route Nationale 1 (RN1), cuts through the town from north to south. Along the way the RN1 includes the town’s main commercial thoroughfare, the Rue Louverture. It is here, on this Sunday 16 August 2020, that the sun stretches out along its full length. It is barely ten in the morning. The people’s faces bear the deep lines of poverty, and their sense of abandonment grows as they look around them. Naked children run in and out of houses made of earth. There are no signs of preventive measures against Covid-19. Three years after the project began, the trail of broken promises is painfully visible to the naked eye.

Fallow crops and widespread hunger in Bocozelle

Kelly Cyrius is the coordinator of the District Council. He considers the results of this programme totally unsatisfactory. Angrily he lists the few things that have been done: the cleaning of some irrigation and drainage canals, the resurfacing of a few kilometres of agricultural roads and a highway, the raising of the banks of the Artibonite River and the distribution of some seeds. “Most of the canals are in fact still poorly cleaned. As a result, water no longer reaches the higher areas,” he says.

Before the Caravan was launched, there were 9,000 hectares of cultivable land during rainy seasons and 7,000 hectares in drought, according to Cyrius. Now there are only 2,000 hectares of arable land left in the dry season.

“So far nothing has been done for us. The president has forgotten us,” says local resident Frédéric Raphaël, with a bockit (a bucket, in Haitian Creole) in his hand that he uses to fetch water directly from the canal. A father of six children, he gave up cultivating the land to become a motorcycle taxi driver. “There is a lot of poverty, too much famine in this area. The problem is, no one is capable, at the state level, to present delivered or deliverable projects,” adds the 50-year-old.

Before, says Cyrius, people in this area could grow anything: onions, rice and potatoes. “Now they live in complete poverty, the majority of them cannot plant anything. Agriculture is no longer profitable. The earth has dried up.”

In Artibonite, where rice production has plummeted, the price of a bag of fertilizer has soared to more than 3,000 gourdes (approximately US$28.35). The inhabitants who are already unable to feed themselves, cannot afford it. “I can’t buy fertilizer because I don’t have the money. Since the Caravan arrived, I haven’t been able to plant anything. I am alive thanks to the people around me. To tell you the truth, I haven’t eaten for two days,” says one woman, with a mixture of embarrassment and anger.

The collapse in farm production is having an impact on the price of local rice, which is beginning to rise. According to some producers, this trend will continue. When rice is prepared for market, stripped of waste, it is very expensive. At the Moro-Peye Producers Association (APMP) sales and packaging centre, a pot of Shella rice, which is equivalent to about four kilos, sells for over 700 gourdes (approximately US$6.60). That is an increase of 50 per cent in three years.

Evens Jean Robert has been a rice producer at Moro-Peye for over ten years. He says he is aware of the situation. “I know it is a huge problem for a population whose incomes may not have increased. Particularly in relation to the purchasing power of local households. But, taking into account total expenses from soil preparation to harvest, the price of this product is not really exorbitant,” says the producer.

The worst part is that it doesn’t look like there will be any positive changes in the near future. The conditions that could lead to a fall in price are not in place, at least not in the opinion of the growers who spoke to Equal Times, as they are finding it impossible to cultivate their plots. This will inevitably cause a sharp drop in production in the coming months.

Lack of public sanitation impacting the health of residents

At the same time, the management of household waste and the treatment of wastewater pose serious environmental and health problems in this suburban district, as in the entire town of Saint-Marc. Waste of all kinds is dumped into drainage canals and sewers.

The coordinator of the Bocozelle District Council confirms that the local population has been left to fend for itself, because many residents don’t have toilets in their homes. “They defecate, either directly in the canals or in containers and then throw it into the canals. Others use the same water for bathing, washing clothes, washing dishes, etc.” When it rains, he comments, this situation contributes a lot to marine pollution and affects the water table.

As the houses of Bocozelle are not connected to a municipal water distribution network, the residents use artesian wells. They use it for drinking water, and they don’t have to pay a penny. Eight out of ten people who come to fetch water say that they drink it in its natural state without any treatment products.

“I don’t have enough money to buy these products. All our money is used to buy bread,” explains Nicole, a woman who has come to fetch water.

This situation is all the more dramatic bearing in mind that Haiti faced a serious cholera epidemic in 2010, which badly affected the Artibonite River region. In January 2019, after years of struggle, the country finally saw its last case of this serious bacterial infection.

The district has only one health centre, in Rhema. It operates five days a week (sometimes three) and only six hours a day. According to the director, Dr Rony Sanon, local residents have stomach problems, diabetes, skin, genitourinary and pulmonary infections, and malaria, very often linked to poor living conditions. “The health centre does not have enough resources to help everyone. The state should open another centre, and it needs to be much better equipped. There are people dying in their homes because of the lack of health care,” the doctor laments.

Fortunately, adds Cyrius, the area has not officially detected any cases of Covid-19 patients, to date, although 227 people have died of it in Haiti. “God knows our limitations. He knows that we cannot manage this disease. Yes, there are sick people who have the symptoms. They turn to medicinal plants and ancestral preparations.”

Faced with the arrival of SARS-Cov-2, last March, the government imposed restrictions on travel and public gatherings and the closure of public places (schools, universities, ports and airports, places of worship and factories). Faced with the low capacity of hospitals, home care has been the approach used for patients with Covid-19, with some success according to the WHO.

Corruption, a scourge to add to all the rest

Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of US$756 in 2019, 100 times lower than that of Norway. According to the human capital index, the potential in adulthood of a child born today in Haiti is estimated at 45 per cent of what it could have been if he or she had benefited from a full education and full health protection. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), more than six million of the 11 million people in Haiti live below the poverty line on less than US$2.41 per day and more than 2.5 million have fallen below the extreme poverty line, surviving on less than US$1.23 per day.

Recent political instability has hampered Haiti’s economic and social development. The country also faces rapid currency depreciation (nearly 25 per cent at the end of fiscal year) and high rates of inflation (nearly 20 per cent at the end of fiscal year 2019). The economic recession has been combined with the administration’s limited capacity for revenue collection.

Yet both government policy and the entire country seem to revolve around this Caravan. The Head of State continues to promise that he will revive agriculture. However, while this is presented as a strategy it is neither a project nor a programme. In fact, it does not have a budget or any specifications, which makes it difficult to monitor results.

Emmanuela Douyon, a specialist in development policy and projects, is an activist fighting against inequalities and corruption. She is one of the leading figures in the anti-corruption movement PetroCaribe Challenge, which continues to demand the trial of officials and former ministers involved in the embezzlement of development funds.

She believes public decision-makers evidently want to get something done, but their efforts are ineffective. You only have to look at the frequency of their trips in the field and their eagerness to inaugurate the smallest project, to understand that in place of getting things done, they want at all costs to appear to be doing something.

No one has estimated how much all the work carried out by the Caravan would cost, continues the specialist.

“Based on the Minister’s description, it is impossible for the government to answer questions about the cost-benefit ratio of this initiative, as it does not have a clearly defined budget.”

According to former senator Jacques Sauveur Jean, given the large sums disbursed without any follow-up, “the Caravan of Change is one of the most important sources of corruption in Haiti. The day we decide to investigate the Caravan, we will see what it reveals.”

The coordinator of the peasant’s collective Tèt kole ti peyizan, Rosnel Jean-Baptiste also criticises the President’s project. According to him, the 197 million gourdes spent should have already revived agriculture, adding that while the funds invested in the Caravan have not worked miracles, “they have undoubtedly made people happy somewhere on Earth…”.

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