Thousands of Haitian families have taken over a huge plot near Port-au-Prince, but they lack basic humanitarian aid.
BY FRANCES ROBLES
PORT-AU-PRINCE They called it Canaan — the promised land.
It is here, on a sprawling dusty terrain on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, that about 40,000 Haitians — a mix of quake victims, jobless and opportunists — settled on expropriated land. The government announced some months ago that it acquired property for the homeless, so people came in droves from the capital and countryside to clear trees for roads and pour concrete for houses.
They built it, but the services did not come.
“For us here, we cannot say the aid money sent to Haiti was well spent, because here we are taking care of ourselves,” said Val Samson, a member of a neighborhood committee. “We don’t have anything. No government or aid group has come here. I wonder: Wwhy doesn’t the government want latrines here?”
More than a year after the massive earthquake hit Haiti, the settlers who have taken root in a vast area half the size of Port-au-Prince still lack basic services, such as drinking water, bathrooms and electricity. Despite billions in humanitarian aid that poured into the country, experts agree that Canaan largely slipped through the cracks — even while a cholera epidemic raged.
The conditions at Canaan underscore the difficulties the Haitian government and aid organizations face managing the estimated 800,000 people who are still homeless. Although urban settlements in Port-au-Prince enjoy everything from hospitals, cholera clinics to tent-based schools, the United Nations’ expert in charge of camp management acknowledges that far-flung Canaan “is off the radar.”
As reconstruction efforts have stalled, settlers here decided to do the rebuilding themselves. Dubbed squatters by critics, the homesteaders are constructing a rural village — without permission and without waiting for civil engineers to conduct proper urban planning. Now, the fate of 10,000 families hangs in the balance, as they forge forward building a community, lacking basic necessities and continuing Haiti’s decades-long trend of haphazard development.
“The government practically prohibited us from providing services there,” said Nigel Fisher, the United Nations’ chief humanitarian officer in Haiti. “But when we went to visit, we saw that they are doing pretty well on their own.”
Unlike the overcrowded camps in the city, the settlers here gave themselves small plots. They made their own dirt roads and built a church. A handful of latrines were put up, but residents say they must purchase their water.
“If you don’t have money, you stay thirsty,” said resident Matil Didier, a community organizer. “If we have a security problem here, we organize ourselves and secure it.”
Shortly after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12 last year, the government announced it had acquired 18,000 acres north of the capital through eminent domain, said Giovanni Cassani, of the U.N.’s International Office of Migration, which helps manage displacement camps.
“That’s a massive amount of land,” Cassani said. “There was a spontaneous influx of people, and now this land is fully occupied.”
They were lured by promises of jobs and by a planned settlement nearby called Corail-Cesselesse, which has come under fire for its remote location and poor execution. So while the majority of camps in the capital sprouted in the days or weeks after the quake, Canaan erupted months later.
A Chilean organization built 650 temporary shelters, but the need is far greater than what the agency can provide.
“There wasn’t any kind of urban planning as the government had planned for,” said Sebastián Smart, general manager of Un Techo Para Mi País — A Roof For My Country. “They thought it was for them, and they took it. There’s no excuse for not offering services, much less sanitation services in an era of cholera.”
By January, three people in Canaan had died of the disease, he said. Countrywide, more than 4,000 have died and at least 200,000 have been treated.
Smart said his organization has documented 10,000 families in Canaan. In a May survey, 85 percent of those polled said they expected to be there for at least 15 years.
“These people are not leaving,” Smart said.
Roger Damas, an aid worker with the French organization Action Against Hunger, said his group’s survey showed at least 40 percent of residents did not lose their home in the quake. That’s the reason many people have hesitated to designate Canaan an “earthquake camp,” despite the living conditions.
“The situation is dire,” Damas said. “They don’t have any water. If we didn’t bring some water, the situation would be much worse. We went there because nobody was doing it.”
Haiti now has 229 camps that receive full services and 70 which get some sporadic healthcare. Mobile teams visit unmanaged camps, and nearly 30 percent of the country’s 1,000 camps did not receive adequate water or sanitation service to address cholera, Cassani said.
“We cannot designate a non-governmental organization for every single camp; we simply do not have the human resources,” he said. “The number of camps is enormous.”
Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said the government did not forbid donors from providing services to any of the camps. As for Canaan, Bellerive said he knows “there are some problems in the organization of that specific camp,” but he could not speak to the specifics.
“There are camps that we are trying to reorganize and move people from because we want to rebuild, and we don’t want the NGOs or other international organizations to encourage people to stay because it is where they are getting the services,” he said.
“What we have proposed is that once we agree we have to move people from one site to another site, we also should transfer all of the services to where we are going to send the people. But in no case did we say ‘stop the services.’ ”
Karl Jean-Louis, who founded haitiaidwatchdog.org, said most aid groups only help the camps that are visible.
“If the camp is accessible and easy, it is serviced,” he said. “If it’s in a ravine or you have to walk 15 or 20 minutes to get to it, it is not. If you judge by what you see in Port-au-Prince and Petionville, you think everyone has latrines. Where there’s no access, you see a lot of people suffering.”
In Canaan, people expressed contradictory emotions. They are happy to be away from the congested camps in the capital, but worry that Canaan is too far from markets and employment.
“We prefer it here, because nobody can knock on your door here and say, ‘ok, your time is up,” ’ said Jean Rodrigues, an unemployed plumber. “We are going through misery here. But at least here, you don’t work, but you don’t pay. It would be better though if we had water. If we had water, we could make food.”
He looked around the tent-covered hills and gestured to the distance he must travel in hopes of fixing someone’s toilet.
“We can’t live like this,” he said. “There are a million more people like us in Haiti who have no choice.”
I love the journalists and their comments.
“Clearing trees to make way for roads…”
Has the writer ever been to the location?
I was there during the weeks immediately following the quake and drove past it many times over the years before.
The last tree in that area is recalled in the distant dusty corners of older people’s memories.
The place was/is absolutely barren, except for some low shrubs. There is a constant wind that threatens to flap fabric covers into tattered bits and pieces.