These Haitians Were Children When A US-Funded Project Evicted Them From Their Land. They Can’t Afford College.
The industrial park opened with big promises and big-name backers like Hillary Clinton and Sean Penn. But for the families evicted from their farmland, the development brought financial ruin.
CARACOL, Haiti — On Oct. 22, 2012, 12-year-old Duone was awash with hope.
Just 2 miles from her home, the world’s elite had gathered to inaugurate the Caracol Industrial Park, a mini city dedicated to producing cheap clothes for Americans while heralding a bright future for Haitians. Actors Ben Stiller and Sean Penn, American fashion designer Donna Karan, and British airline mogul Richard Branson cheered as Hillary and Bill Clinton took their turns at the podium.
“Children will go to school, will be healthier, will have more of their own dreams fulfilled because their mothers had good jobs,” then–secretary of state Clinton told the crowd. “So this is, indeed, a great day.”
At a luncheon for investors, meals were served atop gold-colored plates. Smiling attendees clapped as then-president Michel Martelly addressed the crowd, with a “Haiti is open for business” sign behind him.
Funded by the US government and the Inter-American Development Bank, the $300 million, 600-acre park would be home to a constellation of garment factories producing clothes that end up at Target, Old Navy, Nike, Victoria’s Secret, and Walmart, among others — and would provide 65,000 jobs to locals, the officials announced. One of the park’s largest tenants, S&H Global, opened a school for about 650 children.
To make room for the park, authorities had seized land from Duone’s family and around 400 other farming families, a total of around 3,500 people who relied on the plots for food and income. But her father remained optimistic: The Haitian government and the park’s investors had said, he remembered, that they would compensate them with new land elsewhere and scholarships for their children.
“It’s a good program,” Duone’s father recalled thinking at the time.
But the promises never materialized.
Today, a 2018 agreement — with additional compensatory measures, including vocational training and small business loans — has only partly been implemented, and more than 80% of the families eligible to receive land are still waiting while struggling to put food on the table. The project’s sweeping promises are just a few in a series made by Western enterprises that were intended to rebuild Haiti after a devastating 2010 earthquake. Instead, they’ve had the opposite effect: condemning a generation of children to poverty and causing irreversible damage to their families’ livelihoods. Their plight has only been exacerbated by the political and economic crisis unleashed by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July.
Some Caracol farmers wonder if they will ever receive fair redress for their lost properties. “Maybe they’re waiting for people to die so they don’t have to give them land,” said one of them, Remy Augustin.
Pierre-Michel Joassaint, the head of Haiti’s Ministry of Economy and Finance’s Technical Implementation Unit, or UTE, in charge of overseeing compensation for the families by the park, called that allegation “unfair” and “unacceptable,” saying that his team is working tirelessly, but that land issues in the country are complex.
In a statement, the IDB said that the Caracol project has reduced poverty in the region.
The bank “recognizes ongoing challenges,” the statement said, “but we remain committed to the positive benefits for Haiti.”
Duone, now in her early 20s, was part of a generation of young Haitians who were supposed to benefit from the opportunities the Caracol project was intended to provide.
She was the first person in her family to finish high school, with excellent grades and near-perfect attendance. She dreamed of becoming a nurse. But with her family’s farmland gone, her parents couldn't afford the tuition for college. Instead, she found a job at the industrial park that displaced her family. She now spends her days working for S&H Global, a Haitian subsidiary of Sae-A, a South Korean textile giant with a long record of labor violations in Nicaragua and Guatemala.
The company said in a statement it has always abided by international labor standards and immediately acts on “any allegations requiring attention.”
Duone wakes before dawn for exhausting shifts on the factory floor, where the money she makes is only enough for one of the day’s meals.
“We had dreams but nothing happened in our lives,” said Duone, who requested to be referred to by her nickname because she feared retaliation from her employer. “I don’t dream about it anymore.”
THE PROMISE OF A NEW DAWN
By a geographical stroke of luck, Caracol and its surroundings were largely spared from the 2010 earthquake.
As much of the country reeled from the catastrophe and welcomed hundreds of foreigners touting promises of relief and security, Duone’s family continued farming their land — papaya, cassava, potatoes — alongside other families who had done so for generations. Then one morning, in early 2011, strangers descended on their property and started taking measurements, Duone recalled. They left, then returned with tractors, flattening their crops and destroying their sole livelihood.
“The ground of the chosen site is the most fertile in the whole area, even in dry periods,” according to a report on the environmental and social impact of the park produced by Koios Associates, an American consulting firm.
According to Action Aid, an international agency that has supported the displaced families, people had five days’ notice or less before their plots were fenced off. Joassaint, the Haitian Ministry of Economy and Finance official, disputed this claim, saying that “this work could not have been done in one week.”
Promises from the authorities came soon after, Duone’s father claimed: for land, for jobs, for scholarships. In the meantime, with no land from which to harvest crops to eat and to sell at market, farmers soon found it hard to make ends meet.
Before, Augustin, 56, could make daily lunches from pumpkin and sweet potatoes harvested on his plot of land, which he said he had been working since he was 18 years old and was “very good in production.” Now, his children were going hungry.
School, too, became a luxury he could only afford intermittently. When he didn’t pay tuition, teachers asked his children to leave the classrooms, he said. With a small and underfunded public school system, even the poorest of Haitian families are often forced to send their children to private schools. One of his daughters, Windia, missed two school years. Now 20, Windia wondered how she would get through high school and into law school, a professional dream that had bloomed from witnessing her father struggle to defend his land rights.
Windia said she wouldn’t want to end up working at the park. She has heard too many cautionary tales. Her friends with those factory jobs tell her about supervisors who angrily slam their fists on tables when production quotas aren’t met. Three of her friends told her they exchanged sex for jobs, she said. Joassaint said that UTE has received complaints about sexual harassment and is working on establishing a whistleblower program to get a clearer understanding of the scale of abuse at the factories.
Tamia Moon, a manager at S&H Global, said the company investigates allegations of abuse, issues compliance training to employees, and maintains a grievance system for worker complaints.
Listening to his children talk about their professional ambitions, Augustin said he wanted one thing above all: for his children to go further in life than he did. The sentiment was echoed by other farmers who lost their land to the park.
Many sought other sources of income. Some borrowed land to work in exchange for a hefty percentage of their profit. Others chopped down trees to make and sell charcoal. Several bought basic staples in bulk and sold them at the market. But no matter what they did, it never amounted to what they used to make off their land.
In 2014, the families formed a kolektiv, a bargaining unit that enabled them to fight for compensation as a united front. During the next three years, they made frequent attempts to contact the IDB and the UTE, but these only provided “partial answers” without details or timeframes for meetings, according to a formal complaint from the kolektiv. With support from the US-based advocacy group Accountability Counsel, the farmers filed the complaint to the IDB’s Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism in January 2017.
In December 2018, more than seven years after the families were displaced, all sides came to an agreement. In it, they made one member of each family eligible for employment at the industrial park and gave another the choice of receiving specialized equipment for agriculture, small business training and access to microcredit, or vocational training in trades such as plumbing and electrical. One hundred families who lived exclusively off the land would be entitled to receive a new property.
In a statement, the IDB said that the Haitian government and the bank “decided to take additional livelihood restoration measures when it became clear that livelihoods had not been fully restored for a majority of the affected persons.”
Right away, Duone’s father did as he was told: He scoured the area for available land for the state to purchase for him, got the paperwork, and took it to the local UTE office. Then, he waited.
In the countryside, it is rare for people to have bank accounts; instead, land and cattle are insurance for a rainy day. Often, when there is a death in the family, a graduation, or college tuition to pay, people sell swaths of their land. So when a parcel goes up for sale, its owner is eager to sell it off quickly.
Duone’s father said UTE didn’t get back to him in time and he lost out on the plot he had hoped to acquire. After some time, he found another, but again, UTE took too long and the land was sold off to someone else. Joassaint said that purchases of private land — which Duone’s father had requested — take longer to process than purchases of public land. According to him, an amendment made last year to the 2018 agreement clarified that public land was also available as compensation.
“We know of some private land cases where there is no question about their eligibility and documents provided,” said Megumi Tsutsui, one of the farmer’s attorneys and a communities associate at Accountability Counsel, “but there is no transparency about what is causing the delay.”
In a survey of 158 people who participated in the small business development portion of the agreement, fewer than half said their income had increased “after investing a portion of their first payment,” according to a report from the IDB’s Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism, an office that receives complaints from communities affected by projects funded by the bank. In recent years, Duone’s mother, who said she also had a parcel of land that was seized, received two stipends to open a small business. With the first, she bought soft drinks and water to resell from home until the money ran out. She used the second to buy two goats but lost them earlier this year after a flood in the region.
Others have faced similar setbacks.
After Polline Pierre lost her land, money became scarce and, one by one, her nine children stopped going to school. Three of them moved to the neighboring Dominican Republic. Her husband, Damusca Fucien, chose to receive equipment and have a well dug on another parcel of land the family had. But it has since dried up. According to the IDB’s report, farming equipment has been distributed to 63 of the 89 people registered for that option.
Fucien said he reported the problem to the local UTE office, which outsourced the digging of wells to the Ministry of Agriculture, but nothing has been done. Joassaint said that all wells with “slow flow rates” have been fixed.
Joassaint admitted that he’s not entirely satisfied with how the agreement’s implementation is going. “There are things we are doing now that we should have done before,” he said of compensation for affected families.
Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s then–chief of staff and her point person on the Caracol project, did not respond to a request for comment via an email sent to the company she founded after departing from the State Department, BlackIvy.
Around 20 percent of the people affected by the Caracol program who registered for training and employment at the park have been offered jobs since the agreement was signed. R.P., a woman in her early 20s whose father and grandmother were both displaced, is one of them. She attended a training course at the industrial park in 2019.
She didn’t hear from the park’s tenants until last year, when they reached out to offer her a job hemming T-shirts. R.P., who is only being identified by her initials to prevent retaliation from her employer, earns around $6 a day. She said she wishes she could talk back to supervisors who get visibly angry when she doesn’t meet production quotas but is afraid of how they might react.
She isn’t sure if the money is worth the discomfort she feels at the park.
“You are forced to keep it inside of you,” she said, “and that makes you cry.”
LIFE AT THE GARMENT FACTORY
As the sun began to rise above the horizon, Duone walked out onto the road and climbed into a yellow bus that took her to the park.
In her mind, one of the few positive changes the giant manufacturing center has brought with it is the glowing lightbulb that illuminates her home. A luxury in many parts of Haiti, electricity has drawn a wave of internal migration, which in turn has prompted an increase in commercial activity in the region.
But with inflation above 25%, these developments have not been enough to stave off discontent among park workers, who, last year, and then again earlier this year, organized a protest to demand a salary increase.
In November, a group of US members of Congress sent a letter to the heads of 62 American companies that import garments from Haiti over concerns of poor working conditions. “84 percent of factories have failed to comply with health insurance and social security contribution requirements,” they wrote, citing the deaths of two employees who weren’t able to access emergency medical care after their employers had improperly deducted health contributions from their wages. Among the companies the letter was addressed to were some who outsource their garment production to the Caracol Industrial Park, including Walmart, Target, and Kohl’s.
Duone works at S&H Global, where around 1,600 workers spread themselves out among 28 production lines at each of the company’s seven factories at the industrial park. On a recent Wednesday morning, Moon, the manager overseeing the facility, walked past several hundred employees — mostly women in their 20s and early 30s — who sat or stood next to bunches of fabric, working quietly at sewing machines.
That day, they were making short-sleeved T-shirts. Thick rolls of pink fabric with white stripes stood at the start of each line; workers unrolled foot by foot, laying out large swaths on a long table, cutting, hemming, ironing, folding, and packing them into boxes.
Each worker had a color-coded card at their station: green, yellow, and red, signaling the speed of their performance and any bottlenecks along the production line.
The only sound was the hum of the machines. Large screens across the factory help managers “monitor productivity,” Moon said.
Today’s goal: 1,500.
Produced per hour: 120.
Total so far: 672.
As Moon walked past the workers whose positions required them to stand during their shifts, like those spreading out the fabric initially so that it has no creases, she pointed at the pancake-thin mats some were standing on. “So they’re comfortable,” she said.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Gap Inc., which owns Old Navy, expressed a commitment to maintaining international labor standards but declined to comment on the park's impact on the locals. Other brands contacted for this article, including Walmart, Kohl’s and Target, did not respond to a request for comment.
Outside the factory, hundreds of workers sat in the narrow strips of shade offered by the building or the scattered trees, eating lunch out of plastic bags or containers. Moon said it was a steep learning curve for many of them because few even knew “how to use the toilet.”
“You have to step down to their level to make them understand,” said Moon, a South Korean citizen who spent years in the US, adding that their “big” and “blunt” hands made them able to produce only basic garments.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
In all, there are around 15,000 employees at the park, fewer than a quarter of its original target because the park has struggled to draw tenants.
Under UTE's management since 2019, the Caracol Industrial Park is set to grow: In November, the IDB announced that it had approved $65 million to expand infrastructure in hopes of attracting more companies.
That month, 11 families received land as compensation. One of them had the land taken away a second time by an armed local who said that it belonged to him, and the state is working to resolve the situation, according to Joassaint.
Last month, seven more people received compensatory land, Joassaint said. Eighty-two are still waiting.
Duone’s father is one of them. For the third time, he found a parcel of available land and took the necessary documents to the UTE, but hasn’t heard back. His family is worried they will lose out on this one, too. The owner of the plot of land they were hoping to acquire needed money quickly to pay for his wife’s funeral, Duone’s mother said.
Duone’s hope, though, lay not in the land nor at the park, but far beyond it. She got a passport last year. When she is able to save some money, Duone said she’s planning on going to the Dominican Republic.
She knows it will not be the most welcoming place for her: Earlier this year, the Dominican Republic’s government began building a wall to fend off Haitian migrants. Many of those who make it across then take flimsy boats across the Caribbean Sea to Puerto Rico — a dangerous journey during which 11 women drowned in May.
But leaving, Duone said, is the only way she can become a nurse. ●
Andre Paultre contributed reporting for this story.