New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 6, 2012
CARACOL, Haiti >> On the first anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, in a sleepy corner of northeast Haiti far from the disaster zone, the Haitian government began the process of evicting 366 farmers from a large, fertile tract of land to clear the way for a new industrial park.
The farmers did not understand why the authorities wanted to replace productive agricultural land with factories in a rural country that had trouble feeding itself. But, promised compensation, they did not protest a strange twist of fate that left them displaced by an earthquake that had not affected them.
“We watched, voiceless,” Jean-Louis Saint Thomas, an elderly farmer, said. “The government paid us to shut us up.”
In Port-au-Prince, meanwhile, with rubble still clogging the streets, former President Bill Clinton, co-chairman of Haiti’s recovery commission, had celebrated the Caracol Industrial Park as a glimmer of hope during a ceremony cementing an agreement with the anchor tenant — Sae-A Trading, a South Korean clothing manufacturer and major supplier to U.S. retailers like Wal-Mart and Gap Inc.
“I know a couple places in America that would commit mayhem to get 20,000 jobs today,” Clinton said, referring to the jobs that Sae-A pledged to generate over six years. In exchange, thanks to a deal that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton helped broker, Sae-A would get tax exemptions, duty-free access to the United States, abundant cheap labor, factory sheds, a power plant, a new port and an expatriate residence outfitted with special kimchi refrigerators.
Two and a half years after the earthquake, Haiti remains mired in a humanitarian crisis, with 390,000 people languishing in tents. Yet the showcase project of the reconstruction effort is this: an industrial park that will create jobs and housing in an area undamaged by the temblor and in a venture that risks benefiting foreign companies more than Haiti itself.
Financed by $224 million in subsidies flowing to Haiti as a result of the earthquake, the Caracol Industrial Park is hardly reconstruction in the strictest sense. Its developers, though, take the more expansive view that, in a desperately poor country where traditional foreign aid has chronically failed, fostering economic development is as important as replacing what fell down. Caracol, the promotional materials say, will help make Haiti globally competitive “without compromising on labor and environmental standards.”
But an examination of the Caracol project shows that its developers played down labor and environmental concerns, accelerating the planning and vetting process in their eagerness to make the park a reality while rebuilding lagged.
The developers — the Haitian government, the State Department and the Inter-American Development Bank — chose Sae-A despite its troubled labor relations in Guatemala, where the company closed its flagship factory last year after threatening to move jobs out of the country during an acrimonious dispute with its union.
Before the Haiti deal was sealed, the AFL-CIO urged U.S. and international officials to reconsider, given what it described in a detailed memo as Sae-A’s egregious anti-union repression, including “acts of violence and intimidation” in Guatemala, whereHomero Fuentes, who monitors factories for American retailers, calls Sae-A “one of the major labor violators.”
But U.S. officials said they did not believe “compliance issues” in one of Sae-A’s 20 factories worldwide reflected a broader problem. Further, in choosing a site, the developers discounted the fragile ecosystem of Caracol Bay, which contains the country’s most extensive mangrove reserve and a large strip of coral reef. Before the earthquake, the bay had been picked from 1,100 miles of coastline to become the first marine protected area in Haiti, the only Caribbean country without one.
“The fact of having chosen this site, I’d call it heresy,” said Arnaud Dupuy, head of Haiti’s Audubon Society.
The U.S. Treasury Department had concerns, too. Because an environmental impact study was not done properly or far enough in advance, the Treasury, which represents the United States on the development bank board, took the unusual step of abstaining from the vote that approved the $55 million grant to build the park.
Critics also say the State Department components of this project — a heavy-fuel-oil power plant, a dense housing complex and a port proposed for a pristine bay — betray the post-earthquake idealism about “building back better,” and that the spending of reconstruction funds in Caracol is misplaced.
“I think there was emotion within State that we haven’t done anything effective in Haiti,” said Cathy Feingold, international development director for the AFL-CIO. “There was a guilty sense that we have to do something, anything. But doing it this way is not going to be helpful to Haitians. It’s got to be done so there are living wages and the environment is healthy.”
The industrial park’s Haitian promoters argue that the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. “The magnitude of Haiti’s problems is such that any project will have some negative impact, but does one sit back and hope for the ideal situation?” asked Lionel Delatour, a business consultant.
The industrial park’s backers also say that a northern manufacturing hub will create desperately needed jobs, bolster the region and help decentralize Haiti.
The “urgency of the project” required some shortcuts, said Jose Agustin Aguerre, the Inter-American Development Bank’s Haiti department manager. “If one had to do this in the normal process of planning and then funding and then decision-making, and only then start looking for clients and only then start construction,” he said, “we would have gone 10 years without having an industrial park.”
Still, the park, contemplated before the earthquake, gained urgency only afterward. As shelter construction lagged — the U.S. government has yet to build and deliver a single house — Caracol became the beacon of recovery.
This surprised the mayor of Caracol, Landry Colas, who said he had not been consulted about the park’s location.
“I would have chosen another site, given that this one was already occupied by people earning a living,” he said. “But I’m no expert.”