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Partners in Deforestation and Slumification

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Working together with a local official, two humanitarian institutions have – unwittingly or not – contributed to the deforestation of part of Morne L’Hôpital, a mountain that overlooks the capital and which is under special environmental protection.

An investigation by Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW) in the Upper Turgeau region of Port-au-Prince discovered that about 100 “transitional shelters” ­­– often called “T-Shelters” –were donated to earthquake victims and built in places where, prior to the 2010 catastrophe, there were trees, bushes, or at the very least, no houses. Today, thanks to the donations of the 12-by-18 square meter wooden shacks, an illegal slum has grown, and the slopes above Port-au-Prince are even more denuded.

Humanitarian organizations Agency for Assistance in Development and Technical Cooperation or ACTED (in French: the Agence pour la coopération technique et au développement) and GOAL assisted at least 100 displaced families by constructing little houses in green spaces in the protected area. The mountain slope – which cuts through parts of Pétion-ville, Port-au-Prince, and Carrefour – is covered by a 1963 law and a 1986 decree which stipulate that the slope should be specially protected.

One of the institutions – GOAL – was funded by the US government for the project. The other – ACTED – by the American Red Cross.

The laws set forth a whole series of rules regarding what is permitted, and what is not, on the slope. The government agency Organism for the Oversight and Planning for Morne L’Hôpital or OSAMH (in French:Organisme de Surveillance et d’Aménagement du Morne l’Hôpital) is tasked with overseeing the protected zone.

Nevertheless, the two non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who both admit knowing about the protected status of the region, built T-Shelters there, in part thanks to assistance from the president of the Turgeau Communal Council Board (CASEC), engineer Raoul Pierre-Louis.

(In Haiti, each “commune” – a subdivision of the “department” or province, is divided into “communal sections.” According to the 1986 Constitution, each communal section is supposed to have an assembly – like a mini-parliament – and an executive committee or board of three. The assemblies have rarely functioned and so in many instances, the executive council is chosen by the central government or is elected directly. Pierre-Louis was elected, but like all over CASECs and mayors, his term has expired.)

“Because of the destruction of homes caused by the earthquake, we needed to see how, temporarily, we could find a way to rehouse people,” remembered Fredly Anténor, coordinator of the construction team for the Irish NGO GOAL.

ACTED and GOAL are just two of the many NGOs that built T-Shelters to help families leave the sordid refugee camps set up after the earthquake. Despite the fact that many actors criticized the focus on T-Shelters as a response to the emergency situation created by the 1.3 million displaced people [see Abandoned Like A Stray Dog], several dozen humanitarian institutions built over 110,000 of the little supposedly temporary houses for a total cost of US$500 million.

Over at ACTED, Marianna Franco, head of the development program which built 28 T-Shelters on Morne L’Hôpital, gave much the same explanation: “When the idea for T-Shelters came along, there wasn’t any kind of urban development plan for Port-au-Prince or the metropolitan area. There still isn’t! So, we built T-Shelters where we could find space.”

According to Franco, her agency worked with the CASEC and made sure that all T-Shelter beneficiaries had property titles. However, according to CASEC president Pierre-Louis, ACTED did not follow correct procedures.

The “weak state” in plain view

A law – published in the official government journal Le Moniteur on November 6, 1986, is very clear about Morne L’Hôpital:

“Residential construction is not permitted unless permission is obtained from the relevant agencies… [Article 9]

“It is not permitted to graze cows or goats; to cut any wood or bush, to undertake any kind of planting that involves hoeing… or do any kind of burning for whatever reason.” [Article 11]

But plots were cleared, trees cut, and foundations prepared for at least 100 of the new little houses, and probably more.

The director of OSAMH, agronomist Montus Michel, recognizes that his agency is weak. He lacks the necessary human resources, financial resources, and also authority in the field.

“The state can’t really intervene [at Morne l’Hôpital] without the accompaniment of the police and representatives of the justice system. It’s written in the law. When OSAMH wants to go into the field, its agents should be escorted by someone from the legal system,” he said.

While the law might state that imperative, the reality is different. Agents work on their own.

“As far as surveillance and control of activities at Morne l’Hôpital go, and as far as protecting the ecosystem goes, OSAMH is very weak, but this is due also to the general weakness of the state,” Michel admitted.

A sign of that “weakness?”

GOAL said it did indeed know that the region was protected, and that the agency OSAMH was responsible for overseeing it. GOAL representatives also said that they met with an OSAMH agent.

“We worked with OSAMH starting from the beginning. OSAMH is the one that gave us the geographic limits of where we could build,” Fredly remembered, and one of his colleagues added that the agent’s name was Canez Dellande.

OSAMH director Michel rejected the statement.

“GOAL?” he asked. “That is a total lie.”

“We never delegated anyone to work with them. We could never send an engineer out to set the limits if the NGO didn’t first give us a plan that outlined their activity… Canez doesn’t have the right to do that kind of work, to meet with representatives of an NGO in order to allow them to work on Morne l’Hôpital. That relationship is supposed to be institution to institution,” the director said.

But Michel also recognized that his agent never told him about the initiative.

In the meantime, it appears that the NGO ACTED worked on its own, because Michel said he never met with any representative of that institution either.

Another state institution…

In addition to reportedly working with an OSAMH agent, GOAL representatives said they collaborated closely with CASEC president Pierre-Louis, who is in fact another representative of the state.

“We built a total of 2,483 T-Shelters [in the 6th communal section of Turgeau],” Pierre-Louis said. “There is a signed document for all the shelters that GOAL built. The same goes for CORDAID and IOM [two other organizations that built T-Shelters in Turgeau].”

“All of the Upper Turgeau T-Shelters were built with the permission of the CASEC,” GOAL country director Derek Butler confirmed.

And, according to both Butler and Pierre-Louis, all the T-Shelters were built in spots that held houses before.

But HGW investigations revealed the contrary. At least 100 little homes were built in places that previously before had no construction.

When confronted with this truth, Pierre-Louis rejected the statement, and then added, “in any case, they are temporary. They need to be moved.”

But that seems unlikely.

From temporary to permanent

All over the country in the earthquake-affected zones, T-Shelter recipients are busy converting the shacks into permanent homes with concrete walls, extra rooms and other additions.

When questioned, GOAL said it was aware of the phenomenon.

“When you build a temporary shelter for someone, it is very likely that it will become permanent. We have seen people doing the transformation,” a GOAL agent admitted to Pierre-Louis during a telephone call for which HGW was present. “Therefore, we said to ourselves, ‘Let’s see how we can help these people turn their temporary shelters into permanent homes.’”

In an interview with HGW, ACTED said much the same.

Pierre-Louis was visibly displeased.

“We signed papers that say ‘shelter’ not ‘house,’” he told HGW. “We have a land ownership problem. That land does not belong to the displaced people. You cannot build a permanent home in a place that does not belong to you.”

Who has the power to protect and to decide?

When it comes to the case of the T-Shelters built in formerly green spaces on Morne l’Hôpital, it is clear that two state authorities – CASEC president Pierre-Louis and OSAMH – failed in their mission to respect and assure respect for the law.

But, there is also another authority implicated in the expansion of the slum on Morne l’Hôpital.

The GOAL T-Shelters were built with money from the US government, from the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). Parallel to that grant, however, and ironically, immediately after the earthquake another agency – the US Agency for International Development (USAID) – published a document announcing that the catastrophe had created an opportunity to protect the zone.

“The steeply sloped Morne l’Hôpital benefits, at least theoretically, from its special legal status as a ‘public utility,’ a protected area off limits to construction,” notes the document, which also says USAID partners with OSAMH. “The post-earthquake period provides an unprecedented opportunity to assert control over Morne l’Hôpital as a legally protected zone and prevent new housing construction on fragile slopes.”

HGW requested, without success, an interview with USAID’s Haiti office in order to better understand why one US agency financed the deforestation of Morne l’Hôpital while another suggested the exact opposite.

HGW also wrote to the USAID supervisory office in El Salvador, but received no response.

OSAMH director Michel does not deny the responsibility of the government in the expanding slumification, or in the continued construction of the homes by the well-to-do in the protected area. But the agronomist also feels that certain NGOs are irresponsible.

“We can’t stop the NGOs from doing work inside the 2,000 hectares… But they should be follow the law and meet with OSAMH to see how things out to be done,” Michel said. “Because, if we let NGOs come, independent of OSAMH, and help increase the slums on Morne l’Hôpital, well, that is very bad for the country.”

As for Pierre-Louis, he said, cynically: “The slumification of Port-au-Prince has just started.”

“The problem isn’t the slums, but it’s when the slums stay slums for too long,” he added. Pierre-Louis sees slums as a natural phase in “the process of urbanization.”

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