Caracol, Haiti
Thomson Reuters Foundation

On a hot morning in December, Haitian farmer Remy Augustin lifted a pickaxe that was taller than him and began digging holes in a small plot of land. In each hole he dropped a few kernels of maize, which he covered with loose dirt. 

"I don't have money to pay for a tractor, so we're aerating the land ourselves," said Augustin, 55, lamenting the days when the land he tilled was his own. 

"The land I had was better - it gave me so many bananas, peas, beans."

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Farmer Remy Augustin, 54, prepares the ground to plant maize on a plot owned by his niece near Caracol, Haiti, on 10th December, 2019. His is one of 100 families of farmers still waiting to receive compensation from the Inter-American Development Bank for plots that they lost when the nearby Caracol Industrial Park was constructed. PICTURE: Allison Shelley

Nine years ago, the father of five was working on government land he rented when "a tractor destroyed everything". 

The land was earmarked for the Caracol industrial park, a venture led by South Korean textile firm Sae-A Trading Co Ltd and financed by international donors to spur development following Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake.

"I have to share this land with my whole family. I don't have anything of my own."

Haitian farmer Remy Augustin

Located in Haiti's northern region, the $US300 million park opened in 2012 and now employs approximately 15,000 people, most of whom work in clothing factories there, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, one of the park's main financial backers.

In 2018 farmers like Augustin who had been evicted from their land in 2011 struck a rare deal with the IDB to provide Caracol's 100 most vulnerable families with new, titled land.

But 10 years after the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and made 1.5 million homeless, the farmers are still waiting to receive compensation for their land used to build the Caracol park.

Augustin now works as a laborer on a plot owned by his niece, struggling to pay his children's school fees for the coming year.

"I have to share this land with my whole family," Augustin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "I don't have anything of my own."

International donors pledged nearly $US10 billion to help Haiti recover after the 2010 earthquake, which destroyed or damaged 300,000 homes in the capital Port-au-Prince and surrounding cities, said the International Organization for Migration.

To make space for the park, in 2011, 366 Haitian families - including 720 farmers - were evicted from their land, according to charity ActionAid Haiti. 

Neither the government, the IDB, nor USAID - another of the park's main funders - responded to requests to verify those figures. 

A spokeswoman for Sae-A Trading Co Ltd described the textile firm as a "tenant of the park", adding it had been involved neither in its construction nor in the 2018 land deal.

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A boy rides past fenced off land in the north of Haiti, on 14th April, 2015. Much of the area land was appropriated from local farmers to build the nearby Caracol Industrial Park. PICTURE: Allison Shelley.

Local farmer and activist Milostene Castin said that from 2011 to 2013 the IDB gave the farmers an annual living stipend of $US80 per family member, and paid $US1,450 for each hectare of land, well below the land's value.

"The cash compensation that was received by the vast majority of the farmers was not sufficient to purchase new land or to establish new livelihoods," said Lani Inverarity, a lawyer at San Francisco-based charity Accountability Counsel, which promotes human rights.

The IDB later promised the farmers new plots of land, but "year after year the land never came", said Castin, who works for local organisation Action for Reforestation and Environmental Defense. 

Families that once lived off of the food they grew "were struggling just to eat", he said. 

Eventually, the IDB identified a swath of replacement land, but when Castin went to inspect it, other farmers were there already, he said.

Fed up with waiting, hundreds of farmers formed a collective in 2014 to fight for land.

In 2017, with the help of ActionAid Haiti and AREDE, the farmers filed a complaint against the IDB, demanding new land with legal titles to prove ownership so they could resume farming.

"Typically, IFIs [international financial institutions] try their best to stay out of these disputes, leaving it to the company or government entity to respond. However, here the IDB genuinely turned up."

- Lani Inverarity, a lawyer at San Francisco-based charity Accountability Counsel.

Their self-organising paid off: After more than a year of meetings, the IDB agreed to purchase new, titled land for 100 of the most vulnerable families. 

Others were offered alternative compensation such as irrigation schemes or money to invest in personal businesses. One member of each family will also be offered employment at the industrial park, according to the IDB.

"The farmers' story is a really incredible one of persistence in the face of incredible power imbalances," said Inverarity of the Accountability Counsel, which supported the farmers throughout the complaints procedure. 

"Typically, IFIs [international financial institutions] try their best to stay out of these disputes, leaving it to the company or government entity to respond. However, here the IDB genuinely turned up," said Inverarity. 

Andy White, coordinator of Washington-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative, agreed, calling the land agreement "groundbreaking for Haiti".

"We are seeing more and more cases like this around the world where communities have fought back against international investors to demand respect for their land rights," he added.

"But this is the first case I'm aware of this scale and this nature."

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Farmer Rose Marie Fidele, 73, tends to the few plants she can coax to grow in a little urban space behind the home she shares with her son and his family near Caracol, Haiti, on 10th December, 2019. Her former agrarian life changed dramatically when her land was lost to the nearby Caracol Industrial Park. “It was me who worked the land,” says Fidele, who cultivated banana, several kinds of beans, maize, and other crops. She speaks darkly of “the day they ran the tractor over everyone’s peas", and destroyed her five mature mango trees. “Now would be the season to plant, but I don’t do anything these days,” she says. Hers is one of the 100 families waiting to receive promised compensation from the Inter-American Development Bank.” PICTURE: Allison Shelley.

Implementation of the agreement is behind schedule due to logistical challenges in identifying the most vulnerable families - among other hurdles - who are still waiting to receive compensation, according to the Accountability Counsel.

It is meeting with all farmers to figure out how they would like to receive financing to obtain title deeds to a parcel of land.

Assuming the IDB disburses the funds soon, Accountability Counsel said what happened in Haiti's north could be seen as a successful model of how communities displaced by development projects can self-organise to demand new, titled land. 

The group is currently monitoring more than 1,200 cases in which local communities are facing similar issues in 129 countries across the world. 

"About 13 per cent of concluded cases have gone through a dispute resolution process like in Haiti," resulting in 90 agreements globally, said Sarah Singh, the Accountability Counsel's global communities director. 

Meanwhile, the farmers are trying to eke out a living with what they have got.

Ever since her father's land was taken over to build the Caracol park, Seliana Marcelus leaves her home at 5am to sell breakfast to the factory workers as they enter the industrial park gates. 

All night long she fries potatoes, breadfruit and other produce, things that her family once grew on that same land but that she now must purchase at the local market.

"I don't even go to bed. I work all night," said Marcelus. "It's the only work I have."

Since losing his plot, Rony Comper has been doing odd jobs, from temping as a motorcycle taxi driver to crossing the border into the Dominican Republic to work as a mason. 

Like Augustin, he found a titled plot he will buy once IDB releases the funds - which is expected to happen this year. "We're just waiting."