One year ago, Jovenel Moise, or “the Banana Man” was relatively unknown. He was introduced into Haitian politics by President Martelly's newly founded PHTK party as an entrepeneur and consultant for Agritrans SA, a corporation that exports organic bananas from Trou-du-Nord, Haiti to Germany. Agritrans works in partnership with Port International GmbH, a company that distributes conventional and organic fruits from plantations around the world to supermarkets in Europe. Today, with no prior experience in politics, Jovenel is a presidential candidate. Backed by the incumbent President Michel Martelly, Jovenel has risen from obscurity to become a leading contender for Haiti's highest office.
A video posted on Jovenel's Facebook page presents him as the candidate selected by Martelly to be his successor. The video is worrisome because it suggests that the Banana Man may be a pawn and not the brain behind his own candidacy. In a country accustomed to rigged elections by office holders, Jovenel's sudden rise to most favored candidate in the first round of elections and his party's initial claim that he won outright, invites suspicion of fraud, a charge levied by the opposition and by human rights and civic organizations that are demanding independent verification of the vote results.
In an interview aired on Radio Tele Metropole, Jovenel expressed his ambition to acquire more land for more projects like Agritrans. According to him, the approval of eight cabinet ministers is required to secure the expansion of a free trade zone (zone franche). Corporations operating within such a zone are usually exempt from state regulations and state taxes. Currently, Agritrans operates within such a zone. Its 1,000 hectares (2,741 acres) banana plantation is the largest in the Caribbean. Jovenel envisions creating additional banana plantations across Haiti's northern plains, expanding from 1,000 to 15,000 hectares (37,065 acres). This expansion can more easily be done if he controls state decisions.
"Wa rete, Makdonal te rete!"
When one considers the disastrous history of Haitian leaders collaborating with corporate interests to the detriment of the country, one has to be skeptical of Jovenel's plan. In the early 1900's, a series of Haitian presidents, with local and foreign corporate support, turned over thousands of hectares of fertile land to HASCO and to other foreign corporations seeking to revive a plantation economy in Haiti. Many self-sufficient farmers were displaced. Thousands migrated to Cuba and to the Dominican Republic where they would suffer untold exploitation, as well as physical and psychological abuse. This situation has come back to haunt the Haitian government which has proven itself incapable of protecting its citizens living in the Dominican Republic, a situation that traces itself back to the displacement of Haitian rural residents from their farms.
Some of Haiti's displaced farmers formed the Cacos, a group that fought against land grabs. It was largely to quell the Caco revolts that American forces invaded Haiti (1915-1934) and introduced Haitian farmers to the original Banana Man, James P. McDonald, an American entrepeneur to whom the Haitian government granted a monopoly on all banana exports. After an exhaustive resistance, the Cacos repelled some of McDonald's efforts and the American occupation came to an end. But it left countless scars upon Haiti, including this expression for other would be land-grabbers: “Wa rete. McDonald te rete.” (You'll stop, just like McDonald stopped.)
The constant land grabs in Haiti are an outcome of the legendary fertility of its soil. During the slavery era, this rich soil combined with free labor produced massive wealth for French plantation owners. Today, the costs of Haitian labor remains among the cheapest in the region. Although the Haitian people need jobs, Haitian farmers also need protection because their poverty and lack of political power makes them vulnerable to well connected businessmen in search of fertile land. When government leaders are linked to a business enterprise, that can introduce a conflict of interest that prevents the state from implementing laws to protect vulnerable groups like peasant farmers. The relationship between Agritrans and the state must be scrutinized considering the country's history of dispossessing the poor for the benefit of Haitian leaders and their international backers. Despite Haiti's abject poverty and food insecurity, Agritrans has already earmarked 70% of its banana production for export to Germany.
While displacing some farmers, Agritrans will provide some others a job and a salary. Certainly, a regular salary is one way of building wealth but too often, cheap wage jobs maintain workers in poverty. Real estate ownership is a tangible asset with wealth building potential transmissible across generations. Improving the lives of the people of Haiti is not just a matter of turning over the land to foreign corporations. It can also involve offering assistance to farmers to increase their yield. If the simple response to our poverty is to turn over the land to others, then it will not be long before the land slips completely from our grasp.
Land ownership remains highly prized in Haiti. Despite the country's notoriety as the poorest nation in the hemisphere, a majority of Haitian farmers still own their land. Although ownership has dwindled over the years from the massive 85% land ownership rate of the 1950s, most Haitian farmers can still claim to be their own bosses, a privilege gained from the Haitian Revolution. The first generation of Haitians who won the land recognized that we did not have enough money to safeguard the land on the open market, and they forbade the selling of land to foreigners. Having failed to safeguard this vision, Haitian land ownership has been steadily decreasing over the years. In the 1970's, 60% of Haitian farmers owned their land.
Land ownership continues to decline today as our poverty has been steadily rising. One factor behind the growing poverty is population growth. Another factor is land erosion. A third factor is dispossession. Cash poor and lacking government assistance, Haitian farmers are gradually being pulled off their land, lured by non-living wages which they cannot pass on to their heirs as inheritance.
The 3,000 farmers currently employed on the Agritrans plantation are reported to be receiving a wage of 3 dollars per day plus a meal. Jovenel explains that 20% of Agritrans profits will be reserved for these farmers. However, he did not explain if their meal and wage is part of the cost of operation or if it is a benefit of their 20% share of the profits. Moreover, he did not reveal who would be the beneficiary of the land of a farmer who is fired, or resigns, or passes away.
Above, Agritrans stakeholders speak to the press. Jovenel explains that he was only the face for the entire Agritrans team. Mike Port of Port International explains the opportunities that exist in exporting organic bananas. The new CEO of Agritrans, Pierre Richard Joseph explains that the corporation will need 4,000 hectares of land to respect the quota in its contract with Germany. Below, a campaign add explains that Agritrans has also attracted international investors from France. The names of all institutional and individual investors/ shareholders has not yet been released.
Beyond the problem of population displacement, there is the problem of bio-diversity. When only one specie of a crop is planted, it becomes more susceptible to disease. This is something Haiti already experienced when a banana canker previously destroyed its banana crop. The production of a uniform crop often requires a constant fight with chemicals potentially toxic to the environment. Haitian traditional farming is more bio-diverse and better addresses the planting diversity necessary for an organic nutritious diet.
A healthy Haitian diet demands foods from various plants, yet Jovenel has not articulated the need to plant a wide range of crops consumed by the Haitian people. The Haitian farmers need government support to increase their yield for the primary purpose of feeding the Haitian population. Additional crops can then be exported. But with more money to be made outside of Haiti, Agritrans' primary interest is the reverse: ship more to Germany and keep less locally.
Today's rapidly growing global population and ongoing global warming combine to threaten the world's food supply. Powerful countries like Germany and China are securing worldwide access to fertile lands to satisfy the caloric and nutritional needs of their population. Already many plantations in the Ukraine and in Africa are under contract for Chinese use. In light of this issue, Haitians must consider if the planned shipment of 70% of Agritrans' banana output is tantamount to securing Haitian resources for German agricultural needs with minimal benefits to the local population.
Despite multiple past efforts to displace Haitian subsistence farmers, US and international efforts to make Haiti a banana republic have largely failed. Having fought a Revolution to earn the rights to the land, Haitian farmers do not readily allow anyone to displace them from their inheritance, their land where their umbilical cord is buried.
To make this new round of land grabbing successful, the government has hired the public relations firm, Ostos Sola to market Jovenel's vision to the public. Government adds show Haiti producing a bountiful harvest of bananas with Jovenel at the helm, but the adds do not mention that the harvest is primarily targeted for Germany, nor do they address worker compensation, representation, subsistence farmer displacement, and the impact of the farming techniques on the environment.
Some of the adds appeal to the public's desire to see Haiti modernize and industrialize and so they show machines doing the work that used to be done by hand. But mechanized farming reduces the number of people needed to work the land and frees labor to be used elsewhere. Without concurrent investments in other sectors of the economy, mechanized farming has the potential to create more unemployment while pushing workers off their land. The flaw is not with the tools of modern science, but rather with how those tools are being used to centralize control of the land and to displace rather than to assist local farmers.
Even before Jovenel's political views and his relationship with Agritrans could be vetted, the Banana Man has become mired in accusations of election fraud, distracting public scrutiny on what it means for a consultant of an international corporation to become president of Haiti. This is particularly worrisome because Haiti is a country where the president can wield unchecked power. Should the Banana Man become Haiti's next president, Agritrans and its associates would have a powerful ally at the helm of the country.
Above, Jovenel Moise gives an interview
as the presidential candidate for PHTK,
the political party of outgoing president Michel Martelly
Below, Jovenel Moise gives an interview
as the President of Agritrans, SA
Sources of information:
Le Point, Radio Tele Metropole
Facebook pages of Jovenel Moise
1950 and 1971 Haitian census
(Evidence and Lessons from Latin America)
Ipsnews.net (South America: Curbing Land Purchases by Foreign Investors)
The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/11/19/us/ap-cb-haiti-election-fraud.html?_r=0)
The Miami Herald (http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article47129035.html)