For many years, tourism helped keep Haiti’s economy afloat — but new development projects may be hurting the very people they are supposed to support.
Every year millions of people flock to the Caribbean to enjoy its warm climate, sapphire blue waters, white sand, colorful art and eclectic food. Prior to the 1980s, the island of Haiti was one of the region’s hottest tourist destinations; at the time, tourism was Haiti’s second largest source of foreign income. However, that all changed in 1983, when the Centers for Disease Control incorrectly identified Haitians as one of the four groups most at risk for HIV/AIDS contraction. Almost immediately, tourism revenue fell by a staggering 80 percent.
After the 2010 earthquake killed an estimated 300,000 people, displaced millions and leveled countless buildings, reconstruction became the main buzzword during the presidential elections later that year. When now-President Michel Martelly was still a just a candidate, he campaigned on the idea that tourism could rebuild Haiti.
Nestled off the southwest coast of mainland Haiti is Île-à-Vache, an island sparsely populated by peasants and farmers. Île-à-Vache has been virtually ignored by the Haitian government, which has not provided the small island with water or electricity. Still, the Île-à-Vache community has managed to make a living and provide for its families through farming and fishing.
Life on the isolated little island began to change in early 2012, when the government introduced a plan to transform it into a tourist destination. Following the initial proposal in May 2013, the government issued a decree declaring all of Haiti’s offshore islands as potential areas for tourism development.
The people living on Île-à-Vache were not told of the plans to turn their home into a resort until September 2013 — well over a year after the idea was originally presented.
A grassroots group, Collective for Île-à-Vache, formed shortly thereafter; the group organized peaceful protests to combat the changes they knew were coming to their island. The locals worried about a litany of issues, including displacement, being forced to migrate to the already overcrowded capital in search for jobs that won’t come easy, falling deeper into poverty and witnessing the degradation of their culture and the destruction of the environment. Though the demonstrations were peaceful, protesters were met with violence; a human rights delegation found that organizers had been physically beaten by police officers.
Several homes have already been damaged and eighteen coconut trees, a primary source of income for one household, have been destroyed to clear the way for construction of a road. The fragile environment on Île-à-Vache has already been harmed; and there has yet to be any formal assessment of the impact construction will have on the island’s marine life. Nor have victims been offered any compensation for the destruction of property and environmental damage.
Infringing on the rights of community members and eroding the environment is not sustainable tourism development. If tourism is to be a successful tool for development and reconstruction in Haiti, the voices of the locals living on Île-à-Vache are the most important; essentially, community members must function as shareholders.
It is vital that precautions be taken to preserve the natural beauty of the island; the unspoiled tropical landscape is what makes Haiti attractive to visitors. Adressing police violence and punishing those responsible is the correct moral and legal step. Until the government and investors apply these measures and develop a people-centered program for tourism development, the people of Île-à-Vache will continue to fight back.