Ronel Thelusmond is the director of the technical division of the National Institute for the Application of Agrarian Reform (INARA), which is part of the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture. Extreme concentration of land, giving little to no access to the 60-80% of the population who are farmers, is one of Haiti’s primary challenges. In part II of an interview, Ronel speaks to the barriers and opportunities of agrarian reform. (See also “Haiti Needs a Social Policy for Housing.”)
Our mission [at the government’s National Institute for the Application of Agrarian Reform] is to enact agricultural reform so people can get land in good condition and make it productive. What we say is that we’re going to bring back security and see to it that the people who work the land can be guaranteed that they’ll profit from their work without someone else coming in and robbing the land from them.
We’re also supposed to reinforce unity among peasants and define the minimum and maximum amounts of land a person should own. But INARA has never had the necessary means to be able to conduct agrarian reform.
Recent History of Agrarian Reform
[In his first term], President Aristide issued the decree to create INARA. But it was President Préval [during his first term] who took the first action toward agrarian reform in the Artibonite Valley, in 1999 through 2001.
That experience was a modest success, with close to 6,000 families in the Artibonite getting a total of 5,000 carreaux [15,938 acres] of redistributed land. The Artibonite has between 30,000 and 40,000 carreaux [95,629 and 127,506 acres] total. They gave each peasant half a carreaux [1.6 acres], which came out of the holdings of large landowners and also the state. The goal was to see to it that the peasants could earn an income higher than the minimum wage.
The land each family got was practically nothing, but it was the compromise solution given land pressures and the number of people who were demanding land at the time.
But people weren’t made the owners of those small plots. They didn’t get titles to the land, only given a usufruct contract [the right to use the land and own all products from it] with the state. And this made the situation very fragile. It meant that people couldn’t appeal to the justice system. Then other challenges arose, like a blight called black straw which affected rice, plus hurricanes, and droughts and floods.
With time, the government expected to create non-agricultural activity which would allow for more employment in other areas, thus decreasing the pressure put on the land. The hope was that people would come and bring investment and create jobs and transformation. Unfortunately, those complementary measures never took place.
After the  coup d’état which removed Aristide, Latortue came in as Prime Minister and gave land reform the coup de grâce. He disapproved of the reforms which had been taking place in the Artibonite, so [large landowners] started taking land away from the peasants. And that’s when the peasants began to fight back again. In fact, the conflict continues to rage in the Artibonite.
I can tell you that close to 40% of the people who’ve been given land by the government in the Artibonite have had their land outright stolen from them. And unfortunately, up to this point, no concrete actions have been taken to see to it that the government’s authority is respected.
Then came the second administration of President Préval. He came in with a discourse of reconciliation, a mentality of bringing back peace in society, so the land-related problems were set aside. They didn’t deal with them.
Today, INARA has a program with the Inter-American Development Bank to remove obstructions on 28,000 carreaux [89,254 acres] in the Artibonite so peasants currently working that land are legally protected. We have other, smaller programs underway around the country.
Challenges to Land Reform
When we talk about land security, there are three issues we have to take up, with serious problems at each level: Which land are we talking about? What rights do people have to this land? And which people have these rights?
Take the last question. Thirty to thirty-five percent of the population don’t have birth certificates. If people can’t be identified, they can’t establish what relation or rights they have to a plot of land. And as for determining the [boundaries and owners of the] property itself: the documents and titles are non-functional. Furthermore, people don’t have the resources for the extremely high costs of the procedures. The government has failed to create the necessary conditions which would allow people to own the proper title to their land.
All the work is proceeding slowly because the first thing you need for a true agrarian reform is political will. But the political trajectory which is being followed so far is a neoliberal policy, which is more oriented towards private property than state-owned property. For example, we’re seeing more interest in pushing the people towards free-trade zones than towards the land.
Despite all the talk about it, they haven’t even passed an agrarian reform law. The government is playing the role of observer more than really supporting people.
Then we’re talking about a whole group of government institutions which are involved in land matters but that don’t have much of a relationship with each other. Each one is doing something different. So if INARA is only providing plots of land, but the other players aren’t playing their parts, we still won’t get results.
And we can’t fail to take into account the broader political and economic context. Agrarian reform doesn’t just have to do with the land, it has to do with water, credit, technical assistance.
And take people who come from rural areas and go looking for work in the city. The ideal way [to reverse this] would be for the government to create agricultural sources of employment. I mean creating a master plan, mechanisms that would allow people in the countryside to earn money, creating schools and programs which encourage people to leave Port-au-Prince. Unfortunately, there are more people coming into Port-au-Prince than going out.
In summary, for agrarian reform to work, it has to be part of a bigger package of reforms and a broader comprehensive economic development policy. At this time, we don’t have any such plan.
Beyond that, we can’t talk about agrarian reform if we don’t confront the problem of environmental degradation. We can’t talk about agrarian reform if we don’t deal with issues of social injustice, the problem of inequality.
Land Reform and Food Sovereignty
One proposal would be for the government itself to take charge of land in conflict, which means they would do all transactions to allow for a gradual transition of the land. The State is the only party that can take the appropriate measures to put a stop to today’s land insecurity.
If the state doesn’t fulfill its responsibilities, then violence is what comes next. That’s when peasants take matters into their own hands to use force to defend what they have. And if we want to create a society in which the rule of law is respected, we have to allow the institutions whose purpose is to defend people’s rights to play their role.
The only thing that’s going to move the country towards policies that respond to people’s needs is a popular movement. That is, for the peasants who work the land to organize themselves to pressure the government to take responsibility, to play its role as arbiter.
I would say that agrarian reform and food sovereignty have to be pillars in a plan for national reconstruction. People have to be able to eat, and the people who work the land have to be supported. When food is imported, it causes competition with peasants who’re producing food. Look at the problem of rice: the nation certainly has the capacity to produce rice, to be self-sufficient as a rice producer, but rice is freely entering the country without being taxed. This as an illegal exchange, a form of dumping. And that’s what we need to avoid.
If we want to fight against poverty and misery, we need to start by changing our orientation so we, as the Haitian people, take responsibility for our country’s own development.
Thanks to Larousse Charlot for transcribing this interview, David Schmidt for translating it, and Tory Field for helping edit it. Many thanks to Ben Depp for his generosity in sharing his photographs.
Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.