Environmental, Labor Concerns Overlooked in Rush to Build Caracol Park
|Friday, 06 July 2012 15:15|
The first of two installments looking at the New York Times in depth investigation into the Caracol industrial park. Part two will be posted shortly.
Two and a half years after the earthquake, Haiti remains mired in a humanitarian crisis, with 390,000 people languishing in tents. Yet the showcase project of the reconstruction effort is this: an industrial park that will create jobs and housing in an area undamaged by the temblor, a venture that risks benefiting foreign companies more than Haiti itself.
The park, whose main tenant Sae-A expects to generate some 20,000 jobs over the next six years, has been made possible by generous subsidies from the U.S. and Haitian governments and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Sae-A officials were invited to the U.S. embassy in Seoul to meet with Secretary of State Clinton in 2010. One concern the company had at the time was “uncertainty about whether Haiti’s minimum wage for textile workers, scheduled to increase to $5 from $3.75 a day this October, would continue to rise.” Wikileaks cables later revealed that the U.S. embassy in Haiti, along with some multinational companies had “aggressively moved to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers,” according to The Nation. While the minimum wage has increased, 18 out of 20 factories monitored by the Better Work Haiti program were found to be non-compliant on the minimum wage in their most recent assessment published in April.
By late summer, they were flying with their investment plan to Washington for a meeting with Mrs. Clinton and other international officials in a historic treaty-signing room on the State Department’s seventh floor.
While Sae-A originally estimated the project would create 3,000-4,000 jobs, American and international officials wanted more:
“We would say, ‘We could probably do a factory with about 3,000 to 4,000 people.’ They’re like, ‘Wow. What would you need to make it bigger?’ I [Lon Garwood, senior advisor to Sae-A] said, ‘If we could get a loan for the machines, we could probably double that.’ They said, ‘What about 10,000?’ We said, ‘If we didn’t have to worry about purchasing the land, if we didn’t have to build the factory shells, then we could double it again.’ That’s where the 20,000 jobs figure came from.”
In the end, the land was provided free of charge by the Haitian government (evicting some 350 farmers in the process), the IDB agreed to provide $100 million to finance the building, while the U.S. would contribute $124 million for a power plant, housing and a port. Sae-A, which reported $1.1 billion in export business last year, only needs to invest $39.2 million. The $124 million provided by the U.S. is over a quarter of the money the U.S. earmarked for reconstruction.
“I think there was emotion within State that we haven’t done anything effective in Haiti,” said Cathy Feingold, international development director for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. “There was a guilty sense that we have to do something, anything. But doing it this way is not going to be helpful to Haitians. It’s got to be done so there are living wages and the environment is healthy.”
Environmental, Social Concerns Overlooked
The United States Treasury Department had concerns, too. Because an environmental impact study was not done properly or far enough in advance, the Treasury, which represents the United States on the development bank board, took the unusual step of abstaining from the vote that approved the $55 million grant to build the park.
One person who was not consulted about the location was the mayor of Caracol, Landry Colas:
“I would have chosen another site, given that this one was already occupied by people earning a living,” he said. “But I’m no expert.”
Colas added, “Foreigners know more about what’s going on in Caracol than I do.”
“When you look at the social problems that Cité Soleil poses today, you have to ask, did it have to be that way?” said Michèle Oriol, executive secretary of Haiti’s Inter-ministerial Commission on Territorial Planning, which has objected to the park’s location, and that of a U.S.-financed housing development just off the main commercial corridor.
As part of the Caracol project, the U.S. government has signed contracts to build some 750 houses in the Caracol area, costing some $20 million. In comparison, as Sontag points out, the U.S. embassy in Haiti is building 86-100 townhouses complete with recreation facilities for up to $100 million. Additionally, the houses, while larger than originally planned due to community input, have been criticized as well. Sontag writes:
Described by American officials as a cost-efficient use of space, the Caracol housing project is criticized as “extremely dense and monotonous” and “violating numerous principles inherent to sound urban design” by Greg Higgins, an architect who wrote a scathing peer review.Part two, detailing concerns about labor rights with Sae-A and other garment manufacturing companies in Haiti will be available shortly.