Haiti aims to spread people, jobs across country

AP News
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Posted: Sep 04, 2011 11:42 AM
Haiti aims to spread people, jobs across country

When last year's earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, the school where Sansoir Boyer taught biology and math was reduced to rubble, along with the surrounding neighborhood.

Out of that disaster, however, Boyer has emerged with a new house and job beyond the teeming city he had lived in for years. Along with thousands of other displaced people, he moved to the burgeoning settlement of Corail-Cesselesse on a sun-soaked plain nine miles (14 kilometers) north of the capital. He will be principal of a soon-to-open elementary school.

"I think the area will be transformed and the people who live here will find a better life," Boyer said outside the row of schoolhouses.

Some 18 months after the quake, Haiti's government and international partners are trying to create jobs and housing in the countryside in an effort to relieve strain on dangerously crowded Port-au-Prince. The city is one of the Caribbean's biggest, with about a third of Haiti's population, having swollen from 200,000 people just a few decades ago to more than 3 million.

Part of the reason was that Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, the late dictator, shut down ports and tore up roads to undermine his opponents in the countryside. And in the 1980s, new factories lured farmers to the city from fields where they were struggling to survive.

Today, on the mountainsides surrounding the capital, cinderblock shanties are piled on top of one another. Seasonal rains often trigger mudslides, sending homes crashing down the crowded hills.

When the magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck on Jan. 12, 2010, some 300,000 people died, according to government figures. Densely packed neighborhoods became death traps. Whole neighborhoods were flattened. Many in Haiti have speculated that the death toll would have been lower had there been jobs and basic services in the countryside to keep people there.

Now government officials and foreign aid groups see a rare opportunity to fix the problem.

Running for president, Michel Martelly vowed to develop the countryside, and since taking office he has called for mending crumbling roads and infrastructure.

He recently inaugurated renovation of a highway to link Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second largest city, in the north, to Gonaives, a dusty port city on the west coast. He plans to extend the Cap-Haitien airport runway to bring in tourists and lighten the load at Port-au-Prince.

A recent report by aid groups led by the International Organization for Migration, which focuses on post-disaster displacement, says 12 percent of the camp dwellers in the capital who were interviewed want to move to the countryside.

The settlement of Corail-Cesselesse shows the possibilities and limitations.

The site was supposed to be Haiti's first planned community for quake survivors, many of whom were camped on a flood-prone golf course in the capital.

Thousands joined the exodus, and more than a year after the 20-hectare (50-acre) Corail site was founded, crudely made shelters have spread across its hills, raising speculation that the area will turn into another shantytown. But the organized settlement is also beginning to look more like a city, with rows of houses, churches, a clinic and a state-run school with nine classrooms that is slated to open in January and where Boyer will be principal. )

Roadside vendors, boutiques and barbershops have sprung up. A Voodoo temple, identified by a red T-shirt fluttering from a tall stick, sits just outside the settlement.

Public services, patchy in Port-au-Prince, are even worse in Corail-Cesselesse because of difficulties extending to the settlement power lines, roads and other infrastructure.

As a result, solar-powered lights illuminate the grounds. Water has to be trucked in. Banana trees grow in yards but few places exist to buy food.

"If you don't go out (of Corail-Cesselesse), you don't eat," said Rodrigue Desormeau, 45, who commutes to Port-au-Prince most days to sell skin lotions on its traffic-clogged streets.

Some residents hold onto hope that their lives will improve as neighbors come together and demand better services. Others are not sure the government will help.

"The state doesn't have a spirit of development based on its track record," said Boyer, the teacher, who is among the lucky few to find a job in Corail-Cesselesse.

The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, co-chaired by U.S. former President Bill Clinton and caretaker Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, also is looking to the countryside with projects that include two hospitals in Haiti's Central Plateau, an earthquake prevention plan for the north and various agricultural schemes.

The biggest U.S.-funded project approved by the panel is a $224 million, 250-hectare (617-acre) industrial park east of Cap-Haitien that would create 20,000 jobs and housing for 5,000 people.

Roads and jobs, however, can go only so far in persuading people to build ties to new communities.

Francoise Jean-Pierre, 30, was plucked from a makeshift shed on the Port-au-Prince golf course last year and placed in Corail-Cesselesse. She found a decent shelter made of timber and a job as a cook in the new school.

It still does not feel to her like home.

Reclining in a chair in a rare patch of shade, Jean-Pierre mused about her old, quake-damaged neighborhood.

"Delmas misses me," she said, "and I miss Delmas."