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Former Pathways Intern Continues Work to Protect Human and Environmental Rights

By Sydney Speizman, Accountability Counsel

Walking through the lush green fields alongside the Trou-du-Nord River, it is immediately clear that this land supports growth; fruit hangs heavy from the trees and vegetation rises waist-high. These fields were once some of the most fertile farmland in Northeast Haiti, and supported up to 4,000 people – some of whom had farmed the land for generations. However, a cinderblock wall now blocks off 250 hectares of this land from the people who had relied on it for both their livelihoods and their source of food.

Behind this wall lies the Caracol Industrial Park (CIP), a massive industrial facility centered on an export-oriented textile factory. The project was fast-tracked as part of reconstruction efforts following the 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, with an expressed aim of spurring economic development and job creation outside the capital. The CIP received significant international financial support, including from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – both of which use public funds to fulfill missions of poverty reduction and sustainable development.

Wilson Menard, a farmer whose land was taken for the CIP, peers through a hole in the cinderblock wall constructed around the industrial facility. (Photo by Accountability Counsel)
Wilson Menard, a farmer whose land was taken for the CIP, peers through a hole in the cinderblock wall constructed around the industrial facility. (Photo by Accountability Counsel)

In the rush to begin the project, its supporters failed to consider the impacts on the thousands of people supported by the land taken for the CIP. In January 2011, about one year after the earthquake, the farmers’ land was taken with no more than a few days notice. As a result, farmers lost their livelihoods and source of food, children are out of school because their families can no longer afford school fees, and some women and girls have reported an increase in exploitation and abuse. After waiting almost three years for promised replacement land, most families were instead provided cash compensation that proved insufficient to restore livelihoods. Some received nothing at all.

This dynamic is all too common – millions of people every year are affected by projects like mines, coal-fired power plants, and agribusinesses that drive entire communities into poverty, cause multi-generational harm, destroy critical natural resources, and contribute to climate change. Remedy for this harm is rare, but possible. I work for an organization, Accountability Counsel, that supports communities around the world to protect their rights by holding the international investors who finance these projects accountable to their social and environmental standards. One of the communities we are working with is the Kolektif Peyizan Viktim Tè Chabè (the Kolektif), a collective representing the farmers and their families who were displaced by the CIP.

Last month, just before the eighth anniversary of the earthquake, the Kolektif reached a historic agreement with the Inter-American Development Bank and the Haitian government to restore lost livelihoods. The agreement provides for remedial support with a combination of land, employment opportunities, agricultural equipment and training, and support for micro-enterprise focused on women and the most vulnerable members of the community. This agreement was the result of a yearlong dialogue between representatives of the three parties and their advocates. The dialogue was initiated when the Kolektif filed a complaint to the IDB’s accountability office, which exists to receive grievances from people harmed by the Bank’s activities. Accountability Counsel provided in-depth support to the Kolektif throughout the complaint process and dialogue meetings.

I had the chance to join our team on a trip to Cap-Haitien to help the Kolektif prepare for one of these meetings. This was my first case-related travel, and seeing the process in-person illuminated many of the challenges that communities face in holding corporations and institutions accountable for abuse. After suffering severe harms that upend their lives, community members must organize, gather data, and engage in a time-consuming, complex process – all on top of providing for their families. Support from advocates with expertise in these processes is critical in helping balance power so the communities can effectively defend their rights and demand remedy.

Representatives of the Kolektif and their advocates after a training session. (Photo by Accountability Counsel)
Representatives of the Kolektif and their advocates after a training session. (Photo by Accountability Counsel)

The Kolektif’s achievement was hard-fought, requiring years of local organizing, media pressure, and dedicated advocacy to overcome the vast power imbalance the farmers faced. The dialogue that led to the agreement provides a model for communities around the world facing harm from international investment. Milostene Castin, Coordinator of the local organization supporting the farmers, described the historic nature of the agreement, “Finally, today, we have written a page in the history of Haiti. This is the first time that Haitian farmers have stood up and been listened to.”

While rare, victories like this reinforce my belief that it is possible to change the pervasive  dynamic of international investors and corporations disregarding the human and environmental impacts of their activities without repercussion. Seeing firsthand the potential for tangible positive impact that this process and the agreements bring to the farmers and their families, I am motivated to continue working to protect communities’ land and resource rights and striving towards a more equitable, sustainable model of development.

The accountability offices that we focus on at Accountability Counsel are just one strategy of many needed to ensure that human and environmental rights are respected in our increasingly globalized economy. As a student, being exposed to many of these strategies – and having the chance to embed in one for a summer – was one of the greatest benefits of the Pathways of Change program. In a reflection during my internship, I wrote:

The Pathways of Change program opened my eyes to the complex web of stakeholders and strategies involved in protecting human rights and the environment as the economy becomes increasingly globalized…[it] provided me with both deeper insight into how international development projects can better support the communities they aim to help, and valuable work experience that will undoubtedly shape my future career path.

Two and a half years later, as I sit in the same desk I had as an intern, this reflection rings truer than I could have imagined.

 

Sydney Speizman (‘17) is Executive Coordinator at Accountability Counsel, an organization that supports communities around the world defend their human rights and environment through legal support, policy advocacy, and research. Sydney interned with Accountability Counsel through Kenan’s Pathways of Change program focused on business and human rights in Summer 2016, and joined the organization full-time in May 2017. Applications for Pathways internships this summer are due on January 22, 2019.