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A vital but treacherous highway is being rebuilt, just the kind of long-term development Haitians have been hoping for.
A trip along the road reveals that even some of these projects are failing to achieve long-term progress. Slowly, a motorcycle makes its way along a dirt path leading to the village of Saut-Matherine, home to several hundred rural Haitians who live in simple mud and clay homes. Last year the American NGO Heifer International donated cement and sand to dozens of families in the village to repair or rebuild their houses that had been damaged in the earthquake. Heifer’s masons decided how much cement and sand each family would need, and the organization oversaw delivery of the specified amounts.
But today, many of those homes remain half-built and unlivable. They have no roofs and often the cement block walls reach only four or five feet from the dirt ground. That's because many families ran out of materials before the work was finished.
“They said it would be enough to build the structure of the house, but it wasn’t,” said Elirese Clirgé, a 50-year-old who now lives with her husband and 10 children in a single, 12-foot by 12-foot room constructed using Heifer’s materials. Outside a few cinder blocks mark the base of a second room Clirgé began to construct before she ran out of cement.
“I don’t have any money to finish this,” she said.
Her neighbor, 70-year-old Regulus Tilus, built the walls of his home two-thirds of the way up before he ran out of materials to complete them and build a roof.
“They said it was supposed to help. It did help me get started, but I wish they would help finish it,” he said.
Like most short-term reconstruction projects taking place in the communities along this rural road, this one too began with the best of intentions. Wilbert Georges, Heifer’s coordinator for the region, said the organization hoped to quickly invest money there so residents could rapidly repair their homes before the coming rainy and hurricane seasons.
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But he said some residents ran out of construction materials because they chose to reconstruct their home using cinder block rather than the mud and cement mix that was the norm for most homes in the area.
“The idea was to rebuild their house in the same way. But many started to build a different sort of house,” he said. “If a person’s house fell, if one person wanted block, then they all wanted a house like that.”
The residents of Saut-Matherine question why Heifer only set out to help them build back their homes in the same, unstable fashion that caused them to collapse in the first place instead of investing in standard, cinderblock homes.
The half-finished houses seem an apt symbol of the failure of patch-up aid projects that contrast with the visible progress of the new road being constructed nearby.
To date, IDB has completed 14 miles of National Route 7 with asphalt paving, drainage ditches and other civil works like small bridges. Haiti has only about 2,100 miles of roads according to the IDB, compared with more than 12,000 in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
“IDB investment projects are by definition long-term undertakings and they always include money for capacity building,” said Peter Bate, an IDB spokesman. “The project is connecting a potentially very productive region of Haiti with the rest of the country.”
The Brazilian construction company that’s building the road, OAS, employed 745 people last year, 90 percent of them Haitians. Unskilled laborers earn only minimum wage — $5 per day — but workers say they’re appreciative of any wage at all in a region that desperately lacks jobs.
The work hasn’t always gone smoothly. In April 2011, residents who say their vegetable gardens were ruined by debris from the construction process barricaded the road with rocks to stop company vehicles in protest of a delay in being compensated for the damage, which was the responsibility of the Haitian Ministry of Public Works.
Near one of these roadblocks, 70-year-old Elimene De Bois sat in the cargo space of a large truck, sweating in the mid-day heat.
“We left Monday, but the truck broke down,” said De Bois. It was Wednesday. “My money is all gone, and I’m hungry.”
De Bois says she paid the driver $12.50 for the trip to Port-au-Prince plus $4 for each bag of charcoal and grapefruit she brings — an expensive trip considering charcoal sells for only $15 to $20 per bag at market, according to the World Food Program.
“We had a flat tire because the road isn’t good,” said the truck’s driver. “The road is still dangerous. There are accidents.”
Sometimes, those accidents are deadly. The Rivière Glace, which all vehicles must traverse, becomes perilous when the water rises after heavy rains and has claimed dozens of lives over the years. Just last week, it engulfed a passenger bus, killing approximately 40 people according to Haiti's Ministry of Civil Protection, although the bus driver says only eight died.
In August 2008, 14 people died at the same spot when their bus overturned in high waters during a tropical storm.
The river isn't the only peril on the road. In March 2011, a bus full of people crashed into a roadblock, killing nine and injuring 24 more.
To those who have lived in the region their entire lives and remember such tragedies, National Route 7 is a long time coming. They hope the new road and new bridge over the Rivière Glace will at last allow them to travel without risking their lives.
“People have been born and died wanting this,” says 90-year-old Deubemi Bazile, who sits at a small wooden table along the road in the town of Duchity, picking green beans from their pods. She says she used to sell four pounds of the beans for just 30 gourde, less than one dollar. Now she charges the equivalent of four or five dollars because merchants can sell them at faraway urban markets where they draw a better price.
A 40-minute hike south into the mountains from where Bazile sits de-podding beans, Resnel Pierre Louis weeds in his 300 square-foot garden of green onions and cabbage, which he rents from a landowner for $25 per year.
“In Haiti, everything depends on transport. When the hurricanes come, we can’t get to our fields and the crops flood,” he said.
Beyond its effects on local agriculture, the road is also connecting residents to basic healthcare and Haiti’s justice system for the first time. A police station finally opened last year in the town of Duchity halfway between the two cities, and a judicial office down the road now handles personal property, land tenure and other legal cases so residents don’t have to truck — or sometimes, walk — the 20 miles to Les Cayes, also home to the nearest full-service hospital.
Pierre Louis Jean Jacques, who works for the Brazilian construction company directing traffic on the road, hopes the new road will attract more foreign aid projects here by making the area more easily accessible.
“There will be more people traveling,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of visitors, whites, NGOs.”
But to many Haitians, NGOs remain decidedly focused on projects that are either short-term in scope or focused around Port-au-Prince, far from Haiti’s rural southwest.
“Those (regions) have been isolated for 200 years,” said Voltaire. “It’s a big change in their lives. I think we need more roads, more infrastructure, more energy — that’s what they should prioritize.”