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Infrastructure project in Haiti too good to be true

A South Korean manufacturer is opening up shop in Haiti, with a big chunk of change from the US. But the economic benefits could be more trouble than they're worth.
Haiti caracolEnlarge
Haitian President Michel Martelly performs the groundbreaking with former US president Bill Clinton, UN special envoy to Haiti, during the inauguration of an industrial park on November 28 2011 in Cap-Haitian. The project is now underway, after some set-backs, and is scheduled to employ some 20,000 workers. However, critics say it's the wrong way to support Haiti. (THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images)

A proposed industrial complex in Haiti will create jobs and infrastructure for the country two and a half years after an earthquake ravaged it. But critics say the plans are misguided.

South Korean textile and garment manufacturer Sae-A, with significant help from the US government and former President Bill Clinton, will break ground on a power plant, a port, housing and a factory in Caracol, in northeast Haiti. The negatives of the scheme, however, seem to significantly outweigh the positives, and were meticulously detailed in a recent New York Times article.

Although the company has promised to generate over 20,000 jobs in six years, the land proposed for building is far from the Port-au-Prince disaster zone, where the jobs and infrastructure are badly needed. 

Caracol is home to some of the only fertile farmland in a country that faces continued problems with feeding the population domestically. Farmers have been removed from their land, and although they were compensated, many are frustrated and weren't consulted about the plans, according to Haitian blogger Dady Chery, who wrote of the Caracol plans, "A deal was signed without any consultation with the farmers in the area, and the same week, the farmers who had just planted their crops, were evicted."

The area is also controversial to Haitians because it was the site of a US prison labor camp operated by Marines. Now it will be home to a South Korean company living and working in American homes, eating the American rice Haiti already imports, on one of the only pieces of land real food could be grown.

More from GlobalPost: Haitian farmers call on US to stop subsidizing its own

“The way I see it, in a deep, long, historical way, Haiti was founded by ex-slaves who overthrew a plantation system and people keep trying to get them to return to some form of plantation,” said Professor Laurent Dubois, author of “Haiti: The Aftershocks of History," to the New York Times. “There have been cycles of this type of project, where the idea is that foreign investment will modernize the country. But things have gotten progressively worse for Haitians.”

Former President Bill Clinton, the UN Special Envoy to Haiti, is one of the big supporters of the Sae-A plan, which was a joint venture between the Haitian government, the US government, and the Inter-American Development Bank, which had already pledged millions of dollars in aid before the earthquake. Now, $412 million has been allocated for reconstruction between the bank and Congress, with more than a quarter of it earmarked for Caracol. 

The New York Times reported the Haitian government agreed to provide the land, the bank would finance $100 million and the American government would spend "about $124 million on the power plant, housing and port...Sae-A, in turn, would commit to investing $78 million...It also promised to build a school."

Clinton has dedicated the last few years to Haitian development, and after the earthquake took up the phrase "build back better," meaning Haitian redevelopment should focus on being environmentally, as well as economically, sound. 

The Caracol project won't be either of those things. 

More from GlobalPost: Haiti's politics of blame

As for the environment, the bay where a proposed port would be built is home to a handful of endangered species, coral, and mangroves, and was going to be the country's first marine protected area. Waste from the area, even if it's filtered, will have a disastrous effect on the ecosystem. The power plant will be a heavy fuel-oil plant, which will cause pollution, although it was chosen because it produces the least expensive energy for Haitians. Not to mention, the area is currently home to about 11,000 people. The idea that in five years that number will be 30,000 has some Haitians reeling, according to local site Haiti-Libre.com 

Caracol also has a massive possible tourism draw, as the lost city of Puerto Real, where Christopher Columbus' Santa Maria landed, was discovered near the area. 

In addition to the environmental problems, Sae-A, which produces products for American companies like Wal-Mart and Gap, has come under fire for treatment of workers in Guatemala and Nicaragua, where anti-union tactics, harassment and threats have been reported by workers to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. SAE International was apparently knowledgeable about gang members' presence in factories, managers' sexism, and incidents of extortion, according to a long report on factory work in Guatemala put out by the Solidarity Center [PDF]

The project will go forward – there's no stopping it now. The question is if this will be another in a growing list of screw-ups the US has been responsible for in Haiti.

“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 to the New York Times. “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.”

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of Haiti, check out our Special Report "Fault Line: Aid, Politics and Blame in Post-Quake Haiti."

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