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Haitians in DR Reap Far Less than They Sow

Jon Anderson

BONAO, Monseñor Province, Dominican Republic, Aug 10 2010 (IPS) - Luis Miguel, a soft-spoken and serious 21-year-old from Haiti’s Artibonnite Valley, stands on a ridge overlooking the small farm in the Dominican Cibao where he works as the owner’s overseer. He adopted his Dominican moniker in order to fit in.

He is on his way back home to the tin shack he shares with his brother. He brings the evening’s supper: “pico y pala” (chicken necks and claws) along with a bit of rice and cooking oil. The shack measures no more than 12 or 15 feet in either direction.

He rarely leaves the farm, except to buy provisions at the local colmados in this small town just south of Bonao. He supervises the work crew and sticks close to the farm in order to guard against theft.

“I have got eight workers under me,” says Luis, “four of them women. They are all Haitians.” And that is the norm these days for most small farms.

“I earn 3500 pesos bimonthly,” he says with satisfaction. That amounts to about 195 dollars a month. If you consider that his job is never done, then on a daily basis he earns no more than six or seven dollars.

The price of a typical meal of chicken, rice and beans at a “comedor” or luncheonette is around 100 pesos, or about three dollars. That is half a day’s wage, so Luis doesn’t eat out.

He is shackled to that shack in more ways than one.

Don Jorge, who owns the farm, grows Chinese eggplant and “vainita”, a string bean that grows to a couple feet in length. He is doing better these days as a result of free trade agreements like DR-CAFTA.

“I have cut out the middle man,” he argues. “I can sell direct to the market and make a little extra money as a result. Plus my product can now be sold overseas. Better prices, more money.”

Nonetheless, like any small-scale farmer, he endures tight constraints on his earnings and is forced to offer low wages to unskilled labour.

Agriculture has customarily absorbed the excess Haitian labour spilling over from the sugar plantations, ever since that industry has diminished its output. But after the earthquake, the number of Haitians has spiked, and there is no crop that doesn’t depend on these workers.

So much so that any threat to this vulnerable population also threatens the Dominican economy.

In 2006, Dominicans burned Haitian shanties around Hatillo Palma in Montecristi province, in reprisal for the murder of a Dominican couple. The Dominican army deported hundreds, and the violence drove thousands more away. The banana growers were stripped of their workforce and the harvest suffered.

But aside from such upheavals, agriculturalists confront significant challenges. The coffee industry currently suffers governmental neglect, rising production costs, and deficient financing and technology.

The plantations are located in mountainous regions that lack electricity, aqueducts, good roads and social services. Coffee growers must depend on cheap labour, but this creates problems as well.

The low pay fails to attract Dominicans, who have been replaced by migrant Haitians. They are untrained, undiscriminating (picking green along with ripe berries in order to fill their baskets more quickly), and uncomprehending, since many do not speak Spanish, according to their Dominican overseers.

The heavy presence of Haitians in the agricultural workforce is a natural extension of the fact that this population traditionally worked the “zafra”, or sugar harvest. The sugar companies recruited, transported and deported this force as it suited their needs.

Head north from the capital on the Duarte Highway, and once descended from the heights of Pedro Brand you discover a stretch of fragrant orange groves riding the skirts of dramatic mountains. The roadside is also dotted with the usual brightly coloured, tin-roofed shacks that are a stock feature of generic Dominican painting.

But if you look carefully to the right at certain spots you will spy a different kind of housing, small barracks, the remnants of another agricultural economy which prevailed here in the past century.

These were once sugar cane fields. The small communities that cling to its fringes are called “bateys”, worker settlements notorious for their misery and neglect. The current generation does not cut cane, they work the orange groves. But their social ostracism has not altered much.

Michel arrived from Haiti in the latter half of the past century and now lives in Batey KM43. He and his children and grandchildren occupy a small wooden house that barely contains all the members and their effusive spirits.

What challenges them is social and political legitimacy.

While Michel has lived here long enough to preside over two subsequent generations of offspring, he has no cedula, the wallet-sized card that every Dominican citizen must carry to certify his or her citizenship. Without it, one technically cannot procure basic services, and one’s political rights are in jeopardy.

Though the Dominican government has been widely praised for its response to the Haitian earthquake, it has not been as charitable toward its long-term resident population of Haitian migrant workers. It has instead pursued a policy of exclusion.

This policy depends for its justification on the constitution’s controversial definition of citizenship, which would deny this privilege to anyone born of “foreigners who are in transit or reside illegally in Dominican territory…”

The irony that Michel can be defined as a foreigner in transit despite having been legally hired by the mill and rooted to this spot for decades is entirely lost on the civil authorities who adjudicate such matters in the dilapidated governmental offices in nearby Altagracia.

“I have the card that the mill gave me,” he says, holding up a tattered and faded bit of paper that ratifies his work status. “But this don’t do me any good.” If anything, it works against him.

Just his name is enough to cause them to reject his application. They write “Haitian” on a slip of paper and toss the folder in the backroom among mountains of disorganised files where it will never be found.

Because Michel is considered an “illegal”, his whole family has had to struggle to acquire legal documentation. His grandson, Michel Jr., despite having won an award in a rap competition in Higuey, cannot get work as a performer or even enter any of the resorts for lack of a cedula.

You reap what you sow. But for those who are denied the fruits of their labour, there is only the sweat and pain of Adam’s curse.

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