CANAAN, Haiti – The sun-baked cinder blocks in Claude Saint-Elys’ dirt yard are an eroding reminder of the dream: a two-bedroom house with room for him, his wife and five surviving children.
“We have rocks, and blocks. That’s it,” Saint-Elys, who lost his 5-year-old son in the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, said about building his dream home on this barren hillside north of Haiti’s capital.
Across the way, down a dirt road, truck driver Mackenson Chery is building his dream brick by brick. Chery’s spacious home is partly walled in with newly cemented blocks and covered with shining zinc sheeting.
“We help each other around here,” Chery said. “It’s us, the mosquitoes and the dust balls.”
Canaan is a squatters’ paradise of mushrooming construction of makeshift shacks and concrete homes where quake victims, land speculators and ordinary Haitians seek opportunities.
Now, as Haiti marked the fourth anniversary Sunday of the tragedy that left more than 300,000 dead and 1.5 million homeless, this haphazardly built community, born out of the disaster, is in the midst of a rebirth.
Many are concerned that rebirth is more a throwback to the country’s history of disorderly construction instead of the planned, quake-resistant communities that were envisioned.
“When I see Canaan, I see the exact replica of Cite Soleil — a politics of neglect, a large growing cancer,” said Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner who worked on housing issues shortly after the quake. “It’s the image of the reconstruction, but by the people and without any resources.” Cite Soleil is a slum in the Port-au-Prince area.
And that is a disaster waiting to happen in a country where poor construction and poor urban planning led to the earthquake’s high death toll and the collapse of almost 200,000 buildings, experts said.
Canaan has become symbolic of the failings of Haiti’s post-quake response. It was under U.S. pressure to find land for housing that the former government of President Rene Preval declared the large tract of land public use, triggering an illegal occupation. But instead of free government housing, the Haitians found themselves the targets of speculators selling plots without titles.
Four years later, government officials are still haggling with some of the country’s most economically powerful families to gain title to the land while Haitians continue to stake their claims. Gradually, they have transformed the community’s 2,792 acres from a sea of blue tents to permanent housing.
Despair turns to hope
And while problems remain with land tenure, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) recently agreed to assist Haiti with getting “ahead of the curve,” by funding $3 million in technical assistance. The decision, officials say, is part of a new thinking of allowing Haitians to take control of their own development.
Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said there has been progress over the past four years, not just from the more than 90 percent drop in people living in camps, but from the feelings of despair that have turned into hope.
“We have a country that’s starting to believe that we can get back on our feet,” he said.
Still, Lamothe acknowledges that getting people into permanent shelter hasn’t been easy.
At the request of the Haitian government, an estimated 54,000 residents of Canaan were removed in September from the list of people considered internally displaced (IDP).
Gladys Melo-Pinzon, country specialist for Amnesty International, calls the decision troubling.
“Without their official status as IDPs, those living in the areas of Canaan,” she said, “may not be afforded the oversight and protection needed to abate future violent evictions.”
The human rights organization estimated that 45 percent of Haitians still in camps are at risk of being forced out.
Odnell David, the government housing division director, said there are no plans to evict anyone from Canaan. He said the government wants to work around what residents have built.
Still, 200 families in a nearby area called Mozayik were evicted last month.
For now, the government only has $6 million to put toward what David hopes will be a pilot program offering water, sanitation, roads and lessons on how to properly build. But perhaps the biggest challenge will be gaining the trust of a population that has been fending for itself with no government services.
Development experts and urban planners say that Canaan is the logical continuation of Haiti’s crowded capital.
“The time is now to do something before it becomes completely uncontrollable,” said Sandrine Capelle-Manuel, Haiti coordinator U.N. Habitat, which advises the government. “There is a possibility to make that a real city and not a Cite Soleil in five years.”