This Ungoverned Haitian City Is Fighting to Stay Alive
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Canaan is the story of what a shattered people can build with their own hands.
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A short drive north from Haiti’s overcrowded capital of Port-au-Prince, a metropolis is rising from a previously desolate landscape. Some 250,000 people have flocked to Canaan in the eight years since an earthquake ravaged Haiti, destroying 100,000 homes. Born out of a disaster, it’s a city without a government, and for many, it’s an experiment in self-determination. But its future is increasingly uncertain.
Absent any authority, Canaan’s residents must settle disputes on their own. They form committees and negotiate with NGOs to solicit water wells, public plazas and schools. They’ve built houses, shops and small businesses from scratch. Without formal jobs, they work as part-time masons, motorcycle taxi drivers, midwives, handymen and street vendors. In one neighborhood, they’ve set aside space for a cemetery — indicating plans to reside here the rest of their lives, and then some.
But without roads, transporting goods across the city is a long, expensive trek. The American Red Cross and its partners are preparing to build a mile-long paved road that will connect Canaan to the national highway at its perimeter, but Haiti’s government isn’t funding it. In fact, Haiti’s government hasn’t even identified and paid the owner of the land on which the city stands, meaning its appropriation may be legally void. The hundreds of thousands of people living there could someday be evicted.
The problem is security of tenure.
Leslie Voltaire, urban planner, on the absence of legal land ownership in Canaan.
After the earthquake, then–President René Préval declared the land public, setting the exodus into motion. Since then, Haiti’s national leaders have allowed the city to exist, but otherwise ignored it. Meanwhile, the three local municipalities over which the city now spans have been fighting with one another for control, while the residents of Canaan form tenuous committees in an attempt to bring order to their communities.
The failure of Haiti’s federal government to recognize Canaan as an independent municipality and dish out land titles is at the heart of the uncertainty over Canaan’s future.
“If the state cannot give you the land, it will be very difficult for a bank to finance a house on that land, because the bank cannot recuperate the land,” says Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner who consults for Haiti’s post-earthquake housing and reconstruction agency. “The problem is security of tenure. To know that If I build on this land, nobody will come and put me out. We need a guarantee that no one will take it from you.”
And yet, without that guarantee, life in Canaan goes on. Built from scratch by people in poorly governed, disaster-stricken Haiti, the city is emerging as an alternative model of urban existence — and its struggle is holding out lessons for similar future pockets that spring up in the aftermath of disasters. The UN estimates there are 65 million displaced persons in the world today, more than at any time since World War II. Most live in camps where their lives are tightly restricted by host governments. They are barred from owning land or holding jobs, destined to remain dependent on foreign aid.
Canaan is the opposite. Instead of being micro-managed, it has no formal government at all. The pioneers of Canaan formed hundreds of committees that each work on a particular task or oversee the development of a particular neighborhood. These informal power structures give street names to the dirt alleyways, and set aside space for future hospitals and schools.
But Canaan’s lack of governance might be its undoing. Residents yearn to register their homes and businesses, to pay taxes to earn recognition from the state. In turn, they demand services that only a government can provide: courts, electricity, security. Until those arrive, thousands of people will continue migrating to a city without a core.
One sunny afternoon, an elderly couple wander through a small cornfield littered with car parts. When Leon Jean and her husband, Alexandre Michelet, left the countryside in 1986 in search of farmland, this flat expanse was theirs for the taking. Apart from a few neighbors, “It was just animals that walked on that land,” recalls Leon.
Haiti’s history is unique. At the turn of the 19th century, Blacks rose up against their European slave owners to make Haiti the world’s only nation born of a successful slave rebellion. But Haiti’s leaders began taking territory for themselves and parceling it out to their cronies. Today, half of all Haitians live in poverty, surviving on less than $2.41 a day. A quarter live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.23 a day, according to the World Bank, making Haiti the 13th poorest country in the world for which data exists. It is also a deeply unequal society, studies have shown. That, coupled with the fact that Haiti is one of the most densely populated nations in the world, means disputes over land are commonplace.
There are nicer places to live. But you take what God gives you, and here we are content.
Raphael Philippe, Canaan resident
The earthquake of January 12, 2010, made things worse, initially displacing 1.6 million of Haiti’s 10 million people. Two years later, Haiti’s government estimated that half a million people in the Port-au-Prince area alone still had nowhere to live. Sensing opportunity in the empty space north of the capital, Haiti’s president declared it public domain. In a matter of months, Leon’s lonely farm became engulfed by a rough-and-tumble city in the making as thousands of people began migrating there, claiming pieces as their own. Canaan, named after the Biblical land of promise, was born.
They came from all walks of life. Some were working-class families with hopes of building their first home. Back in Port-au-Prince, 36-year-old Raphael Philippe paid $130 a month in rent for an apartment that came crashing down in the earthquake. For three years, he and his family lived in a tent before moving to Canaan. “There are nicer places to live. But you take what God gives you, and here we are content,” says Philippe. Six days a week, he and his wife wake up at 5 a.m. to make the two-hour journey on a series of tap-taps — colorfully painted pick-up trucks that ferry commuters — to a grocery store in Port-au-Prince, where they work as cashiers. “It’s far. But it’s better to have a house that is your own.”
Other early settlers included religious leaders who saw an opportunity not just to live, but to worship. “First I came to find my own land. And since I’m a pastor, I wanted a church,” says Nazerene Pastor Marc Loumette. He opened a primary school, offering scholarships to kids whose families couldn’t afford the $70-a-year tuition. He teaches his students civics and stresses the importance of a government, planning field trips to Haiti’s National Museum and palace to offer inspiration.
When the house on Leon’s farm collapsed in the earthquake, there was no one around to help her and her husband — both elderly — repair it. “Now that there are more people, it’s better,” says Leon.
But absent a police force, they’re vulnerable to theft due to their proximity to the road out of town. One night, five of their seven cows were stolen. The theft ravished her family’s income, but it didn’t rattle Leon’s faith in Canaan’s future. “The whole country has insecurities.”
Besides, a city is more than its people. Canaan has parks, schools, hospitals, shops, markets, businesses, restaurants, small cinemas and bars. “It’s the best example of housing after the earthquake — the only example of a viable community for the millions of people in Haiti,” says Voltaire. “They have done a lot without the government. A lot. They are doing a pretty good job.”
But he worries that the city’s residents “are thinking small.” Without titles to the land or their homes, residents can’t easily receive loans that would allow them to grow their businesses or stock their shops. Currently there’s no authority that’s prepared to give them these documents. Voltaire says the people of Canaan deserve a government. “They’re asking for roads, they’re asking for police, they’re asking for justice, because when there’s conflict, they have to sort it by themselves. They’re asking for water, electricity,” says Voltaire. “They should be allowed to elect their own mayor and think for themselves.”
For now, Voltaire says the only solution may be to let one of the neighboring municipalities vying for control over Canaan step in where Haiti’s federal government has not. So far, however, Canaan’s experience with these municipalities has been anything but pleasant. Municipal workers walk the dirt paths and alleyways of the city extorting money. Sometimes they seize construction materials like cement and iron when people refuse to pay.
Federal government support remains the city’s best chance in the long run, suggests Voltaire. “If the government takes Canaan seriously — opening roads, avenues, inviting the private sector, the banks, the shops — there is hope,” says Voltaire.
At the moment, that’s a big if.
Critics of the international agencies, NGOs and Haitian president who sparked the mass migration to Canaan worry it may end up little better than a sprawling urban slum, a squatters’ camp for people displaced by the earthquake — which, initially, it was. Oxfam called Canaan “a manifestation of institutional weakness,” a test of whether Haiti’s government and international donors can succeed at developing “livable neighborhoods.”
But Canaan’s underlying structure differs from many of the world’s other migrant cities. Take Kakuma, the refugee camp in northern Kenya that opened in 1992 to house the lost boys of Sudan. Unlike Canaan, Kakuma is run under a set of strict rules by Kenyan authorities and UN agencies that oversee it. Its 176,000 inhabitants are legally barred from building permanent homes, holding jobs or owning farmland. Kenya even forbids refugees from venturing outside the camps. As a result, Kakuma today is little different from when it first appeared 25 years ago. In some ways, it’s worse—food rations have recently been cut, and there’s nothing the refugees can do but sit and hope for the best. An entire generation of children has grown up without any agency over their own lives.
In Canaan, on the other hand, residents open businesses, and they build: Each day dozens of trucks leave the sand mines in the mountains that form Canaan’s backbone, ferrying sand for concrete. Thousands of houses and other structures are now visible in Open Street Maps.
“They may not have the academic skills to plan their neighborhood, but the Haitian people have a vision,” says Clement Belizaire, who heads Haiti’s government agency that’s theoretically responsible for overseeing the planning and development of Canaan but that hasn’t been allocated the funds to do so. “They want to have public spaces, they want to have the life of a normal family. So they try to plan on a very micro level.”
But if neither the central nor local governments invest in developing Canaan and it remains informal for too long, it may become impossible to turn this rapidly expanding city into a legal and fully functioning municipality, suggests Belizaire. “If you let the informal invade the area, you won’t have room for the formal. And it will be a very long process to rehabilitate and have a great Canaan,” he says.
There’s more at stake than just Canaan’s own future. If the city does become viable, it may offer lessons for other poorly governed cities beyond Haiti’s borders. After all, Canaan may be the world’s newest ungoverned city, but it isn’t the first.
The most populous region in Somalia remains partially ungoverned and wholly insecure: In October a truck bomb in Mogadishu killed more than 500 people in just one of many attacks attributed to the terrorist group al-Shabaab. In an article called “Better Off Stateless: Somalia Before and After Government Collapse,” Peter Leeson, a law professor at George Mason University who studies the economics of anarchy, argues Somalia’s government “did more harm to its citizens than good,” and concludes that “Somalis are better off under anarchy than they were under government.”
It’s unclear whether the same might be true in Haiti, where people live neither in anarchy nor under true governance, but somewhere in between. That could pose a problem when it comes to issues that are too big for a community to solve on its own.
A study last year by the Technical University of Munich reported that parts of Canaan are prone to flooding, a risk exacerbated by the hurricanes that hit Haiti each year. Erosion from the mountains and the sand mines that form Canaan’s northern rim threaten to send rivers of mud into the city. Born out of a disaster, some fear Canaan may one day be decimated by one.
But Canaan’s unsteady land also offers some optimism. The Red Cross has begun projects to mitigate erosion and flooding, and the Technical University of Munich is studying the agricultural and forestry potential of the land to see whether plants could be grown for energy, food or medicine. Already, researchers discovered 85 species of plants growing in the private yards of Canaan residents. And the ongoing construction of the Lafiteau port just west of the city gives hope to those who believe industry will take advantage of the free trade zone there, generating jobs for people in nearby Canaan.
Whether Canaan flourishes or fails, this ungoverned Haitian city may yet give the world a lesson in post-disaster urbanism.
Text by Jacob Kushner; photos by Allison Shelley. Reporting for this story was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
- Jacob Kushner & Allison Shelley, OZY Author Contact Jacob Kushner & Allison Shelley