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Haitian president distributes thousands of acres to peasants

February 7, 1997

PONT SONDE, Haiti (AP) _ When Haiti became the world’s first black republic in 1804, its leader promised to divide the land among the slaves who fought with him to throw off French colonial rule.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines was murdered for that policy. Haiti’s current leader says he wants to fulfill Dessalines’ promise _ starting today.

Rene Preval will hand out 2,500 acres of rice paddies in the Artibonite River Valley in ceremony marking his first year as president, a year in which he admittedly has failed to relieve the country’s abject poverty.

``We have begun in the Artibonite because it has great productive potential ... and because people are dying in land disputes″ there, Preval said this week.

But today’s handover, in an area notorious for bloody feuds between peasants and landowners, has provoked loud complaints from people left out of the deal and criticism from those who call the move a half-measure.

For weeks, four peasant associations have been choosing 1,600 families to get 1.2-acre plots. Bernard Etheart, director of the National Agrarian Reform Institute, said some plots already are being worked by more than one family; one of the two presumably would be pushed out in the deal.

The lucky families _ chosen for how long they have worked the land and their standing as citizens _ will get temporary contracts until Parliament defines the terms of ownership.

Peasants have been debating the issue passionately in Pont Sonde, a hamlet of Artibonite farmers 40 miles northwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

``If the government expropriated the big landowners, I’d be 100 percent behind it,″ said Audeson Charles.

``But it isn’t! Lots of people have 300 acres,″ added Charles Henri. ``The government isn’t explaining what land reform is. It’s rushing things and making enemies.″

Critics accuse Preval of arranging the package hastily to recoup support after a series of protests that culminated in a one-day general strike last month.

``It’s political,″ Artibonite legislator Renold Jules told Radio Vision 2000. ``It won’t solve the problem,″

The general strike, the first against a democratic government in Haiti, protested the austerity measures, including lower tariffs protesters say will bump farmers’ produce from the market.

Haiti has struggled to make the passage to democracy since Preval succeeded President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s 193-year history.

But the fight over land goes back a long way, with warlords honing their swords and peasants sharpening machetes.

Dessalines’ murder following Haitian independence in the early 19th century unleashed a spiral of violence that twisted and turned through succeeding decades. Revolutionary war generals took over confiscated plantations, living in feudal luxury off the labor of freed slaves.

One dictatorial regime after another redistributed land to its partisans, creating a maze of land titles.

Since then, changes in the condition of the land have been equally wrenching. Most of Haiti’s current population of 7.2 million are peasants whose misery has increased in direct proportion to soil erosion and land-sharing.

Traditionally, land is divided among the owner’s descendants. After many generations, the heirs inherit so little that they cut down soil-holding and fruit-bearing trees to make charcoal for a living. Trees now cover less than 2 percent of Haiti’s 11,000 square miles.

Since the 1970s, a rural exodus has caused a mushrooming of shantytowns in Haiti’s cities. Agronomists say that if productivity increased, people would remain on the land.

Agronomist Jean-Andre Victor is skeptical that the handover will bring about any real change.

``The government program is unlikely to diminish tension in the valley,″ he said. ``It is not land reform. It has not even been initiated within a legal framework.″

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