Artibonite: Faced with the threat of armed gangs, farmers forced to abandon their land

Credit: Photographer: Federico Rios / Bloomberg

By Wethzer Piercin & Jerome Wendy Norestyl, Ayibopost, March 29, 2023

A farmer from Petite-Rivière de l'Artibonite has lost almost everything. His rice 4-acre plantation was forcibly taken by armed men.

The farmer, who would not share his name for fear of reprisal, said "I had to give up a large part of my land because I couldn't go there since June 2022. The bandits control everything".

Since April 2019, municipalities such as Verrettes, Liancourt, Petite-Rivière de l'Artibonite and Estère have faced extreme violence due to various clashes between the "Baz gran grif" of Savien, the men of "Ti Mepri” and “Palmis” gangs.

These gangs have wrought all sorts of abuses on the population, such as seizure of property, theft and destruction.

Erold Joseph lives in Dessalines. He studied agronomy in Saint-Marc. He is also a member of a peasants organizations. In December 2022, while he was in the public square, he met an old man. A farmer by trade, who explained to him that he had fled his neighborhood of Barrière-Léon, located about thirty minutes by car from the city of Saint- Mark.

One afternoon in October 2022, armed men invaded and began to destroy everything. That day, he and his family narrowly escaped.  They were forced to leave in haste, leaving everything behind. They only had time to pack a few clothes and are now struggling to support themselves in Saint-Marc.

Joseph knows many other farmers who have fled their farms in the lower Artibonite, fleeing from armed bandits.

"I know people who used to cultivate their land, but today find themselves in the cities begging to survive. The luckiest live on transfers from the diaspora or sell soft drinks," explains Joseph.

At the Pont-jour market in Marchand Dessalines, where rice is usually sold, bandits extort money from small merchants. According to Wesly, a resident of Petite-Rivière, “to be able to sell their rice, the merchants must pay the gangs”.

Trade through the two largest markets in lower Artibonite, L'Estère and Pont-Sondé, is increasingly slow. The main access roads leading to these places are currently blocked by gangs. Usually, traders sell agricultural products such as rice and other foodstuffs from their land.

People who used to cultivate their land end up begging.

This new reality affects planters who helplessly watch the looting of their livestock and crops. Armed bands seize plots of land from peasants and then resell them. Sometimes planters face demands for ransom, or demands that they hand over their crops.

For six years Jeanys Frémiot has been cultivating the land bequeathed to her by her father in Guérot, located about ten minutes from the town of Palmis. In July 2022, his life changed.

"I was on my way to my garden, which is about a thirty-minute walk from my home, when I heard gunshots," he explained.

"As I was about to cross a small stream to get to the garden, I heard gunshots," he says. Two motorcycles stopped behind me and armed men got out. They started yelling at me, threatening me with their guns. They said that I no longer had any rights to these lands, that they now belonged to them”, 

Frémiot explained that he left everything to the bandits and returned home, trembling with rage.

At 32, Frémiot is worried about the future of his two sons, because he is no longer able to pay for their schooling.

"I do not know what to do. I abandoned my land, my animals and my house. It was all I had. Me, my wife and my children, we live with a friend in Carrefour-feuille now".

According to OCHA, the Artibonite Valley produces nearly 80% of the rice in the country.

There is a risk production levels will fall if no action is taken.

"While it is not yet possible to assess the impact of the proliferation of armed gangs on agricultural production in the lower Artibonite, it is obvious that production has dropped considerably", Erold Joseph explained.

In its latest bulletin published in March 2023, the National Food Security Coordination (CNSA) shows that food insecurity affects nearly 50% of the population. An alarming statistic that is only likely to worsen. 

Before the surge in armed gang activity, the farmers of the valley were already facing multiple problems such as water shortage, lack of investment, lack of infrastructure, and the effects of global warming.

Watson Thermilus, a municipal delegate from Verrettes, confirmed that "apart from the drought, the arable land is under the influence of the bandits". A situation which will have considerable consequences on the rise in the price of products during the harvest season of June and July, he explained.

Vickens Dérilus, a former municipal deputy of Verrettes, explained that the "difficulties in cleaning, loss of laborers, lack of irrigation, leads to food dependence on the 'foreign ". The peasants who more or less manage to produce foodstuffs, do so to survive. "This is in no way a commercial production policy aimed at competing with imports," Dérilus explained. The peasants who bet on agriculture as their sole source of income have become completely decapitalized. This will exacerbate the migration to other cities or abroad."

 Restoring security is essential to improving the situation of planters and facilitating a return to normal agricultural activities in the Arbonite valley.

It is essential to find the best possible strategy to force the armed gangs to retreat and to develop social programs for the young people of the affected regions. It will also be necessary to develop social and economic support programs to help those who have lost everything..

Erold Joseph believes that it is necessary to act not only on structural factors, such as the absence of adequate agricultural infrastructure in the valley, but also on situational factors linked to the activities of armed gangs. He advocates for the development of a security plan leading to concrete actions to counter criminal activities.


Translated by CHIP editors


Posted April 25, 2023