By MICHAEL NORTON
Date: Mon, 10 Feb 1997 13:37:45 -0800
Associated Press Writer
PONT SONDE, Haiti (AP) -- In a fertile river valley notorious for its bloody land feuds, President Rene Preval gave away hundreds of plots to peasants Friday and declared land reform Haiti's new weapon against poverty.
Critics say the move will not diminish tension and could cause more bloodshed in one of the Caribbean country's last productive farming regions.
``Land is power,'' Preval declared at a ceremony initiating the giveaway program at Pont Sonde, a west-central hamlet of poor farmers 40 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince.
``Will land reform be done without violence? We hope so,'' he said.
Standing with him on the stage was a white-haired peasant, one of 1,600 heads of family who will receive about one acre of rice paddies in the west-central Artibonite River Valley.
``Land reform should have come a long time ago,'' the man told the crowd. ``Today, I'm a happy man.''
But there has been loud criticism from peasants not included in the deal. Friday's ceremony featured a skit showing one peasant trying to convince another that land reform was needed.
``Collaborate with the government and production will go up and we'll have food,'' the pro-reform peasant said.
Critics accuse Preval of hurriedly arranging the land handover to win support following a series of protests that culminated in a one-day general strike last month.
``It's political. It won't solve the problem,'' Artibonite legislator Renold Jules told Radio Vision 2000.
The protesters were demanding Premier Rosny Smarth's resignation and an end to economic austerity measures -- including lowering tariff barriers they say will push farmers' produce off the market.
On Thursday, slum dwellers heckled Preval in Port-au-Prince when he inaugurated a water tower. ``We're dying of hunger! The Big Eaters are killing us!'' the crowd shouted, using the Haitian slang for corruption bureaucrats -- Big Eaters, or ``Gran Manje'' in Creole.
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 end French colonial rule.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines was assassinated for that policy. Instead, revolutionary war generals confiscated plantations, living in feudal luxury off the labor of freed slaves.
Land titles became confused as one dictatorial regime after another redistributed land to partisans.
About 87,500 acres in the Artibonite -- half the valley -- is in dispute. Lawsuits over ownership clog the courts. Often, disputes turn violent. The sight of a headless peasant in a field is not uncommon.
``Our policy is, above all, to bring peace to the Artibonite Valley,'' said Bernard Etheart, director of the National Agrarian Reform Institute.
But even he conceded a peasant family -- at least 10 people including extended family members -- needs five acres of land to make a comfortable living, much more than the government handouts.
Some plots in the government plan already are being worked on by more than one family. Presumably, someone would have to be pushed out.
Those families chosen for their length of land tenure and good citizenship get temporary contracts to work the land until Parliament defines the terms of ownership.
``That's not land reform. It has not even been initiated within a legal framework,'' complained Jean-Andre Victor, an agronomist who has written a book on land reform.
Most of Haiti's 7.2 million people are peasants whose misery has increased in direct proportion to soil erosion and the parceling out of land.
Traditionally, land is divided among the owner's descendants. But after many generations, people inherit so little they cut down trees -- crucial to preventing erosion -- to make charcoal for a living.
Peasants at Pont Sonde have been debating the land reform issue with passion.
``If the government expropriated the big landowners, I'd be 100 percent behind it,'' said Andeson Charles, 35.
``But it isn't! Lots of people have 300 acres,'' said Charles Henri, 25. ``The government isn't explaining what land reform is. It's rushing things and making enemies.''
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