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They Call It Canaan

In the aftermath of disaster, Haitians ask what makes a city.

ISSUE:  Spring 2017


In the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, the most crowded city in one of the most densely packed countries in the Western Hemisphere, class and elevation are inextricably linked. The city was founded on the coast, at the foot of the Chaîne de la Selle mountains, and over the centuries spread upward and outward from the sea. And as the city grew, so did its economic disparity. Now the coast is home to blighted sectors like La Saline and Cite Soleil, where some of Haiti’s poorest scrape together a living on streets that fill with trash after a heavy rain. Just above that is Delmas, a middle-class district of cinderblock houses and a main boulevard where pedestrians weave through perpetually gridlocked traffic. Above them all is Pétionville, where Haiti’s wealthiest citizens and foreign-aid contractors live amid upscale hotels and well-tended parks, with sprawling markets and grand villas that overlook the city and the sea.

All of these neighborhoods were decimated when a magnitude 7 earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010. Buildings crumbled, the parks turned into tent camps for the displaced, rubble blocked the streets. But as the years progressed, from the balconies of Pétionville you could see something new taking shape in the distance, several miles north. Settlements began to appear on a barren landscape, shacks and tents spreading over dusty plains. On a clear night, you could make out the occasional flicker of light against the silhouettes of mountains and the moonlit sea.

The earthquake displaced 1.5 million people from cities in the southern portion of the country, including Jacmel, Léogâne, and Port-au-Prince. In an effort to find space for shelters, President René Préval declared about three square miles of land north of the capital public domain. Within weeks, Haiti’s government, the US Central Command, the United Nations, and an NGO founded by actor Sean Penn began constructing about 2,000 temporary shelters on approximately a hundred acres that came to be known as Corail, and encouraged people who’d been squatting in tents in Port-au-Prince to move in.

Residents of Canaan raise the first of three handmade utility poles, part of an improvised effort to receive electricity from the state power grid. Photo by Allison Shelley.

To many in Haiti, this idea of public land meant it was theirs for the taking, to possess and to own, to farm and to raise a family. No land titles were given, and there was no guarantee of how long people would be allowed to stay. Nonetheless, desperate for space, tens of thousands of Haitians flocked to the area, arriving from the camps that had erupted throughout the capital-. Some came from places that were hardly affected by the earthquake at all but who’d been living indebted to landlords, paying hundreds of dollars in rent each year, in a country where most people live on less than $2.50 a day. Establishing a foothold here was a way to become homeowners for the first time, and to finally escape the noise and hustle and violence of the cities they found so suffocating.

Among the exodus, leaders emerged with a vision for a do-it-yourself city, while neighborhood committees took shape to help plan an informal infrastructure with the hope that the Haitian government or an NGO or some sympathetic benefactor would soon step in to help. On one occasion, residents set about buliding a road by forming a konbit, or team of volunteers, to clear rocks from a chosen route, passing them down the line. After months of fruitless waiting for the government to provide electricity, some neighborhood committees launched crowdfunding campaigns to buy materials to create an electrical grid of their own.

Before the earthquake, the only people who visited these remote mountains did so to pray. It offered a quiet reprieve from the city, a place to be alone in nature. They referred to it as Canaan, the biblical promised land where Moses led the Israelites out of slavery, the land of milk and honey. “This Canaan has the same history,” one Nazarene pastor, who was among the first to move there, told me. “This is our honey.”

As crude as its infrastructure seems, Canaan has evolved into more than just a collection of people concentrated in one place. “If you go to a shantytown in Port-au-Prince, it’s all corridors—you could never get a car there. But this is hundreds of kilometers that a car could go through,” says Anna Konotchick, who oversees the American Red Cross’s work in Canaan. “It might look like a shanty to somebody else, but Chinese cities, American cities, they have formal urban processes. Here it’s the same thing.” To make that happen, people who are often described as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere invested more than $90 million of their own money to build some 20,000 houses—no bulldozers or grand architectural planning, just families taking matters into their own hands.

Of course, some critical ingredients for a functional city—let alone a healthy one—are still missing. There are no formal taxes, for instance; instead, residents pay their dues through patronage, or avoid them altogether by settling in the area’s remote corners, far from anyone who might demand them. Because Canaan isn’t a recognized district, there is no voting, no elections, no formal way to choose its leaders. There’s also no real police force, just a few officers stationed at the city limits with the impossible task of providing security for more than 200,000 people.

Yet for all its instability, this emerging city is the earthquake’s most visible legacy: an enormous expanse of winding dirt roads lined with houses, scattered among which are thousands of shops and markets. Into this labyrinth, an army of NGOs, charities, and international agencies have arrived to infuse Canaan with public parks and plazas, drinking water and money for schools—things the Haitian government has neglected to provide. But with these gifts come tension: Suddenly there are resources to compete for, and an incentive to be the one in charge of allocating them.

NGOs aren’t the only force complicating Canaan’s fate. Haiti’s government itself has been playing catch-up, struggling to create a social contract between people and their government. As to which comes first—the rights or responsibilities of citizens, the roads or the taxes—the state and the citizens don’t easily agree. And if that weren’t enough, Canaan’s very existence is being threatened by a man who claims that the land upon which it was built was taken from him illegally—a claim Haiti’s government has every incentive to ignore.

In Canaan, as in any city, people—the rich and the poor, the powerful and weak, the complacent and the desperate—are destined to get in one another’s way. What remains to be seen is whether its self-proclaimed leaders, its committees and social movements, can navigate between the nascent politics of a new city and the entrenched politics of the second-oldest country in the Western Hemisphere.

 Photo by Allison Shelley.


A city is made of two parts: the physical and the political. The physical comprises what people need to sustain life in a particular place; the political determines how they live it.

In Canaan, the physical forms each time someone claims a piece of land. If a plot appears unused, he might ask around to be sure. If the land is indeed already claimed, he offers a small amount of money for the rights to it. He hires masons to line the plot’s edges with concrete blocks; iron rebar flowers up from the corners. At that point, construction usually pauses, since most people migrating here lack enough money to build a house all at once. In the meantime, the foundation reinforces the claim until the builder can follow through with an actual home. It’s common to find goats and chickens grazing where bedrooms have yet to take shape, giving some plots the appearance of a sort of cinderblock petting zoo.

One morning, in a sector where a dozen or so of these concrete foundations were taking shape, I met up with Salma Simeus, whom I found walking one of his goats, straining to hold it back as it pulled toward a group that had begun devouring some nearby bushes. Simeus was born in Haiti’s agrarian central plateau, where, as a young man, he became attracted to volunteer work, raising money to help neighborhood kids attend school and organizing seminars to educate people about matters of health and disease. In 2000, he moved to Port-au-Prince to study at a local college, settling with his wife, Marie Celestin, in Tabarre, a sector tucked into the mountain that forms the backbone of the city. When the earthquake struck, he persuaded a nearby NGO to donate such staples as food and soap, which he immediately distributed to his neighbors.

Unlike others in Tabarre, the couple’s home wasn’t leveled by the earthquake. But after taking in so many displaced relatives and neighbors, their house became impossibly crowded. Rather than kick anyone out, Simeus and Celestin went looking for land on the eastern edge of Canaan, eventually landing in Onaville, where they moved into a zinc-and-plywood shelter built by TECHO, a volunteer NGO that had arrived after the earthquake. The TECHO structures were insufferably hot and prone to collapsing, but they were better than nothing. Soon enough, Simeus began volunteering for TECHO to create a list of people in need of shelter.

Celestin, meanwhile, began using her training as a nurse to help treat injuries and illnesses, advising people on such things as what medicines to buy, how to manage their diabetes, or how to prevent cholera. When one woman went into labor, Celestin delivered the baby.

Because of his and Celestin’s volunteer work, Simeus became a de facto leader in Onaville. He embraced the role, and began a campaign to beautify the area, which included getting a local artist to paint a mural and organizing residents to make street signs for the neighborhood’s dirt roads and alleyways.

“We wanted Onaville to be a grand village,” Simeus said as we watched a group of masons working on a foundation nearby. The idea was that it would serve as an example for other Haitian communities. “The garbage we throw on the streets here gets washed away to Miami,” he said, gesturing west toward the sea. “People see that, and that’s not the image we want.”

As time went on, international NGOs and agencies began offering funds to help beautify Canaan. The responsibility of trying to direct that money into Onaville fell to Simeus. Eventually he became a volunteer liaison between the NGOs and residents, conferring over one project or another. He became a man of many hats—or more precisely, many shirts: Once, between meetings, he took off his white Habitat for Humanity shirt and replaced it with a blue polo, then untucked a Red Cross lanyard from underneath. “Habitat doesn’t like you to have relations with another NGO,” he said. “I have an Oxfam shirt too.”

Eddy Bien Aime fixes a pair of sandals at his business in the neighborhood known as Canaan 2. Most of his business involves selling footwear he has bought secondhandand refashioned. He moved to Canaan just days after the earthquake and claimed a large parcel of land, some of which he has since given away. Photo by Allison Shelley

 Pascal Amelina (left) and her neighbor sell fritay—fried snacks—in the Corail section of Canaan. Amelina has a handful of small businesses that sell wine, embroidered clothing, sweets, and other items. Photo by Allison Shelley Driving with Simeus through Onaville one afternoon, I saw how he navigated his responsibilities to both the charities and the residents. Earlier that day, an NGO had given him a stack of forms—emblazoned with the logos of the Red Cross, US Agency for International Development, and Haiti’s government-housing agency—to distribute to people he thought would qualify for a development program. A few years after people began arriving, there was still no electricity in Onaville, so Digicel, Haiti’s largest telecommunications company, set out to install a series of solar-powered cell-phone charging stations. People who were selected to operate them would be able to collect a few gourdes from customers needing to charge their phones, which provided a chance to operate a business and earn some income.

I asked Simeus how he decided who should receive the forms. “That’s the problem—tèt chaje,” he said, using a Creole expression that translates literally to “burdened head” but more loosely to “what a headache.” A moment later, a woman flagged us down and greeted Simeus. As she was talking, he looked at the blank forms in his hand, then handed her one. Later, he explained that the woman was constantly pestering him for jobs, opportunities, anything. “Compared with other people, she’s not too poor,” he said. “I don’t think she will qualify.”

Why, then, had he given her the form?

“It’s a strategy,” he explained: If he didn’t give her a form, she’d be angry once she learned that he’d given them to others. This way, it would be the phone company or its NGO partners that rejected her, not Simeus. It was his way of peacefully placating one of many, disadvantaged constituents who constantly appeal to him with their needs.

Back at Simeus’s house, I looked but couldn’t find a cell-phone charging station, and realized that he hadn’t bothered to fill out a form for himself, nor had he given one to Celestin. There was little about their home, in fact, that suggested they benefited from working so closely with the NGOs. Perhaps Simeus was an outlier, but it didn’t seem as if he was in this for the patronage, which might explain why people trusted him. But it was also a circular phenomenon: Because the community trusted him, the NGOs did, too, which led them to offload more responsibility onto his shoulders still—something that would eventually turn his privilege into a burden.

Getting around Canaan isn’t easy. Traveling from Onaville to Canaan 1, for instance—sectors that are less than two miles apart—requires a convoluted trek: walking a dirt path to a tarmacked road to wait for a westward-bound tap-tap—wildly painted trucks packed with passengers—which then takes you to the turnoff to Canaan 5, where you board another tap-tap to reach a small market, where you transfer again to a motorcycle taxi that ferries you up a steep, rock-scattered road that eventually crests near a soccer field and park, the center of Canaan 1.

“We know what we want,” a community leader named Evenson Louis told me on a tour of this sector. “We want schools, hospitals, markets—a market means wealth.” After the earthquake, Louis and his family spent several days sleeping on the streets out of fear their house might collapse during an aftershock. Three months later, he began scoping out land here. Finding some, he laid rocks around the perimeter and claimed it as his own. A week after that, he cobbled together a shack and moved his family in.

Before the earthquake, Louis had worked loading and unloading bags of rice from trucks all over Port-au-Prince, a job that allowed him to observe the flurry of activity that food delivery brings, with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of men and women arriving to barter, buy, and then resell.

To attract the same sort of activity to Canaan, Louis had urged people to keep the dirt road that wound through this neighborhood wide enough for larger trucks. If it were too narrow, he argued, the dump trucks that travel back and forth to the nearby mine—not to mention the buses transporting people and their goods to market—wouldn’t be able to fit, and would end up bypassing the neighborhood altogether, taking their business elsewhere.

Louis also worked to reserve spaces for public parks. One space that proved especially difficult to protect from encroachment was a large field that was meant to become a soccer arena. Little by little, houses began to breach its perimeter. One family in particular ignored Louis’s pleas to not build their foundation so close, he said. “So I came with force.” By which he meant people. The motto l’union fait la force—unity makes strength—was embroidered on the Haitian flag two centuries ago, to mark the country’s independence from France. The mantra still rings true. Confronted by a group of neighbors Louis had convened, the family acquiesced and began constructing a new wall ten meters back from the field.

Of course, numbers are not always enough. When someone began constructing a two-story home on a plot that Louis had reserved for a hospital, he again got a group of residents together to confront the builder. This time, they were chased off by police. According to Louis, “the police shot in the air to make people go away.”

It seemed unlikely that police would go to that much trouble to allow one man to build a small house—that any municipal authority would care enough to even show up in the first place. Were they really police? Louis wasn’t sure, but he insisted that it didn’t matter if it was “official police or just guys with guns. It’s the same thing.”

Police, Louis assured me, weren’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, he welcomed the presence of some kind of authority or order. To that end, he and his planning committee had set aside land in Canaan 1 for both a police station and mayor’s office. These were, in a way, overtures to the Haitian government, an invitation to engage in the classic social contract by which people allow themselves to be taxed and governed in exchange for rights and services. For Louis and many others in Canaan, to be governed isn’t just a matter of receiving services, but a way of being legitimized. But ask anyone here whether the government is holding up its end of the bargain, and the responses are all variations of the same lament: Pa gen eta—there is no state.

Jacob Viknel at his motorcycle-repair shop in the Jerusalem section of Canaan. When customers pull up, Viknel fills their tanks with gasoline from the jugs on display. Photo by Allison Shelley

Evenson Louis (left) and Accene Appolon in a park they helped to preserve in the neighborhood of Canaan 1. Evenson actively protects greenspaces for the community. Photo by Allison Shelley


One morning I found Louis behind his house, squatting over a mess of tools and small machine parts. He was taking apart a diesel generator he used to power the bar and disco he owned—the only bar in the neighborhood, open just a couple nights a week, if that (the generator was broken more often than not). “If we had electricity, we would pay each month,” Louis said as he rummaged through a pile of wrenches and sockets, his hands black with grease. He leaned over the broken generator and grinned. “But with this thing I pay every day.”

This need for electricity is so fundamental that it inspired some of the community’s more audacious solutions. Dulia Cherestal, a high-school science teacher who was pursuing her master’s degree when she moved to Canaan 1, spent most nights working by candlelight and solar lamp, both of which lasted just a short time. (To charge her cell phone, she paid her neighbor a small fee to use his generator.) She figured it was just a matter of time before the state provided electricity for residents. When Canaan received its first hospital, just down the mountain from her new home, she assumed that if the hospital had electricity, “then we should get it too. But it didn’t come.” Shortly thereafter, Haiti’s government helped build an $18 million Olympic-training sports complex within sight of her house. “We saw them building that pretty Olympic center and we thought, Okay, now they’ll bring electricity for us. But they didn’t do it.”

After four years of waiting, Cherestal and other residents of Canaan 1 decided to build an electrical grid of their own. They collected money from neighbors to buy the materials, then organized a konbit to mix cement, water, and sand to form the concrete poles, which they then raised using a network of ropes. Once the poles were in place, the plan was to pay an off-duty state electrician 15,000 gourdes ($220) to connect people to the grid by siphoning power from a customer who lived down the hill. Every month, the customer would collect money from neighbors to pay his unusually high electric bill. The entire project was estimated to have cost 100,000 gourdes (about $1,500), with families chipping in around 4,000 gourdes (about $60) or donating such supplies as cement or rebar. By the spring of 2015, they’d raised nearly two dozen poles, but needed at least ten more to reach the power grid. Short of funds, the project stalled. “People are saving up,” Cherestal told me last May. “The future we don’t know. Only God knows.”

Seven years in, Canaan 1 still has no electricity. But just a stone’s throw east, in Canaan 5, the houses are powered between dusk and midnight with electricity diverted illegally from the public grid. This, too, was an improvised community’s electrification project, led by a man named Smith Merzeus, who, like Simeus, was someone people turned to with problems or grievances. People referred to Merzeus as “a man of responsibility” and “a big tree in our community.” One woman discretely referred to him as a bit of an opportunist. “He was a tough personality,” she told me. “He said whatever needed to be said, and then did what he wanted.” Merzeus had no qualms about stepping in whenever the government failed to act. As one man who worked with him on the electricity project said, “It was the state that should have done it. But it was us who sat together to make it happen. We broke the law because this was important to us.”

Of course, where the law can be circumvented for the greater good, it can also be broken with impunity—a fact that ultimately determined Merzeus’s fate. The way the story goes, a resident of Canaan 5, who already had a reputation as a thief, had begun extorting and threatening his neighbors. Merzeus, a member of the neighborhood’s security committee, reported the man to officers at Canaan’s only police station, near Onaville. The accused man was arrested and sent to the Croix-des-Bouquets prison. Then, whether by justice or bribe, he was released. Soon after, Merzeus received a phone call telling him he’d be killed that very day.

Merzeus was sitting in front of his house at dusk when two men pulled up on a motorcycle and opened fire. He scrambled away, but was so badly wounded that he could only hobble as far as a neighbor’s yard, where he collapsed and died. A teenage boy who lived next-door saw the assassination from his front gate. “As they left, they shot at me,” he said, showing me a bullet wound in his abdomen and another in his hand. (The Croix-des-Bouquets mayor’s office and police department did not respond to my requests for an interview about the case.)

A few days after the murder, I met with Merzeus’s wife, Magalie. When she spoke, she seemed stoic and distant, whispering just a few words at a time before falling back into a deep silence. She said she planned to bring her husband’s body all the way to the coastal city of Port-de-Paix, where his relatives live. But she wasn’t sure how she’d raise the money for the funeral, or how she’d make the long journey there on a deteriorating road with his body in tow. She didn’t expect the police to arrest her husband’s killer. She had filed a report, she said, but “since this is Haiti, and in Haiti there is no justice, I don’t have hope.”

 Photo by Allison Shelley.

Absent a police force to help maintain a sense of peace and order, and absent a formal process by which power is assigned to the elected, how does a city like Canaan survive? The answer seems to lie in collective civic engagement, in the dizzying array of committees and subcommittees that fill the void left by the state.

In Canaan, Sundays are dedicated to worship and meetings—dozens of meetings, taking place everywhere, one ending and another beginning. After service at one Nazarene church in Onaville, I followed congregants as they clustered into groups in various rooms to begin the day’s agenda. A women’s group met to contribute money to whichever of its members was most in need that week—to buy beauty products that would then be resold for a small profit, to buy medicine for a family member who was sick. A men’s group  down the hall discussed plans to build a roof over the house of a woman who’d been living with two children and no income since her husband had been sent to prison. The church band rehearsed nearby, forming a cacophonous backdrop to the seriousness of these conversations, as group leaders took turns outlining plans of action while others listened, transfixed. Later in the day, I met Mirlande Louis, a mother of five who was leading a women’s group that was trying to secure space in Onaville for a cemetery. “This place has a lot of people,” she explained, “and a lot of people die. And we don’t have the means to bring them to Port-au-Prince. Right now, we bury them on the mountain. But when rain comes, it could wash them away.” A dedicated cemetery could solve that, she said, but to find a space and protect it from encroachment, she needed to convince the male-dominated leadership committees that a graveyard was more important than another public plaza, church, or home.

For these community groups, the stakes become higher, and the process ever more complicated, as NGOs arrive with money to spend. Last spring, for instance, at a primary school in Onaville, I watched as a hundred men and women argued over who among them should lead a series of projects funded by the Red Cross and its implementing partner, Global Communities. The ruckus became so intense that the decision was postponed to the following week.

Simeus was there, surrounded by half a dozen people wanting to speak with him, many directing their frustrations at him. After all, as the community’s liaison with the NGOs, he was the conduit by which they could vie for funding or aid, which naturally made him a surrogate target of their demands or disconent.

Sometimes the demands people made of him escalated into threats of violence. Once, an NGO donated 50,000 gourdes—about $800—for Onaville to buy a diesel generator that would bring much-needed electricity. According to Simeus, a meeting to discuss the gift grew tense when someone suggested that they keep the money and split it among themselves instead. “If we just keep the money and use it, we won’t have anything after three weeks,” Simeus told them. At that, one of the men “lifted his shirt and showed me his gun.” Eventually Simeus calmed the man down, and the meeting ended peacefully enough. Still, it left him worried. “I think about what happened to Smith,” he told me. “I worry they could attack me.”

On two occasions, disgruntled residents have tried to have Simeus arrested in conjunction with his volunteer work. One afternoon last April, he was overseeing the construction of a small public plaza that was being built with money from the Red Cross and the US Agency for International Development. He was checking to make sure all the day’s materials were in place when police arrived and told him he’d been accused of having hit a man. They took him to see a judge, but when an angry crowd arrived and demanded Simeus’s release, the judge sent him to a station down the road. The crowd followed, and so police moved him to a prison on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, where he spent two nights in a small cell with five others, amid a swarm of mosquitos and human waste on the floor. Though the experience rattled him, he wasted little time getting back to work on the plaza. “The solution isn’t to quit,” he said. “If I quit, who will do it? We can’t move backwards.”

Simeus believes that the person who fabricated the charge wasn’t angry about the plaza being built; rather, he was angry that Simeus was the one overseeing it. In Haiti, it is often presumed that if you’re moving money, you’re pocketing some of it. Simeus seems to have been sent to jail for no other reason than that someone wanted to move money in his place.

“There’s something in the Bible about Cain and Abel,” Simeus said, “where Cain did something to Abel because God liked Abel better. Our story is like that story. We have so little that jealousy can make people do these things. It’s our misery that makes this possible. A community with 1,500 people, and each person has his own needs? All I know is that this work isn’t easy.”

Mona Augustin at the site in Canaan where, in 2012, 126 families bought land rights in order to establish a camp they called Mozayik. Later, a competing, more powerful claimant forced them to move. Photo by Allison Shelley

Magalie Gabriel, the widow of Smith Merzeus, with their daughter, Rachel. Merzeus was assassinated in a drive-by shooting outside their home in Canaan 5. Photo by Allison Shelley


If Canaan seems daunting to people like Simeus, it can be outright impenetrable to the officials who must oversee its governance from afar. Among them, the man tasked with overseeing the government’s role in Canaan is Clément Bélizaire, a civil engineer who runs Haiti’s Unit for Housing and Public Building Construction (UCLBP), an agency created after the earthquake to rebuild the public buildings that had been destroyed, reduce the number of people living in tent camps, and expand permanent housing. This last objective has proven to be practically impossible: In its first report, in 2013, the UCLBP estimated that some 500,000 people lacked housing. Since then, the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs has changed the designation of people living in Canaan, no longer considering them displaced, though this is clearly more of a nominal change than an actual change in their living conditions.

Bélizaire is “a planner, a project person,” according to Ben Noble, of the NGO Internews, which trains Canaan residents in videography, photography, and writing so that they can produce their own media content about life there. Bélizaire planned every last detail, right down to the sewers, for a multimillion-dollar program to rehabilitate sixteen Port-au-Prince neighborhoods in which to relocate earthquake victims from six different tent camps. “He’s very precise. Being an engineer, that’s how his brain works,” said Noble. “He’s savvy. He knows how to balance communities’ expectations with what actually makes sense from an urban design perspective.” Bélizaire was appointed to head the UCLBP in 2015 by former president Michel Martelly, and Haiti’s current president, Jovenel Moïse, is likely to have high expectations of him to solve this ever-expanding puzzle. The fact that it has already amassed an informal population of some 200,000 people simply raises the stakes.

I met Bélizaire one afternoon at his Pétionville office, situated on a steep hill and walled off from the adjacent street. Born in New York City, he speaks English with an accent that is unmistakably Brooklyn while also being unmistakably Haitian.

“Canaan is not as bad as some people think it is,” he said. “Every single family in Haiti dreams of being a landowner, as small as that piece of land may be. Canaan is an opportunity for a whole category of people to change status—social mobility. When you own land you can go to the bank and borrow money and use it as collateral. You can start a business, put your kids in better schools. You travel, you invest.”

In addition to its structural plans, which include expanding access to water (currently, much of the city still gets its water delivered by truck) and electricity, the UCLBP hopes to create microfinance opportunities to help residents start small businesses. So far, though, neither the infrastructure nor the economic incentives have materialized. “Unfortunately, we are going backwards,” Bélizaire told me. “It needs to be planned before it happens. It happened at a chaotic time and now we have to go in and put order where it doesn’t exist.” To Bélizaire, this meant conducting a city-wide census, and building an east–west road to connect different neighborhoods to one another. It meant digging drainage ditches to mitigate the risks of flooding. In short, it meant infrastructure.

Bélizaire acknowledged the work that Canaan’s residents had put into these efforts, but argued that it would be unfair to say they’d done it without the help of government. Its presence may not always be obvious, he said, but it is there nonetheless. I’d seen evidence of this on my first morning in Canaan. A man was kneeling in the middle of a dirt road, digging with his hands and a small shovel to access an underground pipe, in order to divert water to a sector of Onaville. Though he wasn’t wearing a uniform, he said he worked for the state water agency, and that he repeated this procedure every day—digging in the broiling sun, turning on the tap to one neighborhood for a few hours, then switching it to another. At the end of each day, he shoveled the dirt back in and packed it down in order to make it difficult for someone to dig and divert the water illegally.

Haiti’s state water agency has brought running water and sanitation services to parts of Corail and other areas of Canaan, and it continues to monitor the arrival of private water sources so as to identify gaps and needs. Some parts of Canaan also have legal electricity. And the UCLBP even corralled Haiti’s state construction company to clear a wide, unpaved road from Canaan’s bustling entrance down to the sand mines behind it. Still, providing all the infrastructure and services that its residents clamor for will require no small amount of money, Bélizaire said, which can only come through taxes.

Why should the people of Canaan pay taxes if they weren’t receiving services in return, and with no guarantee that they ever would?

At this Bélizaire bristled, visibly irritated at the question. “Paying taxes is a citizen responsibility,” he said. People complained about the lack of electricity, he pointed out, yet how many of them bothered to pay their electric bill back when they were living in Port-au-Prince? “It’s a culture of violating the law. Sure, the government has to invest—but first you pay your taxes, period.”

For a bureaucrat, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract isn’t much of a conundrum: The responsibilities of citizens must come first. But Canaan seems to have thwarted this binary. A better way to understand it might be through American social scientist Charles Tilly, who offers a sort of genesis theory that the social contract does not: First, people claim an identity—the way Onaville’s residents consider themselves separate from Corail’s, who consider themselves separate from those in Canaan 1. Second, they make demands, using committees, youth groups, and women’s groups to advocate with a collective power that individuals don’t have on their own. This strategy is especially important for an outlier community like Canaan that feels neglected by its government; and yet, almost without exception, people here fall into the same habits of patriotism as anyone else: Children sing the national anthem each morning at school, and on Flag Day their parents dress them in the country’s colors.

How can people who complain of total neglect by the state nonetheless cling to it so dearly? There must be a delicate balance: If Canaan’s residents distance themselves too much, they could become outsiders, forfeiting their right to demand services in the first place.

Indeed, most of the residents I met told me they want to pay taxes, want desperately to register their land and homes, but have no idea who to pay their taxes to. It doesn’t help that two municipalities are fighting for control over Canaan: Croix-des-Bouquets, a crowded sector adjacent to Port-au-Prince that claims most of the area, and Thomazeau, the municipality to the east that claims jurisdiction over much of Onaville. “Each government works for their own profit,” Simeus explains. “They come to demand our money,” but do little else.

Many residents are hoping for a third option—that Canaan could unify and govern itself. “I believe in the long run, it should be a commune of itself,” Bélizaire confided. “But bringing that in now, it’s going to take all that nasty politics you see on TV and bring it to Canaan. You’re going to have clans, you’re going to have fighting, and you’re going to have war.”

To Bélizaire, the future of Canaan depends not on who governs it, but on whether residents can secure rights to the land itself. But so far, even though Haiti has declared the land to be property of the state, it has yet to begin parceling it out.

“People in Canaan are looking for a future. It’s a city trying to be,” Belizaire said. “If some steps are not taken, Canaan will loose that advantage. People need their settlements to be formalized. When people do not own, in their mind they’re passing through, so they don’t care about tomorrow.”

Jean Leon and her husband, Michelet Alexandre, in their field near Corail. They arrived in 1996, when there were only three families in the area. Now their property, where they grow crops and raise cattle, is surrounded by a fast-developing neighborhood. “We came from the countryside to find life, and we certainly found life,” says Leon. Photo by Allison Shelley

Reginald Adrasse repairs a uniform in his small self-built tailor shop at the entrance to Canaan 2. Photo by Allison Shelley It is no small problem, then, that several parties are claiming that the land wasn’t the government’s to give in the first place. After President Préval declared the land public, the government never bothered to compensate its actual owner, making the appropriation technically invalid. In fact, Haiti’s National Cadastre Office hasn’t even stated publically which of the hundreds of claimants to the land actually own it.

There’s a good chance the land last belonged to a Haitian real-estate firm called NABATEC, which claims to have owned plots in the area since the 1960s. In 1999, NABATEC bought rights from Haiti’s government to develop the area into an industrial and manufacturing zone, complete with factories, housing for workers, and schools. According to NABATEC President Gerald-Emile Brun, the company invested $1 million in the project before the earthquake struck and the land was overrun by survivors.

But to evict an entire city—some 200,000 people and growing—would be an impossible undertaking in a country where even small-scale evictions are often met with passionate protests. Even if Haiti’s land court, civil courts, or justices of the peace eventually determine that the government’s appropriation of the land was invalid, it is likely too late for the true owner to do anything about it. NABATEC is therefore seeking $64 million in compensation from the government—a number Brun says is based on the price at which NABATEC sold off a few small parcels in 2009.

I met with a government official who’d received NABATEC’s claim—in addition to hundreds of others on the exact same parcels—in his office in downtown Port-au-Prince. As he described the circumstances, he pointed to a file cabinet in the back of the room, where all the claims were kept. “Everything’s there,” he said, declining to elaborate. Why didn’t he bother to go through them? He shrugged off the question: “It’s up to the courts to decide.”

As for the people living there: “They are occupying it,” he said. “It’s a slum. It’s illegal.” He added that the process by which they would earn rights to the land is a long one, with the odds stacked against them. “The state hasn’t even started the process,” he said.

Even if the state does successfully appropriate the land, officials will still have to decide whether to lease it out to those living on it or leave its occupiers in limbo. Until that question is resolved, many are concerned that international NGOs may begin pulling out of Canaan for fear that their multimillion-dollar projects could be at risk.

More likely, the land issue will never be resolved. Brun will go on demanding compensation, and the Haitian government will go on ignoring his claims as well as all the others, leaving them to gather dust in a cluttered office in Port-au-Prince.


One blistering afternoon last May, a team of residents employed by the Red Cross walked up and down the streets of Corail with notebooks and GPS devices in hand. Over the course of several weeks they’d been traversing every street and alleyway, every hill and ravine, as they literally put Haiti’s newest city on the map. Mappers with clipboards wrote down the names of businesses, schools, houses, and other such datapoints while their teammates entered geographical coordinates into the GPS devices, which then generated a number for each structure. At the end of the day, the data was entered into OpenStreetMap, a kind of open-source version of Google Maps. In it, Canaan appears as a thin gaggle of wiry lines and thousands of rectangles. Zooming in, those rectangles become houses and schools, restaurants and grocery stores, churches and playgrounds, soccer fields, doctor’s offices, discos and hotels—all the trimmings of a typical city. Zooming in a bit closer, the names of streets appear.

By naming this place, by counting themselves, Canaan’s residents hope to strengthen their claim to stay. “You’re not talking about a favela,” Brun says. “It’s beginning to be a town, with businesses. Transportation is organized there, markets are organized.”

But the conditions under which Canaan’s residents live remain dreadful. There are few jobs; an estimated one-third of its population lacks access to a toilet. People are constructing their homes in the same, shoddy way that caused so many houses to collapse in the earthquake. Rain still threatens to flood certain areas, and erosion could lead to dangerous landslides.

Canaan’s growth has been described as uncontrolled. Early on, urban planner Leslie Voltaire referred to it as the product of a “politics of neglect, a large growing cancer.” Noble, the Internews representative, told me how one resident bristled at this depiction, saying, “I haven’t been living in a cancer for the past five years. I like it.” Noble also pointed out that Canaan is remarkably peaceful for a place with more than 200,000 people but only six police officers.

“There’s a sense of community that drives this place, that makes it an agreeable place to live in,” he added. “But if the state doesn’t make its presence felt—and in a positive way—there’s a limit of time until that sense of community breaks down.”

And so the ending of the exodus remains a mystery. Migration to Canaan continues at a rapid pace, and no one can predict when it will end. In a wood-paneled community-meeting room, Simeus showed me a fraying, hand-drawn poster that listed census data taken in Canaan since its beginning. He leaned in and read aloud: “In April 2010, we had 7,000. In May 2011 we had 200,000.” He leaned back from the poster and looked up. “Now we have no idea.”

As the city expands, many worry about what will happen as different local governments and federal agencies vie for power over neighborhoods that are themselves competing for resources from NGOs. “Onaville, Jerusalem—each sector doesn’t agree,” Simeus said. “We all want the same thing—development. But nobody wants to share the resources they have with other communities.”

He shook his head and sighed, looking at the floor. “Our flag says l’union fait la force,” he said. “But the load is heavy.”

 Photo by Allison Shelley.

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


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Thomas Jennings's picture
Thomas Jennings · 6 years ago

Amazing article!!! All of these refugee pieces.. I felt like I have the perspective of a GoPro being carried under someone's arm, right in the action. Great job!


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