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.
A man works to level a plot of land in order to begin building a home in the Canaan
settlement. Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
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.
Elias Jean Oriel (left) and Regala Laisse Moi turn sand and cement into
cinderblocks in the Canaan 2 section of Canaan, Haiti. "There are four types of
block for different building needs," says Oriel, who is making wall block, known as
"type 15," which sells for 25 gourds each (about 50 cents). This particular batch
will go to expand Oriel's own house nearby, which he's been building for the past
four years. Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
But without roads, transporting goods across the city is a long, expensive trek. The American Red Cross and its partners are preparing to build 2.5 kilometers of 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.
Residents of the former Mozayik tent camp protest at an event attended by Haitian
President Michel Martelly commemorating the five-year anniversary of the 2010
earthquake, at the St. Christophe memorial, in Canaan, Haiti. The group of 126
families has been evicted from a tent camp and now from land they bought title to
in Canaan. Their signs ask the president to arrest the men who sold them the
questionable title. Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
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.”
First grade teacher Andre Lydie works with her students on a lesson in the main
sanctuary of the Church of the Nazarene, which doubles as an elementary school and
is split into four classrooms during the week, in the Onaville section of Canaan.
The church/school was founded by Pastor Marc Loumette in 2010. Seventy percent of
the students are unable to pay their full school fees, but Loumette says he
wouldn’t dream of kicking them out of school, though he has been unable to pay the
teachers their salaries in four months. Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
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.
Mona Augustin stands on land near the Village Grace de Dieu in Canaan, Haiti, with
some of the 126 families who have been together since they met in a tent camp
called Mozayik after the 2010 quake. After being evicted from Mozayik in 2012, they
bought title to this property. The group was later forced to move from the land by
armed men who claim their own title to that land.
Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
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.
Residents involved with the community group Organisation pour le Developpement de
Canaan (OPCD) raise the first of three light poles they have constructed by hand in
the Canaan I section of Canaan. “The government has no interest here because there
is nothing in it for them,” says Cherestal Dulia, a secretary general of the group.
The group pools money to buy materials and meets on Sundays to cast three bags of
cement and four pieces of 3/8” rebar into a single pole. In the past six months
they have raised 15 of the 51 they estimate they need to reach the main road.
“Next, high tension wires,” says Dulia. Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
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.
Eddy Bien Aime repairs a pair of sandals at his business on the main road to the
Canaan II section of Canaan. Most of Bien Aime’s business involves selling footwear
that he has bought secondhand and refashioned. He moved to this area on
Jan. 16, 2010, just days after the quake, and took over a large parcel, some of
which he has since given away. “Downtown, there are killings. I have to be careful
when I come back from there that people don’t rob me. Here in Canaan, it feels
better,” says Bien Aime. Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
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.
Destine Jean Robert, 40, adds cement to the wall of a home he is constructing for
his nephew in the Canaan 1 section of Canaan. Destine, who is building his own
house next door, currently lives downtown in a neighborhood called LaVille, but he
hopes to move once the house is done. “If I had the money to buy all of the
supplies, I could do it all in two months,” he says. “Here, we don’t put our hope
in the government. We just struggle along with what we have.”
Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
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.
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.
From left: Estimei Volmy, Simeus Salma, Louis Midelove, Pierrelien Patrick,
Victor Layers and Condiac Julien look at maps provided by UNA/Habitat of
developments that are slated for their community at a meeting of the Table Quartier
d’Onaville community group, in a church building made of wood and vinyl posters, in
the Onaville neighborhood of Canaan. Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
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.”
A vendor stands in a neighborhood snack shop (his wife’s business) and a workshop
for making speakers (his business) in Canaan’s Corail neighborhood. He makes the
speakers by hand from plywood, felt and parts salvaged from broken speakers that he
buys secondhand. The biggest units he sells to discos and DJs for over $600 (U.S.)
apiece. Lately, business has been slow and he has decided to sell the shop so he
can afford to buy the parts to finish a few more, which he plans to set up to play
music onto the street to attract customers. Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
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.
Saint-Louis Jean Wilner cuts the hair of a customer in his shop, where he runs a
side business charging cellphones from the solar panel he uses to run his electric
barbering tools, in the Onaville neighborhood of Canaan, Haiti.
Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
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.
Sylphat Wilguive, 48, fabricates a set of dentures in his home in Jerusalem, just
outside of Port-au-Prince. Sylphat had begun to construct a full dental clinic
adjacent to his home when he was suddenly paralyzed, rendering him unable to work.
The money that he had set aside over the years from the “Good Samaritan,” a clinic
he once ran in the Delmas neighborhood, all went to pay for his medical treatment.
He now does the work out of a room in his house, often treating needy neighbors for
free. Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
“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.
Jacob Viknel, 35, and nephew Jacob Riman, 9, pose for a photo at Viknel’s
motorcycle repair shop in the Jerusalem section of Canaan, Haiti. Viknel, who has
five children, came to Jerusalem in 2007 when there was almost no one else there
and he sometimes feared for his safety. “But,” he says, “this is the first place
that is truly mine.” Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
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 resident volunteering with the community group Organisation Pour le Développement
de Canaan (OPCD) calls out to local men to come help raise the first of three light
poles they have constructed by hand in the Canaan I section of the Canaan
settlement. The group pools money to buy materials and meets on Sundays to cast the
three bags of cement and four pieces of 3/8″ rebar each one requires into poles.
Since last July, they have raised 15 of the 51 they estimate they need to reach the
main road. Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2018.
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.
BY: JACOB KUSHNER AND ALLISON SHELLEY | Pulitzer Center | May 15, 2018