BUILDING A CITY OF PEACE

by Annalee Giesbrecht

This post was originally published on MCC’s Latin America and Caribbean (LACA) blog on August 1, 2018.

Of the dozen or so people sitting talking together in a Port-au-Prince neighbourhood called Ti Plas Kazo, only two of them were born here. The rest come from all over the Haiti, some from other areas of the capital but most from the provinces: as far away as Cap-Haitien on Haiti’s northern coast and Jérémie on its far southwestern tip. Although Haiti is only the size of Maryland, its rugged geography and limited infrastructure make these relatively small distances seem vast.

I’m here visiting JUPED (Jeunes unis pour le protection de l’environnement et le developpement, or Youth United for the Protection of the Environment and Development), a longstanding MCC partner working in the areas of human rights, peace, and advocacy, who started a community justice pilot project in Ti Plas Kazo two years ago. As the JUPED staff team recounts the history of the area, I see they’re describing a hyper-local version of the migration patterns and community tensions seen throughout Latin America and around the world.

A place of refuge and opportunity

Ti Plas Kazo is on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince and used to be a semi-rural area where residents lived off agricultural labor, much like those in the countryside. But over the years, as rates of urbanization and internal migration have increased, Ti Plas Kazo has changed. Cycles of political instability, natural disasters, and grinding rural poverty have driven people from rural areas into the cities throughout the country, and especially into the capital. According the World Bank, Haiti’s urban population has more than doubled since 2000, and as of 2014, 74% of urban residents were living in slum conditions.

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Jean Milou Mercidieu. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Jean Milou Mercidieu, JUPED’s administrator, is originally from the city of Cayes on Haiti’s south coast. He notes that there have been three major waves of migration to Ti Plas Kazo. The first was in the 1980s, the last days of the Duvalier dictatorship, when a government housing project connected to a nearby factory attracted large numbers of workers and their families. After Duvalier was ousted from power in 1986, a period of chaos and political violence swept Haiti as power alternated between military juntas and liberation-theologian-turned-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Many believed they could escape persecution in largely overlooked quarters of the capital like Ti Plas Kazo.

Most recently, after a massive earthquake shattered large swaths of Port-au-Prince in 2010, Ti Plas Kazo became home to several camps for people displaced by the quake. Many of those displaced people are still in Ti Plas Kazo today, whether in the camps–some of which have now become neighborhoods in their own right–or in the few remaining makeshift shelters left over from unofficial settlements.

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Eight years after the earthquake that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince, both official IDP camps and improvised shelters, like this one in a public square in Ti Plas Kazo, remain. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Whether fleeing violence across borders or moving to the city in search of a better life, displaced people often find themselves moving from one difficult situation to another. Although Ti Plas Kazo has been spared the worst consequences of natural disasters and political violence, it remains a poor neighborhood. Access to jobs and housing is limited. To accommodate new residents, and make a bit of money, some residents crowd into a portion of their homes so they can rent the rest: JUPED staff identified conflict between landlords and tenants as a common source of community tension. Over time and successive waves of new residents, many of whom aren’t planning to stay for long, the fabric of the community has become frayed.

Access to conflict resolution

Unfortunately, a widespread lack of government resources means that, when conflicts arise, the justice system is ill-equipped to handle them. Police are often undertrained and arbitrary arrests are common, lawyers are expensive, judges are overburdened, and the prison system, at 4.5x over capacity, is the most overcrowded in the world.

“Our justice system is weak, and it is sick,” says JUPED director Jean Junior Val emphatically. “Even if I’m the person who’s in the right, if you have more money, you’re the one who gets justice.”

Faced with a vulnerable, transient population and a weak and inefficient justice system, JUPED, with MCC support, launched a community-based restorative justice platform called Ti Platfòm Lapè, (Little Platforms of Peace) in 2017. The peace platforms are composed of pastors, teachers, market women, and other community members who have been trained in mediation skills and who meet every fifteen days to hear and resolve cases of conflict and violence in the community. In addition to peacefully resolving cases, JUPED monitors the rates of conflict and violence in the area and holds events to raise community awareness of human rights, conflict, violence, and peace.

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JUPED staff and members of the Ti Platfom Lape outside the JUPED office in Ti Plas Kazo. The banner reads “Conflict is vital, but violence is mortal.” MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Win-win

Alex Pierre is originally from the city of Cap-Haitien on Haiti’s northern coast. He came to the Ti Platfòm Lapè with a problem that was related, as so many problems in Haiti are, to land and residency: he and his family were struggling to split up an inheritance left to them by their grandparents.

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Jean Milou Mercidieu. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

After the peace platform helped Pierre and his family come up with a solution for dividing the land, which he credits with saving his family relationships, Pierre himself became a member so he could help others benefit from mediation too. Now, he’s helping to manage a delicate case brought to JUPED by a man who has been ordered by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to pay child support on his child from a previous relationship. He’s now married to a different woman and has children with her; news of his first child and his attendant financial obligations had come as a shock to her.

“It’s really difficult, but not uncommon,” he says. “We’re working together to see how we can move things forward.”

Of course, not every case can be resolved at the Ti Platfòm Lapè. Cases of elevated violence, such as sexual assault, need to be referred to the justice system, and when these cases arise, platform members accompany victims through the legal process, or help connect them with other organizations that can assist them. However, the vast majority of cases heard by the peace platform over the previous year have been successfully resolved through mediation.

“Mediation has one objective in all scenarios,” says Mercidieu, “and that’s for both parties to come out on top. Win-win.” This expression, ‘win-win,’ comes up throughout our discussion: the goal of the Ti Platfòm Lapè is to arrive at a solution that is not only acceptable, but positive, for all involved.

“Justice divides people—it says to one person ‘you’re guilty,’ and to the other person, ‘you’re in the right.’ That’s why we work in mediation. We want people to be able to live together.”

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Everyday life on the main thoroughfare running through Ti Plas Kazo. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

While developing community cohesion is a long process, the JUPED team are starting to see a difference. Residents know they have an effective and affordable means of seeking resolution when conflict arises. Over the course of two pilot projects, over 1,228 conflicts were brought before the Ti Platfòm Lapè, and 88% of them saw both parties come to a mutual and peaceful agreement: win-win. 53 mediators—people like Alex Pierre—have been trained, and in turn have provided training on basic conflict resolution to 1,180 community members. The peace platforms have been so successful that, even after the end of MCC’s project, they have continued meeting and resolving cases.

The JUPED team believes that this work will ultimately strengthen Haiti’s justice system, because when ordinary citizens know their rights, they become empowered to advocate for themselves and seek out the justice they know they deserve.

“Maybe it will take 5 or 10 or 20 years, but Haiti can change,” says Val. “Haitians can change it. We believe that.”

Annalee Giesbrecht is the MCC Haiti Advocacy and Communications Co-ordinator.

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