PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- A plan to transform a small Caribbean island off the southern coast of Haiti into a high-end tourism resort will create more than 2,000 jobs and help change the international image of the impoverished country, the prime minister said Wednesday, rejecting allegations that the government will evict hundreds of poor farmers to complete the project.
Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said the development of the small island known as Ile-a-Vache will be the most ambitious tourism project ever in Haiti and that critics who have clashed with police in a recent series of protests do not fully appreciate the benefits.
“This will bring the hope for a better future for all the residents of Ile-a-Vache,” Lamothe said by phone while in Chile. “We definitely have no plans to evict anyone.”
The $260 million project is being built with a combination of foreign aid and private investment. It is scheduled to be completed in two years. It includes an international airport that will allow foreign tourists to bypass chaotic Port-au-Prince, condos, spas, and a community radio station.
Lamothe said there will be more than 2,000 jobs in hotels, in addition to work building schools and a community center.
Work has begun on the airport, a $24 million gift from the government of Venezuela, amid a series of protests that began last year following a government announcement that it was seizing land on the island for the purpose of “public utility” to carry out the tourism project. It didn’t settle with a few of the 15,000 people who live on Ile-a-Vache, many of them farmers and fishermen.
“All of sudden, the decree comes out, and they’re taking away land to give to foreigners,” said Mark Donald Laine, 27, who has lived on the island his whole life.
Laine and his neighbors formed a group called the Organization of Ile-a-Vache Farmers to protect their land, saying it’s been passed down for generations and arguably the only asset they own.
So they fought back with tire-burning protests, and police officers showed up on the island to quell the dissent. A few residents said police beat them. They promise more demonstrations unless the government rescinds the decree.
Lamothe said the protests are being led by a small group of people with ties to organized crime networks who are trying to smuggle marijuana through the area, and have an interest in crushing development.
Still, people in 100 homes will have to be relocated to make way for resorts, said Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin.
“There’s going to be some compensation for people who live right there,” she said.