Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Claiming land in Batey Seven

On May 21st, while Jenny was at work in the Good Samaritan clinic in Batey 7, community members of Batey 7 moved onto state land immediately adjacent to the community and claimed it for themselves. Photos by Jenny Bent. Text by Mark Hare.

Members of Batey 7 laying out plots on a couple of acres of sugarcane fields adjacent to the community.

While Jenny has not been able to confirm all that she has heard, what she understands is that a non-governmental organization (NGO) offered some of the families in Batey 7 new homes, with the stipulation that they themselves would have to acquire the land for the houses.

Since land within the existing boundaries of the batey is virtually non-existent, the families moved onto and claimed for themselves land adjacent to the community which is currently planted to sugar cane.

Women from Batey 7 watching as Dominican police who tried to intervene in the situation are forced to leave.

The history of the Dominican bateys is complicated. The bateys were originally government settlements built, starting in the early 1900's, for Haitian laborers who were brought into the area to cut sugarcane for the state-owned sugar industry. The season for cutting sugar cane is about six months and after the six months, most of the laborers returned to Haiti. Those who remained married, had children and  began establishing stable communities. Almost all of the inhabitants of Batey 7 are second or third, or even fourth generation settlers.

 In the eighties and nineties, sugar prices dropped worldwide, and the Dominican sugar industry became relatively unprofitable. Fewer workers from Haiti were brought in, and much of the original land was left uncared for. During this period, many of the settled batey families began producing crops for themselves on the semi-abandoned land. The Dominican government tacitly allowed, but did not encourage this. The government was careful to prevent families from building homes on the sugarcane fields because Dominican law recognizes the right for people to legally claim land who have successfully built their homes on and fenced in parcels of land.

After the police left, the Dominican military was brought in to deal with the situation. Jenny says that before the military came, all of the Batey 7 men involved left the area to reduce the likelihood of a violent conflict.

Some time early in the new millennium, the Dominican government signed a long term agreement with an international consortium, ceding to the group all of the rights to the sugar cane processing facilities here in Barahona, and renting to them all of the original sugar cane fields.
The consortium successfully revived the sugarcane processing facilities and began applying sophisticated agricultural techniques to improve production in the sugar cane fields as well as working to improve the sugar content concentrated in the stalks of the sugar canes. Jenny and I have a good friend who works as an agronomist for the consortium and has educated Mark on a variety of the techniques employed by the company.

At the same time, according to our friends in Batey 7, the consortium began eliminating the crops that batey-dwellers had planted during the downturn of sugar and began replanting the fields to sugarcane. Intentionally or not, this had the effect of boxing the people in Batey 7 (and presumably other bateys as well) and forcing them to depend entirely on the consortium for their livelihoods.

Women from Batey 7 confronting soldiers from the Dominican military.

While the Dominican government does insure access to primary education in the bateys, secondary education is more difficult, and very very few people from Batey 7 make it to the universities. Among other difficulties are the limits that the Dominican government puts on recognizing children born in the Dominican to Haitian parents who have no legal documentation. Virtually none of the original sugarcane laborers would have had any legal documents. Nor do the laborers who continue to come each season have any. So, while the consortium does provide a large number of jobs, the original batey settlers generally have access to only the lowest-paying jobs which are, at best, seasonal. My friend, Juanito, from Batey 7, had steady work with the consortium for at most four months during the zafra, that is, the harvest period.

It is clear to Jenny and to me that the current status of the batey inhabitants is precarious, walled in on all sides not only physically, but also socially, economically and politically.

Women from Batey 7 huddle to the left, while police, military and other officials discuss the situation on the right.

That is the background that Jenny and I know. What we do not yet know is whether leaders from Batey 7 have ever made any formal attempts, working within the system, to acquire land. Since the consortium is operating on State land, presumably the Dominican institution that governs the rights to land, the IAD, might have the authority to grant community members access to additional land.  IAD (Instituto Agraria Dominicana--the Agrarian Dominican Institute) is a branch of the Ministry of Agriculture and is responsible for the country's program of agrarian reform.

It appears that the situation is a dynamic one that Jenny will be following, asking questions of the leaders within the batey, as well as looking for other sources of information and perspective.

Stay tuned!!!

P.S. A note about the photos.  While passing though on her way to work some weeks ago, Jenny passed by an ongoing protest near the Tamayo crossroads (Tamayo is a town about five miles from Batey 7). While passing through, she learned from one of the motorcycle taxi drivers that one of the soldiers or police had grabbed the phone of an observer who was taking pictures and threw it on the ground, destroying it. That incident made Jenny decide to be cautious and remained in the clinic yard and to photograph through the fence. 

Please share your comments and observations!!!

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