Building the Road out of Poverty for the Community of “The most dangerous place on earth”

Building the Road out of Poverty for the Community of “The most dangerous place on earth”

road "Before we were cut off from the rest of Port-au-Prince, but now we are part of the city," says Nicole Orelus, a CHF International community mobilizer from Cite Soleil. Nicole’s comment relates to the opening of Route 9, also known as “Boulevard Des Americains’, a USAID-funded CHF International project through the Haiti Stabilization Initiative.

What makes this road so special is that it cuts right through the center of Cite Soleil, reaching from downtown Port-au-Prince to the Caribbean sea. A neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Cite Soleil was originally home to manual laborers of the Export Processing Zone, but with the boycott of Haitian products in the early 90s, commerce died and the area sunk into extreme poverty, persistent high unemployment and spiraling crime rates. Cite Soleil became known as the home of gangs and the place where kidnappers took their prey while they extorted ransoms. The densely populated area of over 200,000 residents reached its nadir of lawlessness and gang warfare in 2004 when the UN called it 'the most dangerous place on earth'.

Just like Cite Soleil, the road has a troubled history. First constructed through Haitian government funds in the 1990s by the US Army Corps, Route 9 was supposed to be 14 km long, but the 1.5 km that stretch through Cite Soleil was never completed. Soon, the residents began to build their shacks on the incomplete road. Markets moved in to the space. Even police stations built their walls on it. There was virtually no memory of the road that had once been intended.

And yet, construction of the new road has involved many of the residents of this area. CHF worked in partnership with the community, both with formidable leaders like Nicole and former gang members, who worked together to clear the area, lay foundations, then pour the concrete, and create a four lane highway with drainage, fuel pipelines and intersections with existing roads. Equally important, they are working together to help Cite Soleil to shake off its ill reputation and revitalize itself economically.

How did this come about? The UN stability mission in Haiti, the MINUSTAH, were sent in to Cite Soleil in 2004. Over the course of several years, there was a crackdown on gangs, kidnappings dropped, murders dropped, and while the area remained in terrible poverty the worst of the crime had been dealt with.But once the worst elements have been expelled, it is important to bring everyone together to work towards a better future. That is the step where CHF came in.

road racePHOTO: Races celebrating the inauguration of the road.

Through the USAID-funded KATA program and the Haiti Stability Initiative, CHF began working with the government of Haiti and the community of Cite Soleil to re-integrate the area into the fabric of Port-au-Prince. The program was managed by CHF's experienced program manager Sinan Al-Najjar, an Iraqi who has overseen countless community based construction projects in his home country through CHF's USAID-funded Community Action Program - a country with its own very different dangers and challenges. As he worked, Sinan learned Creole, and communicated directly with the people of the Cite Soleil, building a sense of community and trust between them and CHF.

The Haitian government financially compensated the community members who were moved from the space designated for the road. Buildings were demolished. Land, office space, demolition and construction was donated by Tevasa Corporation to the value of US$2 million. USAID contributed US$4.86 million. The Boulevard des Americains is now the most impressive and imposing road in Port-au-Prince and restores a broken link between the government and commercial center of Metropolitan Port-au-Prince and the industrial centers of the International Harbor and Wharf Jeremie. Over 2000 local jobs were created in constructing the road, taking people out of gangs or unemployment and into gainful short-term employment while building their skills for future employment. In less than a year, the road was completed.

On Nov 21, 2009, CHF held an inauguration ceremony for the road. The Prime Minister of Haiti, Jean-Max Bellerive, the US Ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, the mayor of Cite Soleil, CHF's Chief of Party Alberto Wilde, and members of the community all gave speeches and children presented plaques to the Ambassador. The celebrations continued with a ribbon cutting, a procession of tap-taps, Haiti's bright, multicolored public transports, and several 1000 meter races by local school children along the new road.

The presence of the people of Cite Soleil at the event was a reminder that much needs to be done, still, in this area of Port au Prince. But the people are no longer cut off. Theirs is no longer a 'no-go' area. There are plans to build an industrial park along the road which will bring rejuvenation to the area, especially with its close proximity to a major shipping port that is only a day’s journey from the USA – a major market for Haiti – by sea. The road is proof that there is great potential for the people of Cite Soleil to turn what was once a blighted zone of crime and danger into a thriving Caribbean port on the west side of a beautiful island just two hours by plane from Miami.

road aerialCHF International hopes to keep working with the communities of Cite Soleil and to be able to continue partnering with them in their development. We hope that the Boulevard des Americains will not just be the road that links them to the rest of their society, but also the road that begins the journey out of poverty and into a better future.

PHOTO: Aerial shot of the road's progress through Cite Soleil during construction.