Dominican Republic and Haiti at the Crossroads of the Massacre River

The Dominican government’s attempt to reinforce its hegemony over the border river unleashed unexpected resistance in Haiti.

8 mins read
The Massacre River was named after a slaughter of French buccaneers by Spanish colonizers in the 18th century.

On September 11, Dominican President Luis Abinader announced the closure and militarization of the border with Haiti at a press conference at the National Palace in Santo Domingo. The decision was one of several retaliatory measures in response to the construction of the Pittobert irrigation canal on the binational river known as the Dajabón River or Massacre River. The first question for the president came from long-time journalist Ramon Colómbo. “I don’t know what it is, but Haiti is not [a] country. And we are,” Colombo stated. In his response, the president reiterated this sentiment.

The Dominican government alleges that the canal, whose construction it has attributed to various actors, including businessmen and politicians, and, at other times, to “anarchists,” violates the 1929 Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Arbitration between the Dominican Republic and the Republic of Haiti. The alleged violation stems from a lack of consultation between both sides and the diversion of the river. The treaty states that both states have the right to use “in a just and equitable manner… said rivers and other watercourses for land irrigation and other agricultural and industrial purposes.” The Dominican state’s handling of the dispute threatens Haiti’s sovereignty and economic well-being, driving Haitians, including those of the diaspora, to fiercely rally in support of the canal’s construction.

There is evidence that the project has been promoted for more than a decade with the knowledge of the Dominican State. A study by the Dominican National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INDRHI) in 2021 recognized that the Pittobert canal, demanding a flow of between 1.5 and 3 cubic meters per second, would be “still below the extractions made on the Dominican side,” and that two-thirds of the Dominican agricultural land irrigated with this river’s water is located upstream of the canal under construction. Based on this technical evaluation, a declaration of the binational commission composed of representatives of both foreign ministries in May 2021 admitted that the project “does not consist of a diversion of the river channel.”

The INDRHI study established several key facts to understand why the Dominican State does not resort to arbitration, which is the mechanism provided for in the 1929 treaty to resolve disputes. Of the 729 square kilometers covered by the river basin, 374 square kilometers are in Haiti. INDRHI counted ten irrigation canals on the Dominican side, with a total operating flow of 3.22 cubic meters per second, while the Pittobert canal would be the first connected to the binational river from the Haitian side. The report called for technical cooperation and the joint adoption of measures to optimize water use and preserve the river basin, and was endorsed by the signatures of the then ministers of Environment and Agriculture.

At the end of May 2021, extreme right-wing sectors criticized the Dominican government for its willingness to agree to share the river. In response, the government scaled down the scope of the agreement and disbanded the binational technical commission. Two years later, it imposed sanctions to halt canal construction: the Dominican government closed the border and militarized it, suspended the delivery of visas to Haitian citizens, and sanctioned individuals accused of supporting the project. Furthermore, two infrastructure projects aimed at reducing the flow of the river to render the Pittobert canal useless were announced: the reactivation of the La Vigia canal, the construction of the Don Miguel dam, and the construction of a dam at the headwaters of the Artibonito River, Haiti’s largest river, which originates in the Dominican Republic.

The outcomes of these measures differed from those sought by the Dominican government. Haiti saw a massive mobilization of volunteers defending and completing the canal, including financial solidarity campaigns from the diaspora. These actions bolstered protests against the de facto government of Ariel Henry, who after weeks of hesitating, was forced to publicly defend the canal. The mobilization in Ouanaminthe, a border town in northeastern Haiti along the Massacre river, also generated a delayed reaction of support from the opposition group called the Montana Accord. The same group had called for a transitional government back in early 2022, following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021 which plunged Haiti into “political paralysis” and a deepening insecurity crisis.

The allocation of the canal to “anarchists” perhaps alludes to the popular spontaneity of the movement in defense of the canal, even though it constitutes a project designed in 2011 by the Cuban state-owned company DINVAI. A former director of INDHRI stated that requests by the Haitian state to use water from the binational river for irrigation were rejected in 2013, 2015, and 2017. In 2018, construction began. In April 2021, Dominican soldiers raided Haitian territory illegally to stop the project. Under pressure from the Dominican government, construction was halted shortly before the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, until August 2023, when a peasant movement, with the participation of the Assembly of Communal Sections (ASEC), relaunched the construction. Reports from Haiti indicate a strong popular mobilization and a festive mood with hundreds of volunteer workers and massive vigils, following threats from the Dominican government.

Beyond the nationalist agitation on both sides of the border, both Jesuit priests working on the Dominican border and Dominican social and leftist organizations have spoken out in defense of fair use of the waterway by both countries and have denounced plans for mining exploitation in the same Dominican border province of Dajabón. A concession of more than 9,000 hectares for gold extraction was recently granted to the Canadian company Unigold, which later added another Canadian company, Barrick Gold, to the project. This mining activity consumes and pollutes enormous amounts of water.

Overlapping Agendas of Hydro-hegemony, Immigrant Expulsion, and Interventionism

The defense of the canal is understood by many in Haiti as a defense of their sovereignty and part of the struggle to overcome a food security crisis that was further exacerbated by the border closure. It has been incorporated into the protests demanding the removal of Ariel Henry’s de facto government. In the Dominican Republic, spokespersons for the center-right Dominican Liberation Party and the conservative People’s Force have accused the Abinader government of acting on electoral calculations.

Haitian academic Maismy Mary Fleurant characterizes the Dominican policy for the binational rivers as oriented by the search for “hydro-hegemony” or an “abusive and unilateral use, completely disproportionate and unequal” that is in violation of international law and bilateral agreements.

The strategy of reducing the flow of the river to prevent the operation of the Pittobert canal is opposed by Dominican farmers downstream who claim that they would also be harmed. The Dominican government’s retaliations have also become friendly fire for agricultural producers who depend on exports to Haiti and on the precarious Haitian immigrant labor force. According to Dominican authorities, more than 61,000 Haitians were expelled or voluntarily crossed into Haiti in the first twelve days of the border closure.

The Dominican Migration Institute estimated at the beginning of 2023 that some 700,000 Haitians were living in the Dominican Republic. Although official figures are inconsistent, they tend to indicate that more than 300,000 deportations to Haiti have taken place during the current administration. Human rights organizations consider that these expulsions violate Dominican laws and human rights agreements signed by the Dominican State, affecting pregnant women, unaccompanied children, immigrants with regular migratory status, and Dominicans of Haitian descent.

In this context, the September 26 communiqué of the OAS general secretariat stated that “Haiti and the Dominican Republic have equal rights of use over the Dajabón or Massacre river and that its water resources are vital for both” and called for a negotiated solution. This did not go down well with the Dominican Foreign Ministry, which responded that the river is part of Dominican territory and therefore “inalienable,” while the binational dialogue is conditioned upon “the necessary institutional capacities and the effective control of its territory” demonstrated by the Haitian State. In this sense, the Dominican Foreign Ministry mentioned the imminence of a “multinational security and support mission in Haiti, to restore public order and institutionality.” Thus, the foreign military occupation of Haiti is presented as part of the solution to the impasse.

The link between the canal conflict and the Dominican government’s support for the military occupation of Haiti was also raised in President Abinader’s speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2023: “The problem of Haiti is no longer in Haiti… we strongly support the responsible position of US President Joe Biden… the Security Council must urgently authorize the security mission.” The Dominican president welcomed the willingness of the governments of Kenya, Jamaica, and The Bahamas to send troops.

The Ideological Fog Hides a Shared Environmental Vulnerability

In his speech at the UN, Abinader showed a satellite image of the island: “One can perceive a palpable and heartbreaking difference: a green and flourishing half corresponds to the Dominican Republic, which has prioritized the conservation and sustainable management of its natural resources.” He continued, “The other half, devoid of that rich forest cover, reflects Haiti’s dramatically deforested landscape.”

The speech reflected deep-seated prejudices against the Haitian people as agents of environmental depredation. According to Global Forest Watch, the Dominican Republic had a net loss of tree cover of 2.5 percent between 2000 and 2020, losing 68,000 hectares of trees. In the same period, Haiti had a much smaller loss of 3.4 thousand hectares, a loss of 0.29 percent. Haiti has forest cover of 29 percent, which—although less than that of the Dominican Republic—is almost equal to the world average.

The myth of the desertic Haiti has been dismantled in the scientific field, but it remains firm in the Dominican racial imaginary. It is a central aspect of the dispute over the use of water from the binational river, since the supposed destructive character of the Haitian people is invoked as an obstacle to the shared use of water for irrigation. This attitude is not exclusive to the right wing. A Dominican group whose leaders were leftist student activists in the 1960s and 1970s issued a statement calling for the “restoration of the devastated areas (of Haiti) by the irrational use of its inhabitants” (sic).

Six weeks into the sanctions against Haiti, it is clear that they have failed to achieve their stated objectives. Construction of the canal has not stopped and discontent is growing among Dominican border communities over the economic cost of binational trade. Showing elements of crisis, the Dominican government, after announcing that it would reopen the border, proposed on October 9 the opposite: increased border militarization, indefinite immigration closure of the border and indefinite suspension of visas, along with a partial resumption of trade, limited to the export of food and medicines to Haiti. One of the measures appears to be unrelated to the canal: a program of state subsidies for agricultural mechanization to reduce the number of Haitian workers in the country. The Dominican president subsequently declared to a group of construction businessmen that “the days of foreign labor are numbered in the Dominican Republic”.

In the early morning of October 11, when the partial reopening of the border was scheduled, a fire broke out in the binational market of Dajabón. Right-wing organizations and Dominican gang members had publicly threatened to sabotage a reopening of the border on October 8. The partial resumption of Dominican exports to Haiti encountered another obstacle: a boycott by Haitian buyers.

Finally, in announcing the long-prepared “national pact” on October 26, the Dominican government established an explicit articulation of all these aspects of its Haiti policy: promotion of foreign intervention for the “rescue of Haiti”, massive expulsion of Haitian immigrants, and control of binational water resources were among the main strategies for the preservation of the nation’s “territorial and demographic integrity.” Although the government aspired to present the document as the result of a national consensus, the pact was not subscribed to by the main electoral contenders of Abinader’s Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), 

The Massacre River was named after a slaughter of French buccaneers by Spanish colonizers in the 18th century. In 1937, the river was witness to another massacre of Haitians and Black Dominicans by the Dominican State. The struggle for water, characteristic of this time of climatic crisis, once again makes it the axis of conflict. The vulnerability to extreme climatic phenomena is shared by the two countries, and the need to conserve a shared environment and natural resources indispensable for life requires cooperation between the two states. But, as Marx once wrote, “the tradition of all dead generations oppresses like a nightmare the brains of the living.”

This article is syndicated in partnership with the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).

Simón Rodríguez

Simón Rodríguez is an independent journalist and researcher based in the Dominican Republic.

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