International co-operative sector helps Haiti housing co-ops

When a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, over two million people were left homeless. The global co-operative community was fast to respond to the disaster....

When a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, over two million people were left homeless. The global co-operative community was fast to respond to the disaster. The International Co-operative Alliance led a solidarity campaign to raise funds to help the victims and contribute to the country’s reconstruction, and with support from the global co-operative movement, a group of families from Petit Fond (Lascahobas) have now set up the country’s first self-help housing co-operative.

Funding for the housing project came from members of the International Co-operative Alliance and We Effect (Swedish Co-operative Centre). The two provided over USD $350,000 for the construction of 23 earthquake- and hurricane-resistant houses.

Five years later, the country continues to face a severe housing crisis. A recent report by Amnesty International revealed that 123 camps for internally displaced people remain open in Haiti, with a combined population of 85,432. The conditions in many of the camps are poor; a third of people, for example, do not have access to a latrine.

So far 37,000 homes have been developed, repaired or rebuilt. A key problem, however, is the fact that less than 20% of the housing solutions provided as a response to the disaster could be seen as long-term or sustainable.

Last month, as a direct result of the international co-operative action, 23 families received the keys to their properties within the housing co-operative. £50,000 was donated by UK co-operatives towards the project.

It all started three years ago through Co-operatives of the Americas, the regional organisation of the ICA, which contacted local organisations in Haiti to see how it could help build good homes at affordable prices.

Together with representatives from We Effect and the Federation of Housing Co-operatives of Uruguay (FUCVAM) they went on a field trip to Haiti to define the project and find a local partner. Heifer International, a non-profit working in international relief, joined the initiative later on.

The first stage involved identifying a group of people to form the housing co-operative. Twenty-three families from Petit Fond who had lost their homes were chosen, all eager to build new houses that would survive future disasters. With support from Co-operatives of the Americas and Heifer, they set up Kooperative Logeman Men nan Men (KOLOMM), which translates as Hand-in-Hand Housing Co-operative. For 18 months, the members of the co-op received training to understand what it meant to be a mutual aid housing co-operative.

This was the longest phase of the project, explained Manuel Mariño, director of Co-operatives of the Americas. “In this type of co-op, the owner of the land and the houses is the co-operative, not the people,” he said. “The members have the right to use the house until they die or leave the co-op, but they can’t sell it; in other words, they can’t do business with it.”

The members of the co-operative have also received training in safe construction awareness and learned about what it takes to plan and build earthquake- and hurricane-resistant structures. KOLOMM started building the houses in January 2014, with the families helping throughout the process by laying blocks, carrying water and digging foundations.

Mr Mariño added: “The second part, the construction, went rather fast because the members themselves are the ones that built the houses under the direction and supervision of an engineer/architect. For the first part of the project we had a volunteer from FUCVAM with extensive experience in this kind of housing co-operative. So the project was led by Co-operatives of the Americas and in the field by this person from FUCVAM and, later on, by Heifer.”

The co-op is the first of this kind in the country. “There are other [housing] projects that are called co-operatives but really they are not – the donors build the houses, give them to the people but they are not formed as co-operatives,” added Mr Mariño. “So we can say that this is the first housing co-operative in Haiti.”

The members of the co-op moved into their new homes on 14 April. Representatives of the global co-operative movement, as well as other organisations and local authorities of Lascahobas attended the official launch.

Manuel Mariño, Ramón Imperial and members of KOLOMM at the official launch of the co-op
Manuel Mariño, Ramón Imperial and members of KOLOMM at the official launch of the co-op (Image: Co-operatives of the Americas)

Speaking at the event, Maria Eugenia Perez, president of COOMEVA said that employees and officials from the co-operative had donated a day’s salary to the campaign. Co-operatives from Japan, Malaysia, Cyprus, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, the UK and Czech Republic have also donated to the reconstruction fund.

Since the government lacks capacity to provide water and electricity in remote areas, the co-operative model can be a solution to these challenges, said Ramón Imperial, president of the Co-operatives of the Americas, at the launch.

Mr Mariño travelled to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake to establish links with other organisations. Asked how the country looked five years later, he said: “Of course, it is possible to see some improvement, but there is still a lot more to do. In relation to the money that is said to have been put into the reconstruction, the results are very, very poor.” He explained that corruption remained a big challenge impacting the recovery process.

Mr Mariño thinks co-operatives could play an important role in the country’s future. “I see a big role for co-ops to play in the reconstruction,” he said. “For example, this type of co-operative – self-help housing co-operatives, or mutual aid housing co-operatives – are without doubt one of the solutions for the reconstruction.”

The project was designed as a pilot to show the international community that it was possible to build decent houses that would not be destroyed by future earthquakes, at a very reasonable cost. Co-operatives of the Americas intends to call on members of the ICA, both at regional and global level, to raise more funds required to support the members of KOLOMM in getting access to electricity and water. According to Mr Mariño, this could be “an extraordinary example to show everywhere”.

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