Markets and Margins: An interview with Etant Dupain

The Public Archive 

Based in Haiti, Etant Dupain is a freelance journalist, producer, and filmmaker. He began his career as a reporter for teleSur in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and he was a founding member of the important Kreyol-language independent media collective Bri Kouri Nouvèl Gaye (Noise Travels, News Spreads). Dupain has since worked with al Jazeera, BBC, Vice, Discovery Channel, Raw TV, CANAL+, Venezolana Televisión, Vive TV, and on the award-winning film Where Did the Money Go?The founder and director of Kombit Productions, Dupain is currently completing a documentary film entitled Madan Sara named after the Haitian market women, traders, and businesswoman who provide the critical link between the country’s thousands of small rural and coastal farmers and the produce buyers in Port-au-Prince and other towns.

You have been involved in a number of alternative journalistic and radical writing projects before you embarked on the documentary project Madan Sara, including with the media collective Bri Kouri Nouvèl Gaye (Noise Travels, News Spread). Can you tell us about the origins and importance of BKNG? What kind of stories did it cover, what was its importance, and how was it position within the Haitian media landscape? 

Bri Kouri Nouvèl Gaye was a project working to inform and engage people throughout the reconstruction process following Haiti’s earthquake in 2010, especially as the rights of displaced peoples were systematically violated by the Haitian government and the wealthy business elite. Our work was a direct response to the foreign invasion of NGOs in Haiti after the disaster and the disregard of the rights of Haitians who had been displaced. 

Bri Kouri Nouvèl Gaye was working to empower people to defend themselves as thousands faced evictions as wealthy landowners fought to reclaim land that was being used as internally-displaced people (IDP) camps. BKNG worked to help people understand their rights, organize, and mobilize. We also organized popular universities – debates in the streets and inside the tent camps – which proved to be a powerful tool to organize against the powerful alliance between foreign NGOs, the government, land owners, and the ruling elite. 

Turning to Madan Sara, I wanted to ask you about the historical origins of these women traders. In an interview with Kreyolicious you discussed the longer history of the Madan Sara, tracing it back to the days of slavery and French colonial Saint-Domingue. Can you describe this history and the reasons for the emergence of the Madan Sara?

During the colonial era, the French colonists did not want to share anything with the slaves, including food. As the population grew and grew, the colonizers decided to give the slaves pieces of land called portion de vivewhich were to be used as a way for them to feed their own families. The producers on this land were so successful that they began to trade what they were growing. As the slaves were trading in the markets, they began to organize. As they were doing so, many began to escape as well. In an attempt to squelch this mobilization, the French colonists then disallowed men from going to the market to trade. This is how markets in Saint-Domingue became women dominated. 

With the establishment of the Haitian state following the successful revolution that led to independence, the women working as “madan sara” became more institutionalized in the Haitian economy as women remained active participants as traders and sellers in Haiti’s markets. 

When it comes to the significance of the Madan Sara to the Haitian economy, you have spokenabout this in almost contradictory terms. On one hand, they are essential pillars to the Haitian the economy; on the other, they are operating at the margins of the Haitian economy – relegated to relegated to the realm of the “informal” and given little access to credit. Can you say more about this contradiction and expand, in particular, on the question credit and capital?

The contradiction lies between what madan sara used to be and what madan sara is today. Forty years ago, the exchange of locally produced goods happened between Haitian farmers, Haitian women traders, Haitian-owned storage facilities, and Haitian-run markets. So how did we arrive at the point today where the women known as madan sara are both pillars of the economy and at the margins? Through the destruction of the Haitian national production and the economy as a whole. 

Neoliberal economic policies which reduced tariffs and subsidies and destroyed the Haitian pig, and Haitian rice, among so many other industries, created an economy that was designed to meet the needs of the international market and global capital. It was not intended to nor does it meet the needs of Haitians. When President Clinton forced Haiti to reduce tariffs in 1994, it single-handedly destroyed Haiti’s ability to produce local rice while Arkansas-produced rice (heavily subsidized itself) now floods the market.

This has had profound effects on the economic conditions across the entire nation, and on the madan sara whose ability to feed a nation depends on the nation’s ability to produce. The sector has adapted in many ways, but has been relegated to the margins as investment and policy has crippled Haitian production and trade. Today, you have people that have vast amounts of land that could be used to cultivate food but farmers have no capital or access to credit in order to do so and the market which has been forced open to heavily-subsidized foreign food imports is not one in which local farmers are able to be competitive in. 

Following on this question, what role did the Madan Sara play in the post-earthquake rebuilding process? I’ve read that they had access to microcredit via small scale loans of gourdes but did they have access to the kinds of rebuilding funds funneled through the Red Cross and the Clinton Foundation, or mobilized by corporations such as Digicel?

The “madan sara” sector as a whole was devastatingly impacted by the 2010 earthquake, not only in terms of capital but also because the recovery process was slow and wasn’t designed to include or support them. In the first few months, the foreign NGOs and development agencies flooded the city, buying imported food for the relief efforts. This wasn’t a careless or ill-informed approach, but an intentional decision to prioritize investing in foreign-owned companies. These NGOs built themselves around the earthquake response, many of them coming in as mediocre, moderately successful institutions that were then both built and shaped by a culture that better resembled that of Wall Street. The response culture was to get money fast and spend it down in order to get the next grant. 

Many people don’t know this and they certainly didn’t get credit for it (or donor funding), but the madan sara were essential to providing life-saving support to the families that were displaced throughout the country in the weeks and months that followed the disaster. The madan sara used all of the supplies that they had to feed hundreds of thousands of Haitians that fled Port-au-Prince to the countryside after the quake.

Is it possible to imagine an alternative history of Haiti’s post-earthquake reconstruction that centers on the Madan Sara?

I don’t think that the foreign funds that came in response to the earthquake, under the guise of recovery and development aid, was ever intended to strengthen local economies to allow them to compete with the business interests of the elite whocontrol the import business or the foreign companies that benefit from Haiti being positioned as a consumer.

If the reconstruction money was intended to help Haiti, truly, it would have been possible. The response was 100% Haitian-led in the first hours and the first days following the earthquake. If all of the contracts hadn’t been directed at US companies like DAI and Chemonics but instead put into the hands of Haitian-led enterprises, organizers, and women like the madan sara, it’s possible to imagine a radically different Haiti today. 

The economic significance of the Madan Sara is clear, but do they also have a political role or function in Haitian society? Is there a parallel function in Haiti to the historical role of women traders in Ghana during the era of decolonization or what the Jamaican political scientist Obika Gray has referred to as the “social power” of women entrepreneurs in Jamaica?

As is the case everywhere in the world, especially in formerly colonized countries, women are still incredibly oppressed in Haiti. Though their active participation at the heart of Haiti’s informal economies is of course inherently political, and even though there is huge participation by women across all sectors in Haiti, women are still deeply underrepresented in positions of formal political power. 

The connections between the Madan Sara’s economic and political significance is there – we just need to tell the story better as we fight for equality. Women have made significant contributions economically and politically throughout Haitian history, starting at the battle for independence where women fought at the forefront of the struggle. We have to do a better job today to elevate the story of the women who built this nation.

Women like the Madan Sara in Haiti raise generation after generation who end up working and living across Haiti and the rest of the world. Much of the Haitian diaspora was able to build their lives internationally because of the hard work of the madan sara who made that possible. 

Over the past months, Haiti has been rocked by protest. What are the origins of the protests? How widespread are they and what demands are being made? Have the Madan Sara played a role, either formally or informally?

A historical movement is underway in Haiti with people across all classes and sectors joining together in the fight against corruption and impunity. The misuse of the PetroCaribe Fund, the Venezuelan discount oil program that was intended to provide much-needed investments in development and infrastructure projects, has been the central focus of ongoing and widespread protests, which began nearly a year ago. 

The PetroCaribe scandal shows a vast conspiracy between the Haitian oligarchy, Haitian government officials, and international partners like the United States and Canada. The current regime in Haiti is systemically corrupt with the sitting President himself having personally profited off of embezzled PetroCaribe funds through two of his companies. Over one hundred people have been killed including a massacre in late 2018 in a neighborhood that has been deeply engaged in the anti-government protests. This is one of the few moments where you’ve seen this level of unity across sections of Haitian society as people unite to put an end to impunity. Now, the movement is facing off with the U.S., one of the few remaining sources of support for President Jovenel Moïse, as the demands for his resignation mount.

The madan sara are one of the victims of the instability and systemic political violence in Haiti. Throughout the past year, multiple markets have been the targets of arson, with a few of the markets having been burned multiple times. The women who work as madan sara are not an organized political entity, but what we are seeing is that by and large, they are backing the protests and the calls of the movement for accountability, transparency, and for equitable, inclusive economic development. 

Finally, you’re extremely close to completing the madan sara documentary. What more is needed, both in terms of funding and both filming and post-production, to get you to the finish line?  

We’re proud to have just finalized shooting after a year of hard work and are now working to finalize the film – but it’s more than just a documentary that we’re working on. The Madan Sara project has three main objectives: first, it’s the film that will be used as a tool to ignite a larger conversation about Madan Sara, alternative local economies, and the impact of neoliberal economic intervention on countries like Haiti. Second, we are planning to show the film around Haiti in a series of free, public screenings. Finally, we want bring back something I started with BKGN: the popular universities. These open debates in popular neighborhoods allowed conversations to serve as a tool for mobilization and I’m hoping that we can do the same by starting with the film. 

This film is an opportunity to cultivate a movement centering the madan sara. That’s why it’s so critical for us to find support to help ensure we will have the ability to bring this movie all across the country. We’re currently raising funds from people who believe in the importance of this story, and this project as a whole, to finalize production and host free public screenings throughout Haiti. To learn more and be a part of this critical work, visit  Thank you! 

Previous interviews by The Public Archive can be found here.

Image: Haitian Market, circa 1970. Bryant Slides Collection. Special Collections & University Archives, University of Central Florida Libraries/Digital Library of the Caribbean

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