Doctrine granted Europeans right to indigenous nations

Cruel land thefts continue 500 years later, taking livelihoods and lives

By Cindy Corell | Mission Co-worker Haiti

Josette Joseph and her granddaughter stand outside their home near Trou-de-Nord, Haiti, in February 2014. The family lost their home, garden and fruit trees when the property was taken for a huge banana plantation. Photo by Cindy Corell.

Five rooms of the house had been laid out. Cinder blocks outlined the home; some walls were as high as an adult. Room-by-room, block-by-block, Rita Lucas and her family were building a new house.

It had taken every minute of spare time, hard work and savings. From the stick-built house where Rita and her husband Julsaint Pierre lived with their 10 children, they spent months planning and building their dream house. The huge flat tract of fertile land had been owned by the government, but Haitian law established that those who lived and paid taxes on state land for 10 years had rights to it.

The house and all other dreams crashed down on a September morning in 2013.

“They came to break the land,” Rita Lucas said. “One day they cut all the trees in the front. The coconuts, all the fruit trees were broken. I cried. I just cried.”

The men worked at the behest of the Haitian government and wealthy businessmen who eyed the large, fertile tract of land that fed 800 local families for a banana plantation for exportation.

Agritrans S.A. cleared the land, managed despite some families demonstrating legal rights to their tracts. They used machines to plow and began raising a vast banana crop, which for a couple of years were exported to Europe at great profit.

The land-grab took the family’s land, dreams, livelihood. Within four years, it also would take Rita Lucas’s life.

It’s story of greed and grief. It’s a story I’ve followed for 10 years.

It has its roots in the deep corruption of Haiti’s government, and its deeper roots lay in the Doctrine of Discovery, a set of papal bulls laid out by the Catholic church that gave Europeans permission to take lands of those who did not follow God.

Cindy Corell, facilitator with FONDAMA, poses with Rita Lucas, left, and Josette Joseph in February 2014. Both families lost their homes and livelihoods when businessman Jovenel Moïse who later would be elected president of Haiti was among those who took the land to build a plantation for export. Photo by Lucson Celestin.

I met Rita Lucas in early 2014. As facilitator with FONDAMA (Joining Hands Haiti), the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s affiliated farmer organization network in Haiti, I was investigating what happened with a large land-grab in the Northeast Department of the country.

FONDAMA, the Haitian acronym for Hands Together Foundation of Haiti, has identified land-grabbing at a root cause of Haiti’s dire poverty.

Approaching a mostly cleared field, I noticed a few modest homes, seemingly left as lone jigsaw pieces on a blank board.

One of the Agritrans owners was Jovenel Moïse who won the Haitian presidency in 2017.

They called him “Banana Man”.

Bitter reality of early voyage isn’t taught in school

It’s a tale of two stories.

One story you know by heart because it is the one we are taught in school. In any group of people, when I say:

“In 1492”.

People of a certain age recite:

“Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

It’s a silly ditty that generations of children learned as most of us imagined a courageous explorer who sailed by the stars and “discovered” America.

As history plainly shows, Christopher Columbus and his crew were not courageous. They were lost. They happened upon a string of islands now known as the Caribbean.

Of course, the land had long been discovered and in fact was inhabited by indigenous people — the Carib, Taino, Arawak and others.

This land being prepared for a banana plantation was where 800 families once lived and make their livelihoods from fertile gardens. Photo by Cindy Corell.

This brings us to our second story, the Doctrine of Discovery, a 500-year-old European church law that gave White settlers absolute God-given right to any land occupied by indigenous people simply because they were not Christian.

Explorer Christopher Columbus with three ships and 90 men landed on the northern coast of what is now Haiti on Dec. 5, 1492. It was their third stop. The native Taino people welcomed them.

Within five years, Europeans had enslaved people of the Taino tribe and exploited the island’s gold mines.

A series of papal bulls, official proclamations handed down by a pope, first by Pope Nicholas V in 1952, then another in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, made this colonization and dozens of others legal in the eyes of the church. The bull, Inter Caetera, more widely known as the Doctrine of Discovery, gives explorers commissioned by Christian nations the rights to take the lands inhabited by non-Christians.

The reasoning? Because those who did not worship the God of Christians were not human.

The bull of 1452 gave European explorers the right to:

“… invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.” — Papal Bull Dum Diversas, June 18, 1452.

Taking this God-given right to heart, White settlers left European shores to “discover” other lands, and take them, according to Mark Charles, author and expert on the Doctrine of Discovery.

Rita Lucas holds oranges she bought at market in this February 2014 file photo. Before the land-grab by the Haitian government and business leaders in September 2013, she harvested the fruit from her own trees.

“This was literally the Doctrine that allowed European nations go into Africa, colonize the continent and enslave the African people. They weren’t fully human. This was the same doctrine that let Christopher Columbus who was lost at sea land in this “New World” that was already inhabited by millions and claim to have “discovered” it,” Charles said in an address to Calvin University, Jan. 19, 2017.

This Doctrine gave Columbus license to take islands in the West Indies on behalf of Spain

This Doctrine gave European explorers license to take lands occupied by Native Americans.

This Doctrine remains in the U.S. as the foundational and continuing law over Western expansion — the taking of lands occupied by indigenous people most recently cited in a Supreme Court decision in 2005, City of Sherril V. Oneida Indian Nation.

Despite its valiant fight for freedom, Haiti still under thumb of Doctrine’s legacy

So, what does a family not terribly far from where Columbus landed have to do with this Doctrine? Lauded as a brave explorer, Columbus and other European expeditioners used the rights given Christians by the Church to colonize lands, evict and/or enslave indigenous people and rape the land for gold and other minerals.

What would become Haiti under French control was a cruel land of plantations and overseers, miserable fields to thousands of enslaved Africans, the average of whom lived only seven years after arriving.

Even among a horrid institution of slavery, what happened to the enslaved people in Haiti is among the cruelest. They were worked to death or tortured for sport. They created their own language, a creole, worshiped gods from the vodou faith practiced in their native countries.

And even though in 1804 they found the power within themselves to beat back the French army and proclaimed their freedom from slavery, the White world that had benefited greatly from the Doctrine of Discovery and the successful colonization it afforded it, continued to oppress the people of Haiti.


Attack and take of the Crête-à-Pierrot (4 – march 24, 1802). Original illustration of the Haitian Revolution by Auguste Raffet, engraving by Hébert. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Two decades after the brand-new nation declared itself the first free Black republic, France demanded on threat of invasion a bounty equivalent to $23 billion by today’s standards. The U.S. military occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, taking over its bank and leaving with its gold reserves. Dictators lorded over the weakened populace from 1957 until 1986, and U.S. agricultural policy pressured Haiti to lower its import tariffs and dumped surplus rice into Haitian markets. The cheaper, lower quality product undercut profits for Haiti’s successful rice producers, destroying their livelihoods.Industrial parks to manufacture apparel and plantations for export continue the chip away at the ability for people of Haiti to make a living, much less create wealth.

The papal bull that legitimized and encouraged Europeans to take over land from Indigenous and First Peoples is a shameful travesty. Its legacy shows up in the many ways the powerful continue to oppress the people of Haiti. These are the descendants of enslaved Africans that French “landowners” brought to the country to build their wealth. Since these enslaved people won their liberty from the French army in 1804, wealthy nations failed to recognize the free Black nation, refusing trade agreements and for over two centuries made it impossible for the country to develop itself.

In 2013, not far from the Haitian region where Columbus landed on Dec. 5, 1492, in the northeast corner of the country bordering the Dominican Republic, the Haitian government and several businessmen including Jovenel Moise who later would serve as president suddenly and cruelly displaced 800 farm families near Trou-de-Nord.

Jusaint Pierre, widower of Rita Lucas. He blames the land-theft for Rita’s death. Photo by Cindy Corell.

They wanted to construct a banana plantation. Rita Lucas, Julsaint Pierre and their neighbor Josette Joseph joined with hundreds of others to protest the theft of land. Castin Milostene, a regional community organizer, helped them come together. They communicated with the government, pleaded their case, but it was to no avail. The families were not compensated but forced to find other lodgings. Tiny homes built by USAID were made available if tenants paid utilities.

I met these families several times over the years, following and publicizing their case. But nothing changed.

Last week I learned that Rita Lucas died on June 16, 2017.

“Li mouri chagrin,” Castin said in Krèyol.

She died of grief.

A message from Julsaint Pierre was similar.

“It was the project that killed her,” he said. “The project that took our land.”

He broke into tears.

“My wife. My wife just disappeared.”

And this land that once gave life to 800 families? After several years of production, once Moïse was elected president, production on the land ceased. The fertile ground lies fallow, protected by gangs.

The work of the Presbyterian Hunger Program is possible thanks to your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.



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