It’s the land, stupid

UN/DPI Photo by Eskinder Debebe

If you owned land would you want refugees living there? Rent-free? Indefinitely?  Folks don’t even want their own family shacking up on their property much less strangers.

Land, was the answer that the aid worker who recently returned from Haiti gave when I asked him what was the most critical issue for Haiti in the next year. Want a home? Whose land are you going to use? Want a job? Whose land are you going to work on? Want a school? Whose land are you going to build on? Want a clinic? And so on.

As a result, I’ve been looking for news coverage of land ownership issues in Haiti but, nada (albeit, I’m only searching English-language sources).  The closest I’ve come, using a Lexis search and not Google, is this seemingly thorough and well-researched article in last week’s Montreal Gazette.

Université de Montréal architecture professor Gonzalo Lizarralde, co-author of Rebuilding After Disasters: From Emergency to Sustainability, provides much of the article’s expertise:

Much of the delay in rebuilding is linked to land ownership issues, in countries where many people have no official deeds to properties they may have lived on for decades, if not generations. Figuring out who should get the land and who would benefit from aid took 10 months alone following the double earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001, and more than 12 months during post-Hurricane Mitch reconstruction in Honduras.

In Honduras, the government donated the land on which hurricane survivors were resettled.  According to the aid worker’s mid-March account however, in Haiti, government (forceable?) transfer of land for refugee resettlement either isn’t happening or is not happening quickly enough.

… basically someone has to give up land that they own. Ideally it would be the government. Sometimes governments do release public land for either temporary or permanent resettlement, and that’s more or less what’s sort of happening in Haiti. As I wrote in the previous post, there are a few small-ish tracts of publicly owned land being made available. But as of today, even that is contestable: there are disputes between local and central governments, there are legal hoops that must be jumped through. More than anything else, a government must take decisive action… and sadly that does not appear to be happening.

…at the end of the day, there is not much that [aid agencies] can control directly when it comes to land. At the end of the day, aid agencies have to work with whatever those with political power grant to their own people – the disaster survivors.

And in the case of the Haiti earthquake survivors that, unfortunately, does not appear to be very much.

Lessons from the Honduras resettlement highlights another land ownership problem stemming from lack of coordination among NGO builders. (and let’s be real, expert Ryan Alaniz who is studying the post-hurricane resettled community, seems to be saying, “the real decisions will be made by those who have the funds”–not the Haitian government)

The seven communities were built by different organizations, and each of the organizations had a different philosophy and a different practice in development…. none of the organizations ever communicated with one another.

In some places, they handed the ownership titles to the people after they built the houses. In another community, residents had to pay off the houses for 15 years before they could get that title. So what you have is completely different ways of giving these houses to people. Now people are really angry because they’re still paying off these houses. And in other communities, through donations made internationally, people already own their houses.

Besides the obvious “what not to do,” lesson, the most important takeaway is: there are aid workers who know what needs to happen, in the long and short term, in order to help Haitians resettle and rebuild their communities to their satisfaction.  After all, aid workers have participated in enough post-natural disaster reconstructions in order to draw useful comparisons.

The problem occurs when the (best? right?) thing to do bumps up against 1) a country’s internal politics and 2) the separate and largely uncoordinated missions of the 3,999 NGOs.

If I were in Haiti, land would be my beat.  What kinds of deals is the government striking with land owners to resettle the people? Which land owner is being generous? Which is not? How much public land does the government own? What land development projects are the resettled refugees forcing the government or businesses to abandon?

6 Responses to “It’s the land, stupid”

  1. Raymond, just to let u know, I’m back on this topic. Will keep you in the loop.

  2. Good work. You have focused on a key issue here.

    Have you thought about: a) pitching this other media who are not covering this; b) requesting further information from the relevant USA Government department or UN agency who is co-ordinating aid to Haiti? c) sourcing some academic work on land issues and reconstruction that will put the points discussed above into context? The experts/aid workers you quote above mean well and know their stuff but surely there are usually twos sides to every story. And may an academic paper or article would give a balanced overview of the issues.

    • Of course. But my plate’s full: I’m working on like, 5 assignments right now. I should say, I write about these issues (based on the good work of others like Tales from the Hood) in the hopes that *other* journalists will pick up the thread. So long as the issues are being covered, doesn’t matter who’s doing it, right? I’m very clear that I’m no superwoman. 😉

      • One more thing: my next step is to test whether “the crowd” will fund reporting on stories like these using the Spot.Us model. That would be ideal. (I’m just clearing my plate a bit)


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