[Translation of an article from HaitiLibre for July 6, 2010.]
The Haitian government and international aid organizations are in competition over construction of dwellings for the 1.5 million people living in camps. But before even beginning reconstruction, they need to determine who owns the land – a major challenge after the earthquake, which killed some 16,000 government officials and destroyed an unknown number of land title records.
“The catastrophe has made land claims more difficult and this situation is going to get worse. After close to 250,000 deaths, inheritance and the sale of land raise a number of questions. Is the owner dead or alive? If he is dead, are there children with rights to the land?”asks Erik Vittrup, head of the United Nations Human Settlement Program (UN-Habitat), based in Rio de Janeiro.
Survivores who are squatting in private houses or on private land, the need for schools and childcare centers and the construction of housing will all increase, as will conflicts over ownership and the eviction of squatters. Another problem is the buying up of land in the slums, which was endemic before the earthquake and is now becoming widespread because of the lack of clarity in land titles. “Certain people returning to their homes find they are being occupied by someone else,” Erik Vittrup stated.
The earthquake has done nothing but bring to light a long-standing problem, that of poorly defined land rights in Haiti, resulting from an ineffecive judiciary system, years of political instability and a weak government incapable of inspiring respect for, and protection of, land owners’ titles.
“The lack of governance makes enforcement of land rights very dificult, and judicial protection is almost non-existent,” the UN official declared, adding that Haitian courts are overwhelmed and take an average of five years to settle cases.
Less than five percent of land in Haiti is officialy accounted for in public land records, according to the United Nations, which increases the difficulty of establishing who owns the land. Even before the earthquake, ownership of land was a thorny problem in Haiti, contributing to violence and poverty in a country where land is concentrated in the hands of a few large land owners.
There are few land titles in Haiti and there is no system of real estate records. Most land is transferred orally from one generation to the next and with the prevalence of informal land ownership, as with contradictory laws and the weakness of enforcement, land security is not established, according to a report by UN-Habitat published shortly after the earthquake of last January.
Before the catastrophe, the Organization of American States had pledged to spend 70 million dollars over seven years to put in place an orderly system of title registration in Haiti. The legislative body says that it is a prerequisite for development of the country. But the earthauake made real estate a much more urgent challenge. “The question of land rights is essential for every organization that works on reconstruction in Haiti. Our work becomes difficult when families do not have guarantees of the their land rights, which is true in the majority of cases, which hinders us from constructing temporary or permanent housing,” declared Claude Jeudy, Haiti director of Habitat for Humanity, a charity organization dealing with construction..
Humanitarian agencies and the government need to redouble their efforts to solve the problem of land rights, just as the hurricane season is advancing, threatening to destroy many makeshift shelters. “The organizations need clear directives supported by the local authorities, to permit the legal construction of transitional structures while ownership of the land remains uncertain. This process risks creating a bottleneck in the construction of provisional shelters if it isn’t dealt with quickly. A national policy on the question is not only necessary but it is urgent, according to a report published recently by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
A number of national and international humanitarian organizations are working in some 1,200 registered camps in and around the captal on an ad hoc basis, with informal agreements with the land owners and local authorities, who give them the right temporarily to occupy the land, which should then be renegotiated every three to six months. To date, this occurs on the basis of good will but no one knows how long this will last. “Good will must reach a limit at a certain moment,” declares Katie Chalk, communications director in Port-au-Prince for World View International.
Pressure over land in the city will increase to the degree that more people who fled the capital after the earthquake want to return home,” she added.
Uncertainty about land ownership results in aid organizations not being able to make long-range plans. “Every day we go into a camp without knowing if it will still be there in three weeks,” Katie Chalk said. This problem of uncertainty of land rights weighs equally on local businesses. Many heads of Haitian businesses have had trouble obtaining loans because they cannot prove they own the land their businesses occupy. This uncertainty also alienates potential foreign investors, indispensible for the reconstruction of Haiti.
“If there is no land registry, with a judicial body to guarantee their rights, investors will not spend one dollar in Haiti,” delcares Erik Vittrup of UN –Habitat.