Haiti: give us our land

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

It’s not the NGOs. Mountains of rubble and archaic land laws are slowing Haiti’s progress

Sandra Cox asks why progress in rehousing people has been so slow

Media headlines describe a country that is on anything but the road to recovery. A year after the earthquake, Haiti is a still plagued by piles of rubble, few new houses, and over a million people living under canvas or temporary shelters. Uncertainty and frustration are everywhere.

Despite huge efforts to respond to the multiple needs of the people of the Haiti, aid and development agencies concede that the pace of recovery in Haiti is slow. In some places in Port-au-Prince, it is difficult to see that twelve months have passed since the magnitude 7.0 earthquake.

In the year since the January 12 day of horror that killed 230,000 people, 1.3 million people are still forced to live in over a thousand camps – communities which sprung up virtually overnight and have been described as squalid and unsafe.  The earthquake left 315,000 houses destroyed or uninhabitable.

Life in camps is now a normal way of life for many Haitians who are unable to build simply because the rubble of their neighbours’ houses remains where it fell, or because they cannot find or afford plots of land. How is Haiti to rebuild its homes - and where?

Land reform was one of the country’s most pressing issues well before the earthquake. Today it is even more so. Haitians are frustrated at the perceived lack of progress.

ACT Alliance general secretary John Nduna empathises with Haitians, saying the situation is untenable and urgent steps need to be taken to get people into homes, not just by the Haitian government but by aid and development agencies and foreign governments. “Land is a precious commodity in Haiti and tracking down land titles can be a legal maze, but that shouldn’t stop us from pushing for a solution to this chronic problem.”

The birthright of over a million people to the safety and dignity of a home – whether owned, rented or shared - is compromised by the impasse over access to available land, Nduna says.

Henrik Stubkjær, DanChurchAid general secretary, puts land as one of the top three most pressing obstacles to growth. The lack of a master plan for removing rubble and for rebuilding sits alongside the political stalemate and lack of jobs. A focus on building permanent houses is paramount, he says.

It’s often impossible to determine who owns land, and if authorities or NGOs get this wrong, the people they’re trying to help can end up homeless again.

“Most people were living in rented accommodation before the earthquake.  It is likely that their landlord either did not have a title to the land on which the house was built or that their documents were lost in the earthquake,” explains Prospery Raymond, who manages Christian Aid’s Caribbean programme from Port-au-Prince.

With little clarity over land ownership and little money for Haitians themselves, it is mostly NGOs, both local and international, that have constructed new homes - so far on land made available by the state. Most of the land available for rebuilding is owned by the government or private individuals. Until much larger swathes are available, it will be impossible to re-house the vast majority who are now homeless.

In a detailed and direct report on the multiple problems facing Haiti, ACT member Christian Aid, with Progressio, Tearfund and CAFOD, says the chief obstacle to more homes being built is the immense difficulty in proving land ownership.

Even before the earthquake, only five per cent of properties were registered and the land tenure process was exceedingly complex, says the report, Haiti Must Build Back Better. With the concentration of land ownership in the hands of an elite few, competition for this resource was intense.

Housing policy in Haiti failed to cater for landless Haitians living in Port-au-Prince. Land distribution in the capital was unequal, with the poorest being forced to live in illegal, dilapidated settlements that received little or no support from the state. Building standards were not adhered to.

“The earthquake brought these inequalities into greater focus and many people, whether new urban-to-rural migrants, their rural host families or landless urban dwellers destined to remain in the capital, now face a very uncertain future.

“Haitian people are becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of a comprehensive housing strategy. The state will need to respond quickly in 2011 if it is to avoid social unrest related to this issue.”

The number of people still living under sheets and in tents in the sub-standard conditions in the camps is unacceptable. However, until the land issue is addressed, they risk having to remain living in those undignified conditions indefinitely.

In spite of this, Haiti has an abundance of unused land, most of which is owned by the state or rich individuals, the report says.

The Haitian government has yet to produce a comprehensive plan for land reform and land allocation to meet the population’s needs. What does exist is vague and does not establish how or when this will be implemented.

Key questions such as where houses will be built, which land can be used, whether the shelter built now is to be temporary or permanent, and how much compensation should be paid to people who lost their houses, cannot be easily answered.

Addressing Haiti’s land question

Some local and international organisations are doing what they can to address the land and housing issue. Many are trying to identify long-term solutions to the problem, and a number of small-scale pilot housing projects are being trialled. Other humanitarian agencies are working on transitional shelters to address immediate needs by helping communities to build houses on land borrowed from owners for three to five years, the report says.

The incentive to re-build is strong but the lack of money to do so stymies the efforts of many Haitians.

Aldrin Calixte, of Christian Aid partner Haiti Survie, says many families left homeless do have plots of land outside Port-au-Prince, own a small business and have some income, but they lack enough money to completely rebuild houses or obtain collateral to get loans from banks.

Rural families, now accommodating dozens of relatives in small houses, need bank loans to rebuild low-income housing over a number of years. The problem is not a lack of funds, but of Haitian leadership, Calixte says.

Haiti Survie is working through municipal authorities in one area where it identified public land and local families willing to give up a portion of their land to build small villages of up to 10 houses each.

ACT Alliance coordinator of the emergency response in Haiti, Geneviève Cyvoct, saw Haiti at its most vulnerable in the months following the earthquake.  She now sees a country moving toward stability and greater hope, as long as a solution to the housing problem is made a priority.

Home-building depends on land tenure issues. “If you are working with a family that owns land, it is fairly easy to rebuild a house because it’s their land. If you’re working with a family that used to rent a house, they don’t have land, so you need to find the land first of all where you can rebuild that permanent house.”

Homes needs to withstand the rigours of life in a geological hotspot, prone to earthquakes and the worst the weather can throw at them.

“We have answered the first emergency needs. Now we are starting to rebuild and rehabilitate.  That means giving people a more permanent home… that minimises people’s vulnerability to future disasters.”

Collapsible, mobile houses became the order of the day for many who lost their homes. Transitional shelters are erected, and then deconstructed and re-built if families have to move. Alternatively, core houses – a simple, one room house that people can gradually expand over time depending on their situation.

Cyvoct says a lot of work still needs to be done to support people in either going back to their homes if they still exist and are safe for living there, or to rebuild them.  Strong leadership should be taken from the government but also from all the major players involved in solving the very sensitive issue of land ownership.

Sandra Cox is Assistant Communications Officer at the ACT Secretariat

Haiti: after the earthquake