Haiti post-quake land issues emerge into the mainstream debate – UPDATED

NB: Yesterday’s New York Times reports that a fairly minor storm hit the planned shelter area referred to in the below post earlier this week, destroying hundreds of tents and rendering about a quarter of the IDPs resettled there homeless. Several people were injured – and one infant killed – by windblown debris and lightning. Camp managers have taken this as a wake-up call and the construction of sturdy transitional shelters may begin as early as today. The article does not clearly address how the many squatters in the area in flimsier shelter fared, or whether any measures are being considered to protect them from more serious storms that are thought to be on the way.

by Rhodri C. Williams

Six months after the Haiti quake, the significance of land disputes to reconstruction now seems to be sinking in. This is highlighted in a fascinating Washington Post article on the problem of finding land to resettle earthquake IDPs in Port au Prince.

The piece focuses on Corail-Cesselesse, an area north of the capital that has been designated to be a new “Zen city” (I’m not making this up!), combining planned housing for quake-affected persons with access to jobs in a new manufacturing zone. So far, this has led to an initial planned transfer of IDPs from particularly dangerous (or objectionable?) camps followed by a large-scale incursion of squatters hoping (and encouraged?) to stake out their piece of a bright new future.

The article is particularly illuminating on the nature of land disputes, with powerful interests close to the government that won contracts to manage the development process facing resistance from the owners of the land in question. Thus, while IDPs and squatters are present more in the way of pawns than as direct parties to the dispute, they bear the brunt of the resulting violence. To paraphrase the article:

The landowners say if they’re not compensated, the “new Haiti” in Corail-Cesselesse will end up making the violent slums of pre-quake Port-au-Prince look tame. They say if anyone builds there without their consent, they will sue to get the land back. Landowner Jean-Claude Theodore calls the squatters invaders who are attacking private property.

[Government planner] Voltaire has his own response to threats of lawsuits or worse – a government backed by U.N. peacekeepers, the international community and his blueprint.

“What do I say to them?” he said with a smile. “I say, ‘Checkmate.'”

Every squatter seems to have had an encounter with gangsters they believe are sent by landowners.

Sadrak Abane, 60, said they beat him with a rifle. He refused to go.

“Any time we pick a spot to build a place there’s always the ‘grands-hommes’ claiming the land is theirs,” said Wisner Jerome, 37.

But they believe they have government behind them. “Don’t forget! Don’t forget! Don’t forget!” said Daniel Paul, a 35-year-old member of a squatters’ committee. “The state has declared it is public land. Nobody can go above the state.”

In light of the witches brew of local interests at stake and the high potential for well-meaning internationals to be instrumentalised, Haiti envoy Bill Clinton’s offer to “plunge into the bargaining himself, if necessary” is not entirely reassuring. This sense of unease is heightened by the reading of a comment by Michael Delbert in the Guardian that reminds of how a string of well-meaning international policies fueled the rural collapse that led to Port-au-Prince’s dangerous pre-quake overcrowding. Delbert notes the fact that the decentralization plans announced with such fanfare at the March donor meeting appear to have gone nowhere, and laments the opportunities missed in the six months since the quake struck:

Before another six months pass, foreign governments, international agencies and non-governmental organisations must quickly and decisively work with Haitians, both urban and rural, on issues such as resettlement, reforestation and agrarian reform, to help them build a decent country out of the rubble of the broken state that came before.

The fact that land disputes are increasingly understood as a key governance and reconstruction problem in Haiti is good. A systematic mapping of the interested parties and their agendas may help to not only resolve some of the immediate shelter problems for IDPs but also give a more clear-eyed view of the broader political dynamics likely to precede – and emerge from – elections scheduled for November. However, both speed and deliberation will be necessary – speed to forestall the nightmare scenario of further natural disasters devastating a region still reeling from the last event, and deliberation to avoid the international community being sucked into corrupt and destabilizing abuse of the procedures being set up to avoid such a scenario.

One response to “Haiti post-quake land issues emerge into the mainstream debate – UPDATED

  1. Pingback: Week in links – Week 22/2011 | TerraNullius

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