By Ilio Durandis
What was a crisis before the earthquake in Haiti is shaping up to be an omnipotent disaster for the reconstruction effort. Establishing legal land ownership anywhere in the world can be a difficult task, but in Haiti, not only is it a very agonizing process, but, at times, it can even be deadly.
Using the lessons of Haitian history, for many politicians, land reform policies are not be considered. It is suicidal for the career of most politicians to talk about agrarian reform.
The affinity of the Haitian population to their land remains one of the few traits inherited from colonial era. For the peasants, the land is their savings account. For those in big cities, land ownership is a sign of prestige and wealth. However, not everyone who claims to be a land owner can legally prove their ownership.
A stalemate is slowly brewing, as countless volumes of documents were lost at the land title registrar building in Haiti right after the earthquake in January 2010. At present, it is a very complicated matter to prove rightful ownership to a piece of land in Haiti.
It is even more problematic to do so with squatters and trespassers living and building on one’s property.
In one case, a family had to spend lots of money and time in a dispute with some squatters who, at first, had built a home, then another one on their property post-quake. The situation started as a Haitian Diaspora family bought a piece of land many years ago. Without their knowledge, a former guardian of a relative of the family, but whom they did not give permission decided to squatter on their property.
This individual lived on the property for an extended period with his family, and refused to leave when asked by the rightful owner of the land.
At first, the land owner did not say anything because of the urgent need for people to have a safe place to stay after the seism. As time went by, and the land owner wanted the property vacated, the situation quickly became chaotic and nightmarish.
To resolve this specific situation, the owner had to hire a lawyer and bring the case to a court magistrate. Instead of a lengthy trial, the owner and the trespassers settled on the matter. The owner had to pay the squatters approximately $500 dollars each to vacate the property.
This is just one simple example out of many such cases as far as private land ownership is concerned in Haiti. As one senior adviser to the president has noted, it is a huge dilemma for the state to deal with land title issues. It is not uncommon to find multiple individuals claiming legitimate ownership for a specific piece of land.
This current administration is working hard to refocus the image of the country. For too long, in the international mainstream media, Haiti has been synonymous with the poorest nation of its hemisphere; however, the focus is now being put on Haiti as a country that is open for business and wants to welcome foreign tourists on its soil.
The success of this rebranding of the nation will hinge a great deal on its ability to enforce, among other things, private property laws, transform the land title registry into an office that people can trust and simplify the laws that regulate the purchase and sale of private property.
Besides the use of land for housing construction, when it comes to agricultural use of the land, lack of legal papers to assign proper ownership has made improvement in agriculture almost impossible.
Haitian’s inheritance laws have created a mess in the way land is currently being divided from one generation to the next.
Three generations ago, a piece of land that had just a handful of people who could inherit it, now has more than triple the number due to the large extension of the average Haitian family.
Not only do people have little faith in the system, but the ways records are being kept have not improved with time.
A major investment is needed to switch from a paper-based record-keeping to an electronic format. This will not only make the system more efficient, but it will limit multiple ownership of the same piece of land at any given time. An electronic format can rid the system of a lot of wrongs, and make it more trustworthy to the people.
The proper and sustainable reconstruction of Haiti cannot be successful without a serious revision of how land is allocated to the country’s citizens. Agrarian reform is a must. Respect for legitimate private property is non-negotiable.
Currently, there are people living in transitional shelters built by NGOs on other people’s private land. There still exist camps on private properties, and the state inventory of public land is not well-known to the population.
In order to speed up the reconstruction process and send a strong signal to potential investors that Haiti is indeed open for business, addressing the private land issue should be one of the major priorities for the government.
Haiti can no longer afford to live by the land reform policy of two centuries ago. More land is needed for agriculture, public infrastructure, protection of the environment, and, most certainly, contemporary homes.
To prevent the creation of new “Bidonvil” ghettos, a modern land title system is needed, and new land policies need to be enacted.
Ilio Durandis, a Caribbean Journal contributor, is the founder of Haiti 2015, a social movement for a just and prosperous Haiti. He is also a columnist with The Haitian Times.