(Clarifies that comments in paragraphs 19, 20 and 22 were made in April)
BOGOTA (TrustLaw) - Disputes over land ownership, which could take years to resolve, are hampering the rebuilding of Haiti after a devastating earthquake in January and deterring much-needed foreign investment, experts say.
Haiti's government and international aid agencies are racing to build new homes for the one and a half million survivors still living in makeshift camps. But before they can even start, they need to determine who owns what piece of land - a major challenge after the earthquake killed some 16,000 civil servants and destroyed an untold number of title deeds and land registry records.
"The disaster has exacerbated land tenure claims and we will see many more. With around 250,000 people dead, inheritance and sale of land after the earthquake raises all sorts of questions: is the property owner dead? are there children entitled to land?" said Erik Vittrup, senior officer with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) based in Rio de Janeiro.
Aid agencies say disputes between land owners and homeless survivors squatting in damaged homes or on private land, school and hospital sites are set to rise, as are forced evictions of squatters. They also fear that the lack of clarity about land ownership opens the door for land grabbing, which was already rampant in the capital's slums before the earthquake hit.
"Land grabbing was something you saw on day one after the earthquake. Some people are returning to their homes only to find that they can't get back into their house because it is being occupied by someone else," Vittrup said.
The earthquake has exposed the long-standing problem of ill-defined land rights in Haiti, a result of an inefficient judiciary, years of political instability and a weak government unable to enforce land titles and protect property owners.
"The lack of governance makes the enforcement of land rights very difficult, and legal protection is close to zero," said Vittrup, adding that Haiti's clogged law courts take on average five years to resolve a case.
Less than 5 percent of Haiti's land is officially accounted for in public land records, according to the United Nations, compounding the difficulty in establishing who owns what land.
Even before the earthquake, land ownership was a thorny issue in Haiti, contributing to violence and poverty in a country where land is concentrated in the hands of a few big landowners, known as grandons.
Few Haitians own land titles and there is no proper land registry system, with most land titles passed down orally from one generation to the next.
"With the prevalence of the informal land tenure as well as the contradictory laws and the weak institutions of enforcement, land tenure security is not established," according to a UN-HABITAT report published shortly after the earthquake.
URGENT LAND NEEDS
Before the disaster, the Organisation of American States committed $70 million to set up, over a period of seven years, a digitalised land title registration system in Haiti, which the body says is a prerequisite for the country's development.
But the earthquake has turned land ownership into a much more urgent challenge.
"The land rights issue is critical for every organisation working in Haiti. Our work becomes difficult when families don't have secure land rights, which is the majority of cases, and that prevents us from housing families and building transitional or permanent housing," said Claude Jeudy, the Haiti director for the home-building charity, Habitat for Humanity.
Aid agencies say the government must work harder to address the problem of land rights as the hurricane season progresses, threatening to destroy many makeshift shelters.
"Organisations need clear guidelines supported by local authorities, to allow legal construction of transitional shelters on land where ownership remains unclear. This process is likely to create a bottleneck in the implementation of transitional shelters if not addressed. A national policy on the matter is urgently required. Challenges with regards to property ownership and tenancy are therefore expected," states a recent report by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Many aid agencies working in the some 1,200 makeshift camps sprawled in and around the capital have been getting by on ad-hoc, informal agreements with landowners and local authorities giving them temporary rights to use land, which then have to be renegotiated every three to six months.
So far, this has largely relied on good will. But how long that lasts no-one knows.
"That good will will reach its capacity at some point," said Katie Chalk from World Vision International in April, speaking in a telephone interview from Port au Prince when she was the organisation's head of Haiti relief communications.
Pressure on land in an already over-crowded city will increase as more people who fled the capital after the earthquake start to return home, she added.
Uncertainty over land ownership also means aid agencies are unable to make long-term plans.
"Every day we come into a camp thinking whether it will still be there in three weeks time," said Chalk.
Insecure property and land rights is also stifling local enterprise as many Haitian business leaders are struggling to get bank loans because they are unable to prove they own land. It is also putting off potential foreign investors, much-needed for Haiti's reconstruction according to international donors.
"If there are no land records, they (investors) are not going to spend a cent in Haiti," said Vittrup.
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