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No plan in sight for Haiti’s homeless

Posted by Lindy on September 16, 2010

No one knows where to relocate more than a million people displaced by the Jan. 12 quake, or how to determine exactly

The promised reconstruction of this earthquake-crippled nation hangs on the potentially explosive issue underlying a simple question: Whose land is this?

Take a spot below off the Delmas 33 road. Before the earthquake eight months ago, goats grazed here and tenant farmers planted patches of corn and sugar cane. One of Haiti’s wealthiest families, the Acres, claimed the roughly 20-acre parcel, but had no major plans for it.

Now an estimated 25,000 people call it home. From the hill above, the temporary camp is a sea of sun-battered tarps (tarpaulins). Up close it looks more like a neighbourhood every day: tin roofs, wood framing, locked doors, fences, gardens. It boasts makeshift stores, Lottery booths, one-chair beauty salons, rum bars, even an Internet cafe.

When groups of young “security” men came in buses with eviction notices, the camp residents chased them away with rocks, sticks and machetes. Residents did the same with aid workers who were merely trying to register their existence.

“It’s not like we’re comfortable here,” said Katlyne Camean. “Last night when it rained, I filled three buckets of water from my house. But no one is telling us where they want us to go. I don’t want to go somewhere worse.”

No one knows where to relocate more than a million people displaced by the Jan. 12 quake. The government and foreign aid groups want to move many back to their old neighbourhoods or open spaces nearby and build single-family shelters for them. But to avoid making an already volatile situation much worse, they must know who owns the land they want to build on.

“The problem of title of ownership goes back 200 years in Haiti,” President Rene Preval said in a recent interview. Generations of corruption, dictatorship, coups and spoils-system governance have led to a number of cases where multiple people claim the same piece of property. “Sometimes all of their documents are validated,” Preval said. “It’s very hard to tell who started cheating first.”

The Acra family claims the land under this camp. Sebastien Acra says the family hasn’t tried to evict the people there. Nor has the government approached him to buy the land to build housing. He is more concerned with another camp on property about a mile away, where the family had plans to build a manufacturing centre. When the earthquake hit, about 15,000 nearby residents set up stakes on the site. The Acras want them off, but there is no government plan for where to send them.

The government has identified five big sites outside Port-au-Prince to which it could move thousands of people in the interim. But where would they work? Where would they find food? Haitians survive, in large measure, within a network of family and friends rooted deeply in their own neighbourhoods. Forced relocations to government camps could set off a political firestorm.

Still, foreign aid groups trying to build temporary shelters are frustrated because Preval’s government hasn’t come up with a usable plan. In some areas, they have worked with local officials to create a three-year moratorium on disputes over property. They simply build shelters for the families living on the land, be they renters, owners or squatters.

Even this has been slow going. Rubble remains everywhere. The groups can’t demolish a heavily damaged house without the owners’ permission. And many times, the space where a family lived is too small for one of the prefab shelters.

So far about 11,900 shelters have been constructed, out of 135,000 planned.

“It’s going to be a long process,” said Lilianne Fan, the housing, land and property coordinator for the cluster of foreign groups trying to build shelters. “The camps are going to be there for a long time. We need everyone in Haitian society to understand this.”


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