Who owns the land? The real issue in housing Haiti’s homeless

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 6, 2013

Housing Haiti’s homeless goes much beyond the issue of who can build better, faster, cheaper. Three years after the earthquake, the caterwauling seems to focus too little on the woeful absence of a modern, updated cadastral map, which is basically the public record of land parcels used to delineate land ownership and levy property taxes.

Haiti, idyllic, land rights, housing homeless

Haiti – idyllic but with idiosyncratic land rights and tenure, which makes it difficult to house the homeless

As Harley F. Etienne, a Haitian-born professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, writes, the real problem with housing the homeless revolve around land rights and land tenure and these problems “predate the earthquake.”

Haiti is hardly alone in its cadastral inadequacies. These are a problem in developing economies like India and emerging ones like Mongolia. The Economist recently forecast Mongolia as the second-fastest-growing economy this year. Will it? Can it? Mongolia is inhibited by endemic rule of law problems, particularly with regard to property rights, according to The Heritage Foundation’s 2013 Index of Economic Freedom. This influences its ability to attract investment capital – as well as making it hard for its citizens to buy, build and sell land.

For Haiti, cadastral inadequacies inhibit its ability to re-house its homeless.

As Professor Etienne wrote in the Oxfam report, “Land rights in Haiti have long advantaged those with access to title, which is granted through surveyors, lawyers, and notaries. The legal system’s inability to efficiently resolve land disputes and the outdated cadastral map all collude to further inhibit land rights.”

This makes for tenure informality, which is tied to tenure insecurity, he adds, and “tenants’ rights to remain in place are inhibited by the inability to leverage the legal system to resolve land disputes,” especially because of the fear of confronting politically connected landowners.

Cadastral imperfections can blight economic growth and development even in countries like India, which President Obama famously described in 2010 as not an emerging economy but one that has already “emerged”. Now, 66 years after Independence, India is trying to live up to the billing by taking steps to bring its land and property titling and registration system into the 21st century. As Rita Sinha, the former senior civil servant at the Indian government’s Department of Land Resources, admitted a couple of years ago, India badly needed to move from the system of “presumptive” property titles to clear ones, ie the Torrens system prevalent in Australia, New Zealand, UK, USA, Canada, Switzerland, Singapore, Malaysia, etc.

Property records need to mirror ground reality, she noted, ie they should be “real-time records” and should show conclusive ownership status. As a means to this end, the Indian government launched the National Land Records Modernization Programme, which aims to set up a single agency to administer records, with all the implications for updating and computerizing cadastral maps, verifying ownership, integrating the data and making it available to those who need it – ie, land-buyers and sellers. Consider the dimensions of the task – India is divided into 28 states and 7 Union Territories.  Each state is sub-divided into districts, which are further sub-divided into sub-divisions variously known as tehsils/talukas/blocks/anchals. Clusters of 4 to 6 villages in each district are the responsibility of a village-level Revenue functionary called a patwari. Joining all the dots is a gargantuan exercise but Ms Sinha suggested it would be complete by 2018.

For Haiti, cadastral coherence involves all of these logistical nightmares and so much more than logistics. Land titles are dispensed by the offices of local mayors and Professor Etienne laments the historical “pork-barreling of land to curry political loyalty and favour.” This is further complicated by the almost indecipherable all-French legal system (units of land measurement, such as the carreaux, are curiosities from the colonial era) even though all Haitians speak kreyol and only about 8 per cent speak French.

In the end, land rights are about political will.

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac