16 Mar

In early 1992 – my first relief operation ever, where a growing horde of Karen refugees huddled on the Thai side of the Salween River, the Thai farmer who owned the land didn’t want a refugee camp on it. And for good reason: it was his source of livelihood. Land was an issue.

In Cambodia in the mid-late 1990s, the Khmer Rouge still hiding out in pockets of jungle in the north, and the records of who’d ever owned what pre-1980s lost forever… land was an issue.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, 1998, trying to plan some kind of even micro-economic recovery following a brutal war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the conversations about who could grow what where were always fraught. Land was an issue.

On the margins of the Sahara in Mali and Guinea-Conakry, the key question at every farmer’s focus group was whether or not they owned the land that they farmed. Land was an issue.

Mozambique and Angola, bullet-holes still in buildings and wrecked aircraft dotting the jungle below, not water, not food, but  land was the key issue.

Pakistan after the earthquake and again just last summer when hundreds of thousands fled Swat Valley, they had to stay somewhere. With no specific return home date in sight, land very quickly became the key issue.

Why, you might ask, are all those people still living in refugee camps outside Khartoum? In order to leave, they have to have somewhere to go. No one wants to give them land. And without land, they cannot make a living. Land is a key issue.

What about Sri Lanka? After the tsunami, and again after the more recent conflict in the north, land emerges as a key issue.

You’re seeing the pattern, right?

Northern Sumatra after The Tsunami: land is a key issue. Aerawaddy River Delta after Cyclone Nargis: land was and remains a key issue. Louisana after Hurricane Katrina: land was a key issue. Metro-Manila after Typhoon Ketsana: land is a key issue.

How do you spell P-A-L-E-S-T-I-N-E?

In a natural disaster or conflict, laws about ownership change, records are conveniently lost, squatters who have been in a place for a long time flee or move and the owner seizes the opportunity to reclaim the land, governments take the opportunity to re-write zoning laws. It happens every time. Where will the displaced live? Where can they build their houses? Where can they raise their crops? Is it land that is habitable (it’s not a swamp or it’s not on the edge of a cliff)? Is there access to anything? Is it 100 km from the nearest town or power grid? Is it next to a toxic waste dump?

Land is always an issue. And if your disaster response lasts more than the first few weeks, you’re up against the land issue.

* * *

And so, it should come as no surprise to anyone that land and land tenure are huge, critical issues in Haiti right now.

Right now people are camped out in public parks or in open public land or on private land where the owners initially allowed them to camp on (or were unable to prevent it). They cannot stay there forever. These camps are largely in places that are unprepared for residential habitation – which is to say that there is no power grid, no water or sewer system. They’re pooping in holes in the ground. Water is being trucked in every few days to fill temporary tanks and bladders set up throughout the camps. It’s acceptable in the short-term, but long-term it is bad news.

They have to go somewhere. But where? Return to original homesites is not a short-term option because of the effort and time required to clear and prepare those sites. In some cases, it will not be an option at all, because those living there were squatters – basically living there, well, illegally.

There is public land.. sort of (see previous post). There is plenty of private land, but in many cases it is either unfit or the owners won’t sell or release it. Would you want four or five refugee families camped out in your backyard… indefinitely? (that was rhetorical @transitionland … I know you’d probably be okay with it :) )

How do land issues get resolved? Well, basically someone has to give up land that they own. Ideally it would be the government. Sometimes governments do release public land for either temporary or permanent resettlement, and that’s more or less what’s sort of happening in Haiti. As I wrote in the previous post, there are a few small-ish tracts of publicly owned land being made available. But as of today, even that is contestable: there are disputes between local and central governments, there are legal hoops that must be jumped through. More than anything else, a government must take decisive action… and sadly that does not appear to be happening.

Where do aid agencies come in? There’s not much that we can do directly. What we can do, basically, is try to persuade the government to make land available, to change zoning laws or make one-off exceptions to them, to force private land-owners to make their land available (in aid work jargon, this is one part of what we call “advocacy”).

But at the end of the day, there is not much that we can control directly when it comes to land. At the end of the day, aid agencies have to work with whatever those with political power grant to their own people – the disaster survivors.

And in the case of the Haiti earthquake survivors that, unfortunately, does not appear to be very much.

Until the land issues are resolved and we have some idea of where people will actually be… in six months… in a year… dependency will have been created for us, and we’ll be stuck in relief mode.

The TV cameras and the reporters and the aid organization propoganda will show pictures of relief distributions, of survivors being pulled from the rubble, of children being fed or vaccinated or kept safe from predators in child-friendly spaces. And make no mistake – all of those things are important.

But at the end of the day, if those people have no place to call “home”, no place to build their houses or gardens, no place to make a living…

as unsexy as it is…

Land is the key issue.

14 Responses to “Land”

  1. Daniel O'Neil 17 March, 2010 at 6:35 am #

    We’ve found that a lot of people in the camps could move back into their old homes if they felt the home was safe or if minor repairs were done. We hope to get 10,000 families back into their old houses–not a solution, but a good step in the right direction.

    Except, maybe they should not be in the houses in the first place. As I wrote in my blog, I fear that we will just rebuild the chaos. Those neighborhoods are warrens of little streets that are too narrow for trucks. One of the odd aspects of pre-earthquake Port-au-Prince is the lack of apartment buildings–everyone lives in a small, single-family houses. It would be easier to rebuild a more livable city if if the city were built vertically, but I can’t imagine trying to convince Haitians to live in an apartment tower now–it is hard enough to get them inside our two-story office!

    At the same time, I worry about building new communities on the small strips of public or donated private land. Port-au-Prince has lousy roads and long commute times. I am guessing that these new communities will be farther away from the few jobs that exist. It would be a shame to put families into “permanent” houses and then to still have to feed them because the community is unsustainable.

    Poor Haiti. I wish I could see a clear path out of this mess.

  2. GarPJ 17 March, 2010 at 11:59 am #

    Its all about giving them options in my view.

    We’re just getting Tabarre Issa up and running at the moment – its a tiny site and won’t have much impact on the problem. It will however, start to answer questions about people’s willingness to move, their ability to move their livelihoods with them, how they’ll cope away from home communities, how they should (or shouldn’t) be selected.

    Great to see so many blogs taking these issues to a wider audience. Well done.

  3. Farzine 17 March, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

    Isn’t this blog post just stating the obvious repetitively. Yes land is a key issue for many reasons in different contexts. Now what! Just stating the many factors contributing to a problem doesn’t really cut it for analysis or discussion.

  4. lraftree 18 March, 2010 at 8:00 pm #

    Farzine – I think that is one of the points of this blog post. That land is a huge and complicated issue, and that no one has a good answer right now, and that anything that anyone does has a lot of potential risk involved because the situation is so complex. That it’s difficult to make decisions now given that land hasn’t been sorted out yet, the context changes every day in a huge way, there is no really good solution, and any step now will produce a ‘hindsight is 20:20″ kind of situation because there is no right answer. I can’t begin to imagine how frustrating for people who will have to deal with the consequences of whatever decisions are made on their behalf by those that have the decision-making power…. and how heavy the responsibility is for those who have been given the power to decide.

    • J. 20 March, 2010 at 8:41 am #

      Linda – that’s exactly the point. Thanks for saying it.

  5. Patrick 22 March, 2010 at 11:41 am #

    Do you (author and readers) think UN-Habitat (and to a certain extent IOM and UNHCR) deal with this issue well, or do their focus on shelter – as opposed to legal advocacy for land – is wrong-headed? Should there be – god forbid – a new UN agency to deal with land rights?

    • J. 22 March, 2010 at 12:17 pm #


      Thank you for reading and for your question. Obviously I cannot speak for readers. In my opinion it’s not so much that UN-Habitat or the Shelter or CCM clusters have done the wrong thing(s): emergency shelter very clearly is a need following large disasters, as is transitional shelter further down the road. The real challenge, as I see it, is to be able to somehow – in the context of the overall coordinated response – dedicate sufficient resources to all of the different aspects of shelter and land: to adequately ensure that emergency and transitional shelter neeeds are being addressed in a timely fashion and also to put sufficient weight into the land-rights conversation up front.

      To me – and mine is clearly but one opinion among many – a new UN agency to deal with land rights is not necessarily a good or bad thing. If sufficiently resourced and if the right people are in the right places, then it could work well. On the other hand, simply expanding the mandate of UN-Habitat to address legal issues related to land rights and do advocacy on that front.


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