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.