Deal with the *Land*

27 Feb

I’ve written about land before. If my neighborhood was to be leveled by a huge – or even just a medium – disaster, if I lost everything; if the records of land ownership, wherever they are, were somehow also lost, I shudder think about how I might go about proving that I own the piece of ground where my house is now.

* * *

I spent about half of November 2009 weeks slogging through the still damp outer neighborhoods of metro-Manila that had been slammed by Typhoon Ketsana. In some places flood waters reached almost to the third storey, and in some places it was still more than a meter deep. People were crowded into unbelievably squalid “temporary relocation centers” – and not to self-aggrandize, but I’ve been to a few disaster zones and am not one to use the term “squalid” wantonly. In some (not all) cases those centers were themselves flooded: families of five crowded onto less than four square meters of raised platform space over thick, black water that smelled like, and if fact was, sewage.

My employer, along with most others involved in that response, was doing the predictable assortment of food and NFI distribution, and some “livelihoods” interventions, mostly cash-for-work (CFW). I remember that we all sat in a Jollibee one afternoon, eating greasy chicken and commenting on the fact that most of those displaced by Typhoon Ketsana were actually urban squatters who would have no place to go after the displacement centers.

displaced Typhoon Ketsana survivors, more than a year later, still waiting for a permanent place to live...

I was back this past January (2010). More than one year later, Typhoon Ketsana survivors were still living in some sort of “temporary” space, tents, mostly. And why? Well, I can tell you that it’s certainly not a technical problem: We know how to build “transitional shelters” that are in many instances nicer than what people had pre-disaster. Nor is it money: spend-down is always always always a challenge. Everyone I know involved in Typhoon Ketsana recovery complains that more than a year later their relief grants are all underspent.

You have to spend money building that T-shelter somewhere. The issue is land.

* * *

I did the Typhoon Megi and Pakistan Flood responses back-to-back, late last year. And I can tell you that while even now there are relief distributions going on and the DRR types (who I love dearly… mostly) are going on about early recovery and “building resilience into relief”, it’s all going to be a lot about nothing if the land issues aren’t adequately addressed.

Asset replacement is all good and well, as are emergency shelter and shelter “rehabilitation” kits. Soft loans and maybe cash transfer help. Seed fairs and health extension are steps in a good direction. But unless the land issues are sorted out, it will all be about like band-aids on syphilis.

all those people displaced in Sindh will eventually have to go... somewhere...

If those people from Isabella or KPK who depend for their livelihood on less than two hectares of land for which their claim to ownership is based on several generations worth of verbal ascent (or maybe they’re just squatting for three generations) suddenly find themselves at the mercy of official or unofficial “interests” in “their” land, they’ll have no recourse.

And they’ll be totally screwed.

* * *

As practically everyone who was even partially paying attention during the early days of the Haiti response remembers, land was a key issue. And it still is: three weeks ago, as I was fighting the urge to laugh (“Power”), I was also standing in thee middle of a huge tent camp. Hundreds of thousands of urban squatters suddenly have nowhere to go. The government can’t figure out where to put them all. For all practical purposes, they are refugees in their own country.

Corail, February 2011...

Anyone who’s even just driven past Corail knows that the technical challenges of getting a nice T-shelter attached to a flat slab are not the issue. And very much like in the Philippines, pretty much everyone in the industry who I know personally complains that spending down grants – especially shelter grants – in Haiti is a challenge, still a year later. We know what to do – which is to say that we know how to build a decent transitional shelter. And we probably have enough money to do it.

But we have to spend that money building those T-shelters on a particular patch of ground somewhere. And call me paternalistic, but I want to do it on a patch of ground that “our” beneficiaries will not be forcibly evicted from once the INGOs have all gone and the journalists and actors are all onto the next most interesting thing.

Despite what you might hear about politicians coming or going, or actors doing this or that, the issue in Haiti right now is land.

* * *

Disaster response teams in the field and at HQs need to start focusing on land on, like, day two. (We usually put it off until about month 2 or 3.) We all know the importance of the land issues, particularly in urban disaster responses. It’s time to start treating land as it’s own core issue, rather than burying it somewhere in the shelter and/or camp coordination cluster. For every NGO responding to the disaster, there needs to be someone on the team whose job it is to specifically to understand the land issues at play in that context. We need to start sooner rather than later to look for workable strategies to address land concerns for the poor affected by the disaster.

(Note: “workable”, not necessarily “innovative”… there’s a huge difference… just sayin’.)

Cash-for-work has it’s place, but long-term it is basically pressure on a gaping wound. Vocational training as a disaster response intervention is an early admission of failure.

Deal with the land.

Land needs to be the central focus of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). Market access, health systems, last mile delivery, value-chain analysis, MFI financial sustainability, and all of the ‘way trendy livelihoods stuff going on right now is all good and well and incredibly important. But it’s also all somewhere between swimming upstream and falling over the Niagra if the people we’re targeting have no land. Basic things like simply documenting existing land tenure laws before a disaster happens can make a huge difference in advocating for landless poor sooner after the disaster happens. Working with people to document their own land holdings or land rights pre-disaster will make more difference down the road than expensive early warning systems, prepositioning fancy gadgets.

Deal with the land.

Development programs too often take land for granted. The second biggest and most common flaw that I see in development programs is simply that they naïvely assume their target population has stable, uncontested access to the land where they live and work. (The biggest, most common flaw I see is failure to do good assessments.) And this is not just an urban phenomenon, by the way – it affects rural poor just as much. And as soon as there’s a shock (it doesn’t even have to be a full-on disaster), and people are displaced or can’t pay the rent, then there’s a whole new class of “poor.” Investments in health and agricultural extension go out the window. And again, land is a key issue.

Development workers: take the time to understand the land context of the population you’re working with. Understand both the sociological and also the legal relationship between them and their land. Now that I think about it, you should probably also understand their spiritual relationship to their land, too. If the people you’re trying to help have to move tomorrow – whether they own, rent or are just squatting on the land – your years of effort may very well evaporate into thin air.

Deal with the land.

Is there a human right more basic than having a place to exist in a place? If you’re in advocacy, chances are that FGM or ethnic-cleansing or human trafficking or child soldiers, or maybe even debt relief are far more interesting than land. But think about it: if people have land – that is, if they have a place to live, unmolested, and make a living.. I won’t say that other problems go away, but they become far more manageable.

Deal with the land.

If you’re one of the many, many aid pundits out there, but through some adverse miracle land is not central to your paradigm, the fact is you’re missing the plot.

Yes, I get it: much more fun to whinge about the waste in the aid system (and there’s plenty to whinge about). Or to point out that INGOs are self-interested (duh), or rant about badvocacy (I do it, too). And while those are all important issues, it’s all peripheral if the people you claim you’re concerned about have no place to call home or to make a living.

Deal with the land.

Late addition: another great post that addresses land issues in Haiti: “The Importance of Property Rights”

10 Responses to “Deal with the *Land*”

  1. Cynan 28 February, 2011 at 3:18 am #

    Bloody good post. Though obviously there are situations where having an [exclusive/uncontested] right to a piece of dirt is just the start. Like the farmers in lower Sindh whose plot in what’s left of the village is uncontested, but they’re not going home from the IDP camp because they owe the landlord for last year’s washed-away crop and have nothing to pay it with. Land/tenure/debt are all knotted up – maybe we should be doing cash grants specifically for such debt relief?

    Off the cuff, I think one of the only places we really foreground ‘land’ in programming is when it comes to grazing access / rights for pastoralists. So optimistically, while it may be confined to limited geo/thematic areas, its not like we’ve got nothing to work from.

  2. MJ 28 February, 2011 at 7:48 am #

    I completely agree! A consultant working for a donor the other day asked me how his client could achieve a similar impact as Norway’s offer of $1bn to Indonesia to stop deforestation. (It might not actually work but it certainly does appear to have put the cat among the pigeons!) My suggestion: offer a big prize to a government that properly establishes a fully transparent online land registry. De Soto may or may not have been right about land tenure security unlocking development, but it has got to be one giant step in the right direction.

  3. Carla 28 February, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    Hey, I was curious, in the countries in which you’ve worked what’s the typical ratio of professional development workers to what Kristof calls, ‘DIY Foreign Aid-ers.’ Do the latter typically outnumber the former? (And, if you’ve written about this please point me to the post?)

  4. Sean Dimond 28 February, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    I work for an int’l org ( working to alleviate rural poverty throughout Central America by offering long-term credit for land purchase, combined with a holistic community development scheme. We have agronomists on staff who train families in how to work the land, develop businesses, and within 8-10 years, the families own it all. We have 42 village projects currently, with a fundamental goal of empowering families to obtain assets (land), training, and a fundamental economic lift in order to then impact their future generations.

    From our context, your blog post is absolutely spot on brilliant–particularly because we do not see nearly enough focus on land issues as they relate to relief efforts. There are many public and private efforts at land reform, but it is alas all to rare to see voices in this sector writing about the absolutely critical context of land as it relates to the long-term framework of rebuilding communities in the aftermath of disaster.

    Thanks for bringing greater attention to this issue. Cheers.

  5. Rachel 28 February, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    J – Another great post. It’s the mighty “duh” behind many aid conundrums. A Seattle-based organization called Rural Development Institute is a great example of an organization that is focused on land rights as the core to development and household resilience.

    I think some of the resistance behind the lack of engagement in land rights and land use (which can be part of a broader DRR approach) and is due to the ticklish dilemmas attendant with governments and private industries who seem all too willing to side with militias who have “claimed” land rights and/or wealthy landowners who have political capital to keep their interests intact. Fear of being PNG’d or threatened keeps some INGOs so focused on “doing right” that they forget to do what IS right.

  6. Amelia 1 March, 2011 at 2:10 am #

    When I was working on advocacy in the long forgotten ‘food crisis’… which prompted lots of talk about ‘rediscovering agriculture’ and how it’s important for development. (I note for the record that lots and lots of agencies were still doing things related to agriculture, just because the donors were not interested doesn’t mean EVERYONE forgot about it.)… all the political leaders wanted to talk about food security. And, in a reasonably high level technical meeting I pointed out that if we wanted to do something about that we’d have to talk about land. As is so often the case in my working life people smiled sweetly and condescendingly at me (What developing country government has the political will, infrastructure and desire to deal with THAT political hot potato?) and rapidly moved on to talk about value chains and innovation… Nothing much to say just that doing advocacy on this topic is hard as it is the elephant.. or perhaps mountain in the room.
    This is nonetheless one of your best posts J – a masterful summary of relief, development and why we still try for that advocacy bit!

  7. Jean-Luc Giraud 8 March, 2011 at 10:05 pm #

    I agree that Land issues are foremost to security from abuse but more central to a person’s survival should be his right to grow enough food for him/herself, that all farmed produce belongs to whoever grows it until the recovery from the disaster is over. People need to be able to have the basics to feed themselves and this would encourage community farms, just like what is happening across American towns and cities. Organic farming with EM™ and related technology combined with bio-char produces better than any fertilizer known

  8. emily 20 March, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    Hi J. I tweeted this earlier today but thought a more explanatory comment may be in order. I am currently doing a researching project for a class on land tenure and property rights. I want to do an analysis of the land situation in Haiti in the wake of the earthquake, perhaps trying to compare their situation with that in Japan if I can find the information.

    Do you have any resources other than those in this post and in the comments that you might recommend? Papers, reports, organizations to consult, or people to contact?

    Thanks for your help.


  1. Haiti on the Web: Weekly Links Roundup « haitijustice - 29 August, 2011

    […] well with: This post on the importance of land issues, with lessons from a different post-disaster relief […]

  2. Time to call in the lawyers? « Bottom Up Thinking - 12 February, 2012

    […] of things we still really do not know how to do, such as providing new permanent accommodation in a country with a completely dysfunctional land registry. Share this:MoreLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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