Ronel Thelusmond is the director of the technical division of the National Institute for the Application of Agrarian Reform (INARA), part of the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture. An element of INARA’s mission is to manage land conflicts, particularly as they relate to national development. We asked Ronel how the government could address the complications of land tenure and land concentration to get housing for the estimated 1.5 million people who lost their homes during the earthquake and who are now living under sheets of plastic or nylon in the streets and other public spaces.
Land in Haiti is characterized by two issues: social injustice and insecurity. I say social injustice because land hasn’t been equitably divided, and less than twenty percent of the population in Haiti owns any. I say insecurity because the government offices in charge of overseeing land matters are dysfunctional.
The government has to deal with the issue of land security, but they’re not taking any proactive action. And there are at least five different government offices which give land titles and they don’t interact with each other. They’re all issuing decisions at the same time and that creates confusion and problems. Every institution is looking out for its own interests and there isn’t any coordination taking place in any real way, and this applies to international aid as well.
The law expressly gives the government the right to find land to build new houses on, and it says what measures the government can take to take control of that land, as well. In short, the government has the necessary means and the legal tools for displaced people to have places to build homes. The question is if it’s willing to use those means, if it has the political will.
There are areas on unused plots that aren’t accessible by transportation that people have begun moving onto. There are people who are rebuilding homes with the exact same materials as before the earthquake, in the exact same manner. Since the government is almost entirely absent from the rebuilding process, people have just begun the process on their own, and this is worrisome.
It’s complicated, too, because the land titles often aren’t clear. It’s hard to identify owners and their land rights, and to identify the exact boundaries of the plot of land in question, because we end up dealing with one communal section [township boundary] and another; they overlap.
What the government needs to do, first off, is determine the boundaries of a property and then research what people are involved with it, how much land there is, and what rights people have concerning this land. Based on this study, we could draw up a proposal for developing that land. The government has to contact institutions which are out there working and draw up an inventory of where land is available.
The Emergency of People Living in Tents
As for the emergency of people out there living in tents in sub-human conditions, we’re not seeing much concern at an institutional level. The government hasn’t created any real policies which would provide people with a place to go home to. Or if it has, the population hasn’t caught wind of it. Those of us who work with the government haven’t gotten any official communiqué laying out a roadmap for helping people efficiently obtain homes.
People have the right to a secure home. This violation of their human rights must be denounced, so the government can take its rightful place and create the conditions for decent housing.
It’s only via social movements, organizing, mobilizations for action that those in charge will take the appropriate measures. Otherwise, people will be living in these tents for a long time.
Plus, we can’t rebuild houses the way they were built before. Haiti needs a social policy for housing. The government has to create the social elements and conditions under which people that don’t have a home can get one.
And building houses has to be part of a broader development program for people to live like human beings, to control their own lives. We need programs that create broader means of production and sources of income. You have to look at health, education, recreation.
Collective Participation in Reconstruction
In the Dominican Republic they have housing co-ops. Why can’t we create something similar here? Why can’t the government make use of the funds it has and let people take part in building their own houses? It’s possible.
But before we can even talk about construction, we need clear policies toward a comprehensive development plan. We at INARA believe that there should be a national debate, with a chance for all people to present proposals. This is about letting people participate in the building themselves, letting them have a say in what vision they have for the nation. A comprehensive, national development needs to involve the participation of the entire population.
The matter of reconstruction calls us to sit and think, to dialogue. It’s not only a matter of building houses. We have the example of Kosovo, where they’ve rebuilt buildings but they haven’t dealt with the other social problems. If you don’t deal with other problems, you’re still going to be left with a very fragile society.
And this is why, here in Haiti, people are talking about reorganizing the state. That means sketching out a society that’s more just, more humane, a society where the rich can share with others. We’re talking about a society that’s free of exclusion. As long as exclusion and social injustice reign, we won’t be able to talk about a different kind of Haiti.
Only through collective discussion and dialogue will we be able to arrive at a consensus and say just what sort of country we all need. A country where all of us are in charge, a country where we are the ones who collectively make decisions for ourselves, rather than having a small group of people making those decisions for us.
Again, one of the tools which the people must use is organizing. They have to organize themselves to pressure the government so that their rights as human beings will be respected.
The Republic of Port-au-Prince
Here another, broader issue is at stake: the expansion of Port-au-Prince. We must have zoning. This means the government should define where homes can be built, where factories can be built, where irrigation can be done, et cetera. Otherwise we’ll continue to be in trouble.
There is land available, in the metropolitan zone of the department of the West [the equivalent of a state, which includes Port-au-Prince]. One of the largest landowners in Haiti is the government itself. But the government doesn’t even know what land belongs to it, because a full survey has never been done. INARA began to work on this but it didn’t have the necessary resources to finish, even though the constitution gives it the right to do this.
We can’t speak of development without speaking of decentralization. Everything they are doing is focused on Port-au-Prince. Why is that? It has to do with the mentality of centralization in the capital which has been in place for many years now.
Creating a Different Haiti
The earthquake of January 12 has forced us to sit and reflect, as a people, and ask ourselves what direction we are headed... To define a national policy will bring us all dignity, and that will allow us to be the ones in charge of our land. We are the ones who have to decide what’s right for us.
I think it’s about hope, about working to strengthen social movements to take destiny by the reins, to create a different Haiti. A beloved Haitian nation that benefits all people.
Many thanks to Larousse Charlot who transcribed this interview, and David Schmidt who translated it.
Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.