Evicting Haiti's Homeless: How Land Tenure Hampers Recovery

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Ramon Espinosa / AP

A scene from the Fort Nationale neighborhood in Port–au–Prince, Haiti.

Two years ago, a wealthy Haitian businesswoman known as Madame Biton allowed preacher Samuel Francois to build a small church on one of the empty lots she owns in the Delmas district of Port-au-Prince. During last January's massive earthquake, Francois opened the church's doors to nearby residents who were screaming in horror as they fled their collapsing houses. After the quake that killed more than 200,000 people and ravaged the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, almost 75 families settled in a makeshift tent camp on the three-acre plot.

At first, Madame Biton did not object. But in the spring, when the Irish NGO Haven Haiti began providing temporary latrines and other aid to the camp, Francois and others say Biton turned hostile. According to the charity, she refused an offer to rent the land until better shelters could be found for the refugees; since then, residents say they have faced police harassment aimed at forcing them to leave. "They tell us, 'Get out of here, you're nothing but dogs,' " says Rosena Desriveaux, 21, who still lives in the Delmas camp in a threadbare tarp shelter with her unemployed husband and 8-month-old baby. They, and about 25 other families, still refuse to leave. "We have no choice but to stay." (The Delmas mayor's office would not comment on the alleged police actions.)

Biton, a bleach factory owner who refused TIME's repeated requests for an interview, has stepped up her efforts to expel the remaining refugees — even depositing dump-truck loads of earthquake rubble on the lot to force them away. "She also wants the church removed," says Francois as he ponders the structure of ragged corrugated tin, worn lumber and tree branches, adorned inside with plastic flowers and lace, which is the refugees' only dry sanctuary when it rains. "She calls me a pig. It saddens me to see people who were once in my community living in the streets."

As world leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York this week ponder how to accelerate Haiti's slow recovery, eviction tragedies like the one in Delmas continue to play out all over Port-au-Prince and other hard hit cities. More than eight months after the quake, only a small fraction of the 1.5 million Haitians it left homeless have been moved into decent temporary or long-term shelter. As a result, many Haitian landowners — part of a social elite widely considered to be one of the hemisphere's least charitable to begin with — have lost patience with the shantytowns that have grown up on their mostly idle properties.

According to the Swiss-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), some 12,000 refugees have been forced out of tent camps since evictions began in earnest over the summer, and 87,000 more are on the brink. "Now they're making the hardships of the IDP's [internally displaced persons] even greater," says one European NGO director who asked not to be identified for fear of angering a landowner with whom he's negotiating a camp's extended stay. "But unfortunately, the Haiti recovery effort still seems to be stuck in its initial phase."

Mountains of debris still cover much of the land that could be used to rehouse refugees, but an even more important obstacle may be Haiti's medieval land tenure system. It was difficult at the best of times to know who owned what property in Haiti; the earthquake destroyed so many titles and deeds that identifying government-owned tracts or other available land on which to relocate the homeless has become that much more daunting.

TIME was unable to locate Biton's title to the Delmas lot on which Francois' church stands, either through local public records bureaus or federal agencies like the General Tax Directorate (DGI). That's no surprise to Ibere Lopes, an IOM land tenure expert working in Haiti. "None of our searches in the [DGI] has ever been fruitful," says Lopes. "It's practically impossible to obtain any relevant information on ownership." Lopes says he and his legal team tried this month to get federal inspectors to confirm government-owned land in the city of Leogane, west of the capital, where the IOM hopes to put up 200 transitional shelters. But he says the officials, even when brought to the site, had no interest in assessing the ownership unless they were paid by the IOM.

One way through the venal mess, Lopes says, is multi-neighborhood mapping, which entails surveying local residents — and extensive interviews with presumed owners — and then trying to match the findings with any available records. If the process proves successful, it might be a basis on which the Haitian government could start cobbling together a more reliable system. That in turn would let it designate not just its own properties, but also private land it could rent or purchase via eminent domain. That legal mechanism is sorely lacking in Haiti, but it's one that most refugee advocates say is crucial to shifting the temporary shelter effort into higher gear.

Empty properties such as Madame Biton's, aid workers say, are ideal candidates for purchase by eminent-domain. Like more than two-thirds of Haiti's earthquake-homeless, almost all the remaining tent camp dwellers on Biton's land had been renters when their homes were destroyed, meaning they have fewer places to turn to for shelter. And conditions there are deteriorating: Since Biton had the latrine walls torn down, the refugees use the facilities only in the dark of night. After almost nine months, "by now, we should have found a [better] place to live," says camp resident Marie-Ange Pierre, 28, as she looks out on the squalid scene. Down the road, some who were scared off Biton's lot have settled in a new but even more squalid shantytown in the Ruzaragua neighborhood. Police have tried to bully them off that land, as well. "They tell us, 'We better not see your faces around here when we come back,' but we're staying," says Virginia Romelus, 22.

Behind her family's row of tents they've set up a pigeon aviary, a typically whimsical Haitian touch amidst the suffering. Watching the birds come and go as freely as they do helps them forget the plight into which they've been locked by the earthquake and Haiti's benighted administration.