Homesteading in Haiti: Very Adverse Possession


Emily Troutman reports from the hills near Port-au-Prince:

Six months ago, this land was nothing but crickets in the grass. Now, it's Haiti's new frontier, a landscape of squatters whose greatest hope is a home of their own. Gray and blue shacks and shanties extend for miles. Small gardens and homemade fences break up each plot. There are no trees or water. At the region's eastern end, a small herd of emaciated, confused horses wanders between the tents….

"President Preval says anyone can take this land," [one of the builders] says.

That's not the truth, of course. Which Kiln certainly knows, since his government has never given him anything of real value. But it is some version of the truth, and more than enough to hang his hopes on.

In March, President Rene Preval declared that all of this land, 20 miles of hills and meadows—from Bon Repos all the way to Cabaret—could be taken by eminent domain.

What the president actually said was that the land could be purchased. Eminent domain is a way to force the sale of land that owners would prefer not sell. For a moment, Haitians and foreigners alike entertained this thought—a new city outside of Port-au-Prince. They talked about new neighborhoods, with real roads. They talked about sewage systems and wi-fi.

But 10 months later, few landowners have come forward, and when they do, land prices suddenly skyrocket. Determining land ownership in Haiti is incredibly complex. When an owner dies, land rights fall equally to all of the owner's children. After a generation or two, one single acre could have hundreds of owners. In a country where the average person earns $2 a day, even comparatively small, inexpensive lots can be mired for years in family disputes.

For the international community and aid organizations, Preval's decree soon became meaningless. It was a big gesture with no backbone. Nonetheless, news of the decree trickled down to the people. While bigger minds began to sort it out in meetings, Kiln, and thousands of men like him, went ahead and decided what's theirs….

Ask people along this winding highway: Who owns the land they're living on, and the answers soon become an exercise in imagination. The land belongs to a pastor, to the mayor, to their friend. A group of 21 owners donated it. The white people gave the land to us. Rule No. 1: Never admit you don't know who owns it.

The full article is here. It's an interesting account of what happens when it isn't clear who owns what, leaving ordinary people without much to do but to head out into the no-man's-land and stake a claim.

Elsewhere in Reason: Robert H. Nelson on illegal cities and Hernando de Soto on how squatters built America.