Homesteading in Haiti: Very Adverse Possession


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

This land is mine!

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.

NEXT: The Not-So-Small Business Administration

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  1. Just give them all homes there. Everybody deserves and everbody is responsible enough to own their own homes and pay their own mortgage. Right? right? hello?

    1. Actually, yes, if they’ve built a structure on a plot and/or started a garden. Adverse posession, homesteading and all that. The article doesn’t say the land belonged to anyone beforehand, and if it did, it hasn’t been used until now, and in the wake of a major disaster that displaced millions, the squatters’ are clearly more important.

      The entire third world could do a lot better if land ownership were spread out more. See: “Who Owns the World” by I-don’t-remember-the-author’s-name

      1. (A) The article does indicate there are many questions regarding who actually owns the land, and I’m doubting with Haiti’s long history there are any huge tracts of land just lying around that nobody owns.

        (II) Adverse possession takes longer than a few months. In most jurisdictions I’m familiar with, it requires at least 15 or 20 years.

        The fact that someone “isn’t using” a bunch of land they own does not in any way mean that someone else’s needs “are clearly more important” than the rights of the land owner.

        1. I gotta disagree here.

          The Haiti land ownership system as described seems like one of those Third World “Third Way” systems that are designed primarily to obscure ownership and move the entire concept of ownership away from individuals and make it a prerogative of clans and tribes.

          This sort of crap is common in African constitutions, also.

          Leftist thinkers actually LOVE the ownership confusion and procedural Viet Nams this creates, because it requires “stakeholder participation in land use decisions” and “provides community input” and all of that nonsense.

          Property rights systems work because they clearly provide both authority and responsibility for the use of particular parcels. If your title system isn’t doing that, you need a new title system.

          A Gordian Knot solution of total nationalization followed by redistribution of parcels would probably work out better in the long run than whatever they’re doing now.

        2. Well, as a matter of fact the article does strongly imply that much or most of the land being squatted is vacant and unimproved. Which means that, by the standards of most principled land tenure systems (including the Lockean one favored by Rothbard and many other libertarians) the land has never been legitimately appropriated by admixture of labor. It belongs to the squatters, as first users.

          By any principled standards, the fact that a vacant and unimproved parcel of land is being held out of use by someone who isn’t himself using it IS very much a criterion for judging the legitimacy of his title.

        3. I would second Kevin. The fact that this is fallow land is very indicative of a fake title by the previous ‘owners’. Exchanging money about an unowned piece of land cannot give anyone a title in it, even if the guy who receives the money is a representative of the ‘authorities.’

  2. They talked about new neighborhoods, with real roads. They talked about sewage systems and wi-fi.

    Did they happen to talk about how those things are brought into existence? Or did they merely assume they would fall from the sky?

    1. Presumably they talked about staking their claims, creating some real wealth, and building/buying them.

      1. And their track record accomplishing these things is what, exactly?

  3. Is the fact that Haiti doesn’t have remotely sensible property rights every discussed in “why is Haiti poor” hand-waving?

  4. Now if only they had MERS!

  5. Presumably they talked about staking their claims, creating some real wealth, and building/buying them.

    As I read that, They (for some unfathomable reason) decoded as “an assemblage of NGO parasites and Haitian Government functionaries sitting around in a large luxuriously decorated room in a resort hotel brainstorming about ways to enrich themselves while throwing billions of dollars in private and government aid contributions at grandiose top-down development schemes.”

    Was I wrong?

    1. I read it as referring, at least in part, to the people who went on to homestead the hills.

      1. I read it as referring, at least in part, to the people who went on to homestead the hills.

        When you have no immediate source of drinking water and a functioning sewage system is a medium-to-long-term goal wi-fi should be an exceedingly low priority.

        1. If anyone suggested that WiFi should be a high priority, then I defer to P Brooks’ interpretation. I just took it as skylarking about the infrastructure that could emerge as a settlement grew, but I was reading with those small-scale builders and gardeners on my mind; on reflection, “Haitians and foreigners alike” does sound NGOish.

  6. What? No recommendation to relocate them all to the US?

    You’re slipping… slipping!

    1. Fuck off, you White nationalist piece of shit.


    3. I would support a 28 Days Later style evacuation of Haiti.

      Add the entire country to the National Park Service. After a ten-year deconstruction and reforestation program, auction off the entire Haitian half of the island while holding back green belts. I bet the Treasury turns a profit on the whole deal.

  7. Does anyone else here see this ending in a bloodbath? I can only say I wish I owned the machete concession on the way from Port-au-Prince to the hills.

  8. Does anyone else here see this ending in a bloodbath?

    As I was reading it, I had a sudden vision of the landowner bulldozing all the shanties over a cliff.

  9. The previously-mentioned Hernando DeSoto wrote a useful book about the effects on capital formation of the rule of law and clear title to property, “The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else” (2003)

    The book is worth the attention of libertarians.

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