There's no plan in sight for Haiti's homeless

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Reconstruction of this earthquake-crippled nation hangs on a simple, potentially explosive question: Who owns the land?

Take this spot below the city's main transmission lines off the Delmas 33 road. Before the earthquake eight months ago, goats grazed here and tenant farmers planted patches of corn and sugar cane. One of Haiti's wealthiest families claimed the roughly 20-acre parcel, but had no major plans for it.

Now an estimated 25,000 people call it home. From the hill above, the temporary camp is a sea of sun-battered tarps. Up close it looks more like a neighborhood every day: tin roofs, wood framing, locked doors, fences, gardens. It boasts makeshift stores, lotto stands, one-chair beauty salons, rum bars, even an Internet cafe.

When groups of young "security" men came in buses with eviction notices, the camp residents chased them away with rocks, sticks and machetes. Residents did the same with aid workers who were merely trying to register their existence.

"It's not like we're comfortable here," said Katlyne Camean. "Last night when it rained, I filled three buckets of water from my house. But no one is telling us where they want us to go. I don't want to go somewhere worse."

No one knows where to relocate more than a million people displaced by the Jan. 12 quake. The government and foreign aid groups want to move many back to their old neighborhoods or open spaces nearby and build single-family shelters for them. But to avoid roiling an already volatile situation, they must know who owns the land they're building on.

In Haiti, this requires stepping into a morass nearly as old as the country itself.

"The problem of title of ownership goes back 200 years in Haiti," President Rene Preval said in a recent interview. "If you put one after another, all of the titles in Haiti, you will find Haiti is bigger than the United States."

Haiti is, in fact, the size of Maryland. But generations of corruption, dictatorship, coups and spoils-system governance have reaped a vast number of cases where multiple people claim the same piece of property.

"Sometimes all of their documents are validated," Preval said. "It's very hard to tell who started cheating first."

Against this deep-set obstacle, pressure is mounting: Owners of the land where the camps have popped up want compensation or the squatters off before they become entrenched and their houses permanent. There are increasing reports of forced evictions.

The Acra family claims the land under this camp. Sebastien Acra says the family hasn't tried to evict the people there. Nor has the government approached him to buy the land to build housing. He is more concerned with another camp on property about a mile away, where the family had plans to build a manufacturing center.

When the earthquake hit, about 15,000 nearby residents set up stakes on the site. The Acras want them off, but there is no government plan for where to send them.

"People get used to their environment very fast," Acra said."They're adapting. That's Haiti."

He said the issue is too politically sensitive to touch until after the elections scheduled for Nov. 28.

"We know that now through elections, nothing will be done," Acra said.

Preval appeared aware of that as well. In the interview, he mentioned that "sometimes, you witness real wars over land."

He set a goal to move the estimated 26,000 people in Champs de Mars, the plaza in front of the presidential palace, back to their old neighborhood of Fort National, a pilot project for what was to come. But he quickly realized how intractable the land issue was, and months later, the tent camp is still there. Even the original assumption that the people were mostly from Fort National turned out to be wrong.

Preval was so flummoxed by the problem that his view changed within the course of a conversation. He first cited audacious plans to build high-rise apartment buildings and use rubble to shore up more land in the harbor for hotels and commercial buildings, then acknowledged that he was stumped on what to do with the displaced in the years before those plans come to fruition.

"I'm not going to tell the people the situation is simple," he said, then sighed. "I don't have the means to solve the problem."

In a portable office behind the palace, the civil engineer appointed by Preval to resolve the land issue, Marie George Salomon, says the plan is to raze the most damaged parts of Fort National and build orderly rows of wood-framed shelters. But the disorganized way in which the neighborhood grew, with narrow alleys and houses on top of houses, means the area held far more people than the rebuilt one ever will.

At least 10,000 people would be unable to move back. Multiply that by the hundreds of other camps, big and small, and the scope of the conundrum is clear.

The government has identified five big sites outside Port-au-Prince to which it could move thousands of people in the interim. But where would they work? Where would they find food? Haitians survive, in large measure, within a network of family and friends rooted deeply in their own neighborhoods.

Forced relocations to government camps could set off a political firestorm.

Still, foreign aid groups trying to build temporary shelters are frustrated because Preval's government hasn't come up with some blueprint they can use. In some areas, they have worked with local officials to create a three-year moratorium on disputes over property. They simply build shelters for the families living on the land, be they renters, owners or squatters.

Even this has been slow going. Rubble remains everywhere. The groups can't demolish a heavily damaged house without the owners' permission. And many times, the space where a family lived is too small for one of the prefab shelters.

So far about 11,900 shelters have been constructed, out of 135,000 planned.

"It's going to be a long process," said Lilianne Fan, the housing, land and property coordinator for the cluster of foreign groups trying to build shelters. "The camps are going to be there for a long time. We need everyone in Haitian society to understand this."

As officials struggle to work out these issues, the residents in the larger camp on the Acras' land are somehow convinced that the International Organization for Migration, which is in charge of registering people in the camps, wants to kick them out.

"IOM is trying to put us at war!" resident George Kempes said.

Leonard Doyle, a spokesman for the organization in Haiti, said the rumor in the camp was that "registration is a step before eviction."

"Never true," he said. "We never evict. Period."

Still, relief groups say the camp is in danger of flooding, especially now during hurricane season.

When Eddy Cantave arrived at the camp in March, the only land left was at the bottom, along a creek. He's living on a slick of silt that is swamped every time it rains.

In his tent, the mud sticks to your shoes. Most of his belongings are stacked on chairs. His bed is propped up on paint cans. An old black oven and a small Frigidaire, salvaged from his home, create a little bulwark to divert the water. He hung his paintings of his seaside hometown on the tarpaulin walls.

When it rains, he stares at fishing boats and palm trees and thatched huts and prays not to be swept away.

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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