Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti—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.
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.