* Land ownership disputes stall development projects
* Haiti faces international pressure to improve land
By Susana Ferreira
JEREMIE, Haiti, Jan 27 The smooth black asphalt
of National Road No. 7 stretches for about five miles beyond
Camp Perrin, a town in fertile southwest Haiti.
It abruptly stops before reaching farmer Liphete Denis'
front door, replaced by a rocky dirt path that floods in the
rainy season and billows dust clouds when the weather turns dry.
"I don't know why they stopped," said Denis, 43. "We'd like the
road done. We need it."
The 56-mile road project was meant to connect the southern
port city of Les Cayes with Jérémie, a city in one of Haiti's
most neglected regions. It was to resurface a pot-holed road
that passes between narrow mountain ranges and fords a
flood-prone river, making transportation to Jérémie arduous and
Instead, the unfinished road has become a symbol of how
efforts to improve Haiti's infrastructure, especially after the
devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000
people, have run up against the country's land laws.
A practically non-existent land registry, fraudulent land
titles, unclear processes for land transfer, and a tangle of
bureaucracy have halted the road project and similar major
Haiti's land laws have delayed completion of a
Spanish-funded water treatment facility on the outskirts of the
capital Port-au-Prince and prevented the start of construction
on a $26 million public hospital in the city of Gonaives.
The Vatican has shied away from building and re-building
churches in this strongly Catholic country, and the U.S. Agency
for International Development (USAID) decided to build permanent
houses in the far north of Haiti rather than the more legally
challenging capital, where most of the earthquake damage
WHERE DID THEY GO?
Paving of National Road No. 7 was announced in 2008 by the
Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), in conjunction
with the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), with a cost of
$100 million, which has since risen to $132 million.
Brazilian company OAS Construtora won the bidding process
with an offer of $94 million and in 2009 moved in to begin
working on the first 44-mile stretch of road. To save money,
state construction company CNE was to handle another section
from Les Cayes to Camp Perrin.
Then one day, Denis said, the Brazilians and their heavy
machinery were gone.
The concrete walls of the small, two-room home he shares
with his wife and infant child are still cracked from the
shaking caused by OAS' trucks.
Some roadside homes were razed by the state to make way for
the wider road. Others were slated for demolition, but
compensation was haphazard. Denis said he was presented with a
hand-written notice in early 2011 saying he would receive the
equivalent of $3,000 when his own home was knocked down, but no
one ever returned with the money or a bulldozer.
Halfway to Jérémie, in the village of Beaumont, the story is
much the same. In July, roadside homes were marked with red for
demolition but they still stand, and it is not clear when the
owners will be compensated and, if so, how much they will be
National Road No. 7 narrows to a jagged single lane as it
approaches Beaumont, evidence of a recent fatal bus accident
still scattered along the mountainside. Beyond Beaumont, there
is at least another hour of treacherous driving before reaching
the last 12.5 miles to Jérémie, which are paved.
OAS has said its work was hindered when it ran into occupied
parcels of land whose ownership was unclear and residents who
had not been paid to vacate.
"The process of expropriation took much longer than
anticipated," said Gilles Damais, chief of operations for the
IADB in Haiti. "One person would receive payment one week, and
the following week someone else would come and say, 'No, he's
not the owner, another person owns this land.'"
Behind schedule and over budget, OAS stopped work in July
and filed a claim against the state for more than $40 million.
When the Haitian government countered with a $2.7 million claim
of its own, both sides dropped their demands in what one state
official called "a gentleman's agreement." The OAS contract was
formally terminated in December.
News of the abandoned road project disheartened and angered
residents of the underdeveloped Grand'Anse area, but nowhere was
there greater desolation than in Jérémie, a quaint 'City of
Poets' on the tip of Haiti's southern peninsula.
Violent demonstrations rattled the normally quiet city for
several days; tires were burned, cars destroyed, and at least
one resident was killed. To mitigate the situation, the
government promised that another company would take over work by
mid-January, but with the project still dormant the people of
Jérémie renewed their protests last week.
Government officials have said that it will soon be
announced that Dominican construction company Estrella will
take over the project.
Canadian International Development Agency head Julian
Fantino has expressed impatience over the slow pace and
inefficiency of development projects in Haiti. During visit to
Haiti in November, Fantino told Reuters, without specifically
mentioning the road project, "Canadians are not about to write a
blank check without some assurances and regard for outcomes."
WHO OWNS WHAT?
Haiti's land registry problems can be traced back to its
independence in 1804 and revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques
Dessalines' push for land reform.
The transfer of a land title involves surveyors, notaries,
and the central tax authority. To avoid the expense and
bureaucracy, many property owners use informal methods to
transfer land making it difficult, if not impossible, to
determine a rightful owner.
Title holders may deposit a copy with ONACA, the National
Land Registry Office, but they are not obligated to do so.
"The ONACA office is an unwanted child," said its director,
Williams Allonce. Since its creation in 1984, the chronically
under-funded office has only managed to register 5 percent of
Haiti's more than 10,700 square miles.
A second agency, the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Land
Planning, is also working on a national registry, and the public
works ministry has its own internal commission for land title
and expropriation management.
After the earthquake, state and foreign agencies were eager
to start rebuilding, but identifying landowners in the midst of
chaos was often impossible so relief agencies had to find legal
The problem was so fundamental to post-earthquake rebuilding
efforts that the international community, led by the United
States, sought to include the legal authority to expropriate
private land among the powers of a special Interim Haiti
Recovery Commission. Political opposition forced the idea to be
"Literally, no one had the answer for how you buy and sell
property in Haiti," said Elizabeth Blake, a vice president at
Habitat for Humanity International.
Eighteen months after the earthquake, Blake initiated the
Haiti Property Law Working Group. Representatives from foreign
and state agencies volunteered to help demystify laws and
procedures for purchasing, selling, and formalizing land rights.
At the end of 2012, an official how-to guide was published in
French, Haiti's national language, and English.
"It's an extremely complex problem, and it could put the
brakes on reconstruction if we don't find a way around it," said
Alfred Piard, Haiti's director of public works.
On a visit to Haiti in January, former U.S. President Bill
Clinton said ownership and tenure security issues had to be
addressed if reconstruction was to move forward.
"What I'd like to see done is a renewed emphasis this year
on the part of the government in clarifying the land laws ...
and doing other things that will basically cut down on the delay
and the cost in starting businesses and starting investments,"
Clinton told Reuters.
Gary Jean, an engineer at the public works ministry, said
the state had learned an expensive lesson with the OAS road
fiasco. Next time, Jean said, all land must be surveyed,
accounted for and expropriated before work begins.