CANAAN, Haiti (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a street of rocks and white dust in the center of one of the world’s newest cities, Alisma Robert pointed to an array of electric cabling strung between rickety wooden poles.
“It wasn’t EDH that built that pole,” said Robert, referring to Haiti’s national electricity provider.
“It was us.”
Nearly everything in the city of Canaan, which was founded in 2010 after a catastrophic earthquake, was built by residents without government help.
After waiting two years for electricity, Robert and his neighbors collected money from each household, erected the wooden poles, and wired up the cables to the house of a family who were connected to the grid.
“I’m a citizen - but not for the moment. I don’t have the benefits of a citizen. We don’t have drinkable water ... No public toilets. The government doesn’t do anything for the people who live here.”
Nearby, his wife sat at a rickety table selling bread and bags of sugar. Few people came to buy.
“I don’t have work,” said the 52-year-old former teacher.
Robert lost his job nine years ago when the earthquake destroyed the elementary school where he worked. The 7.0-magnitude quake that hit on January 12, 2010 leveled much of the capital Port-au-Prince and left 1.5 million Haitians homeless.
Estimates of the number of people killed vary widely - from 46,000 dead to as many as 316,000.
In the aftermath, international agencies helped relocate some homeless families to empty land 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of the capital. Others flocked there, and within months thousands had claimed plots.
At first, most lived in shacks or under tarpaulins, but eventually many laid concrete blocks for the foundations of their future homes and businesses. They planted fruit trees and they grazed goats.
Called Canaan, it has grown from a population near zero to about 300,000.
A few months after the earthquake, then-President Rene Preval expropriated the land for the state. To date, though, the state has not identified the previous owners or compensated them. Since the expropriation, several businesses and individuals have claimed they were the rightful owners.
The law requires that the state identify the owners and pay compensation if necessary, said Leslie Voltaire, a Haitian architect and urban planner who has consulted for the government about Canaan.
However, Voltaire personally believes the land does now belong to the state, so it “should be able to do a cadastre there and give land title”. That has not happened.
The ministry responsible declined a request for an on-the-record interview to discuss the land titling issue in Canaan.
The spokesman for the office of the president did not respond to an interview request.
Without title, residents risk losing any investment they make and cannot use their property as collateral.
“After I have my document, I can invest here,” Robert said.
“I could do anything I want - sell food, sell phone credit. Start a hardware store. But no one is legalized here.”
The head of the post-earthquake reconstruction office, Clement Belizaire, warned that without security of tenure this largely self-governed city could become a slum where land barons filled the void.
“This is a very delicate situation where the government has not yet compensated or officially identified owners. There’s a lot that needs to be put in order to make this viable,” he said.
The first requirement would be formalizing settlements - identifying plots and giving residents the chance to register them, he said.
After that, the state could levy taxes - which residents say they want to pay in order to formalize their rights.
“It’s our land. We’ve lived on it - for more than eight years. But we have no papers. If we die, there’s nothing to say our children get to have this,” said resident Etienne Manoly.
Paying taxes would obligate the state to provide roads, electricity, water, schools, hospitals - and, above all, security.
“We have many needs from the central state,” said Manoly.
The need for tax revenues saw the American Red Cross (ARC) fund an assessment in 2017 and 2018 of about a quarter of the estimated 40,000 homes and shops in Canaan. It handed that data to the government so that nearby municipalities could levy taxes and invest that revenue into community projects.
Yet it remains to be seen whether municipal authorities will allocate money from their budgets to survey the rest of Canaan’s structures - although a representative from the nearby city of Croix-des-Bouquets said it had begun doing so.
One solution to the land dispute would be for the original landowners to seek payment from residents, with the government acting as a broker, said Louis Jadotte, a former UN-Habitat consultant in Canaan - although establishing ownership in a 300,000-strong city would be a huge undertaking.
Meantime, experts from the United Nations and the ARC said the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) would be well-placed in assisting to raise tax revenues.
Between 2013 and 2018, USAID - through its LOKAL+ program - helped nine Haitian municipalities boost their tax take by 17 percent on average. One of those was Port-au-Prince’s Delmas district, which expanded its tax base: it has since rebuilt roads and pavements destroyed in the quake.
“Now all those roads are paved,” said Anna Konotchick, the former program manager for Canaan for the ARC, one of the leading NGOs working there after the earthquake.
But recognizing people’s properties in order to tax them is not the same as granting permanent deeds that would legally secure their tenure, said Jadotte.
Tax-related documents might just state that the municipality recognizes the person is “occupying” that place and has built a certain structure on it, and that they are “paying their fair share in the form of government taxes or fees,”, he said.
Even if USAID did fund a LOKAL+ project in Canaan, he said, its residents might still be seen as illegal squatters in the government’s eyes until it decided to address the underlying issue of ownership.
“Land rights are not a black and white thing - it’s a continuum. And you can move it from uncertainty toward security - papers that say you’re the full owner.”
And at least one institution does not like the idea of USAID being involved: Haiti’s inter-ministerial land office, CIAT.
For the U.S. government to take part in a program to tax Haitian citizens was “against democracy”, said CIAT head Michele Oriol.
And, she insisted, Haiti’s institutions were up to the task.
“But we have to do it systematically.”
The land underneath Canaan was once slated for development as an industrial park to manufacture and export goods. That did not happen.
Today - having sat vacant for decades - it is home to hundreds of thousands of people. More still come seeking land, said Robert of his neighborhood, Canaan 3.
“But they don’t find - there is no more space.”
One family asked to buy the 10-by-15-foot patch of front yard that is covered with rocks to lay the foundation for a second home to house some of his eight children. He told them no, “because I have kids and they will need it”.
“Canaan cannot become a desert,” Robert said, in reference to the state’s lack of involvement.
“The history of the people of Israel - Moses led them through the desert. He took them out of slavery,” he said.
“It’s the same for me - it’s from slavery that I left,” he said, referring to landlords to whom he was indebted in Port-au-Prince before the earthquake.
And so, come what may, Robert is determined he will not go back to the capital. Instead, he plans to live out his days in Canaan, waiting for the government to give him the security of tenure that he says the people of this new city deserve.
(Funding for this story was provided by the Pulitzer Center.)
Reporting by Jacob Kushner, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org