In Haiti’s Canaan, res­i­dents want land ti­tles, tax­a­tion

Viet Nam News - - INSIGHT - Ja­cob Kush­ner

CANAAN — On a street of rocks and white dust in the cen­tre 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 neigh­bours 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 lev­elled 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 16 kilo­me­tres 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 cadaster there and give land ti­tle”. That has not hap­pened.

The min­istry re­spon­si­ble de­clined a re­quest for an on-there­cord 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 le­galised here.”

The head of the post-earth­quake re­con­struc­tion of­fice, Cle­ment Belizaire, warned that with­out se­cu­rity of ten­ure this largely self­gov­erned 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 for­mal­is­ing 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 for­malise 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, elec­tric- ity, 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 US Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment (USAID) would be well-placed in as­sist­ing to raise tax rev­enues.

Be­tween 2013 and 2018, USAID – through its LOKAL+ pro­gramme – helped nine Haitian mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties boost their tax take by 17 per cent 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 pro­gramme man­ager for Canaan for the ARC, one of the lead­ing NGOs work­ing there after the earth­quake.

But recog­nis­ing 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 recog­nises 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.

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.”— REUTERS

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