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How does one become the owner of a plot of land in Canaan?

The dynamics of the appropriation of land are not always clearly explained in Canaan. During the interviews, the subject was mostly avoided or only partially addressed. The following statement is commonly heard: “the heads of community-based organizations gradually and disinterestedly helped those displaced by the earthquake of 12 January to settle in the area”. Though this statement is not false, it remains very partial. Land ownership is tied up with important issues. The different fragments of information collected in the field reveal a dynamic and evolving land ownership question. Our analysis highlights three aspects of this: free settlement, where each settler occupies the area that they consider necessary, land grabbing by speculators and the establishment of a classic property market characterized by the selling of land (in the same way as in the metropolitan area of Port- au-Prince).

1. Free Settlement:

The first to settle in this area were those who claimed to be victims of the earthquake. People who said they had lost their homes in the poor neighbourhoods of metropolitan Port-au-Prince flooded into the area before and after the declaration of public utility by the Haitian State [1]. James Petit-Homme comes from Tabarre 27. Like so many other people who were looking for shelter or a place where to take refuge after the earthquake of January 12th 2010, he went to Canaan where he has been living since February 27th of the same year, at two different addresses: firstly, in Nouvelle-Jérusalem 7 [2], where he established a community school, and secondly in Village- Moderne. As one of the first to arrive and as a member of a well-established local organisation, James has been a pioneer, an actor and a witness in relation to the emergence of this sector, which is mixed up with Canaan from the outside, but which is very different in terms of its inhabitants. His opinions have therefore been informed by the reality on the ground.

During the early stages, it was not difficult to get a plot of land; everyone was able to mark out a plot based on their needs. The high level of scepticism about the fate of the area even prompted some people not to bother themselves with large areas, which would need weeding, fencing, planting and maintenance; tasks for which not everyone had the necessary means. James acquired his plot in Jerusalem 7 for only 250 Haitian Gourdes, the amount paid by its former owner for hoeing it. In Canaan 3, Brigaud [3] said he regretted not taking a bigger area, which would have allowed him to establish a garden and then “sell” a piece to other people. Another person who was present added, “Its completely understandable as no one thought it was necessary to have a large area to set up a tent; everyone thought that we would only be here for a short time”.

Around the month of May 2010, the number of people settling on the land increased significantly and continued to increase in 2011-12. People would generally arrive in groups. Led mostly by someone who was already established, each group would be taken to an area that was not yet occupied which would then be shared between the different members. Thus everyone recognised the limits of each other’s plots. This recognition is the foundation of a person’s ownership of a piece of land, which is “recognized as theirs”. In this context where there are no title deeds or survey plans provided, acceptance by other people and recognition by an organized group (preferably by the most influential members) in the sector concerned, are the only guarantees of the possession of a plot.

On the other hand, some inhabitants, who are unable to settle in the area, go back and forth between their new plot and their old neighbourhoods. In their absence, their plots are sometimes occupied by other people, which creates conflict. If someone feels wronged, they are able to appeal to the relevant local organisation to resolve the conflict. In fact, the first inhabitants formed organized structures, which among other tasks, were dedicated to avoiding conflicts related to land occupation. James says that he has been involved in a large number of conflicts through his association OCAVIM (Organisation des Cadres du Village Moderne et Jérusalem 7). He explains, “When there is a conflict between several people over a plot, we intervene. Whatever the case, we treat it according to the principles of fairness and justice. If it is a simple matter of a road, we show the person affected that they have to allow the road to go through. If it is a question of ownership, we ask the two parties to divide the disputed area into equal plots. In other cases, we give the wronged party another plot of land. When the parties are on the verge of resorting to violence, we try to calm them down. The organizations have done a lot to avoid conflict in the area. And indeed, no landownership conflict has led to major damage or loss of life”.

[1] Decree of 22 March 2010 declaring the land within a polygone established by geographic points between Bon-Repos, Source-Matelas et Ona-Ville of public utility.

[2] Located to the east of Canaan, between Canaan and Village-Moderne.

[3] Sector in the sense of a sub-section of Canaan.