Haiti

An image of the country's flag.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Caribbean and Latin America. In 2001—before the floods, hurricanes and food crisis of 2008, and before the earthquake of January 12, 2010—54% of the population lived on less than $1/day and 78% lived on less than $2/day. Despite progress made toward a democracy since 2004, Haiti’s socio-political structure and supporting institutions remain weak. The government lacks the capacity to create and execute policies or to deliver core public services.

The January 2010 earthquake affected one third of the country’s 9 million people, leaving more than 1 million people homeless. Much of the infrastructure and many houses in the capital and surrounding areas collapsed. Within days of the disaster, people began moving to rural areas. Unclear and undocumented land rights in Port-au-Prince have added to the confusion, compelling informal tenants to return to and remain on their housing sites rather than risk losing claim to them by leaving, and impeding donors in their efforts to rebuild shelter. A void in government capacity and leadership on land issues compounds these problems, as does the earthquake’s destruction of many land rights documents. Several major donors have identified confused land rights as the primary impediment to reconstruction.

Agriculture is the main source of livelihood for Haiti’s rural population, but productivity has declined over time. Customary law governs access and tenure security of rural land. The customary system provides security of tenure through deeply engrained systems of social relationships. The tenure system allows small farmers to adapt to changing environmental and economic conditions through land leasing, sharecropping, transferring control of land within families, and migrating for wage labor. Studies suggest that peasant farmers in Haiti tend to invest in land despite the lack of formal land rights. However, increased demand on land in rural and semi-rural areas following the January 2010 earthquake may overwhelm customary tenure systems, resulting in increased uncertainty about land rights. This uncertainty in turn could result in further losses in land productivity, which is already limited by poor infrastructure, weak agricultural extension, lack of functioning capital and credit markets, limited off-farm rural labor opportunities, and general rural disenfranchisement. Weak governance, scarcity of productive land, and unsustainable farming methods have also contributed to widespread erosion, deforestation and degradation.

KEY ISSUES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR INTERVENTIONS

  • Land Tenure Assessments. The destruction of housing in urban areas and the migration of people to rural areas caused by the January 2010 earthquake place land tenure and natural resource management issues squarely on the agenda of the government and donors. The land rights situation in Haiti will likely undergo substantial changes in the next few months and years, and the already limited existing research on land systems will quickly be out of date. While numerous short- term measures will be necessary to ensure protection of property rights and support for rebuilding livelihoods and supporting institutions, some interventions focused on policy development and planning for the longer term are indicated. Land tenure assessments in Haiti that gauge the extent and potential impact of reconstruction in Port-au-Prince and out migration into smaller cities and rural areas, in addition to the status of the customary system, will provide policymakers and donors with valuable information to guide decision-making. This data can help ensure that consideration of any land rights formalization process includes understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the customary system, the functioning of land markets, and the country’s experience with formal titling.
  • Development of Legal Framework. Customary law dominates rural land tenure and land tenure of the poor in urban and peri-urban settings. Norms in urban informal settlements are constantly changing, especially in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake. Formal laws are fragmentary, out of date, and create costly and often ineffective systems of land registration and enforcement of rights. In rural areas, women routinely lose land rights when they marry outside their village and relinquish possession of inherited land. Land institutions for implementation and enforcement were weak prior to the earthquake and many were rendered inoperative by the disaster. The need to harmonize customary and formal systems to protect property interests and encourage reconstruction and development has new urgency. Donors can work with the government to provide leadership for the process and offer technical expertise in the areas of customary and formal land rights, women’s land rights, land dispute resolution systems, and the development of legal frameworks governing land and other natural resources, including forests.
  • Land Distribution. Programs are needed to provide shelter for the homeless, especially in the capital. Donors can provide technical expertise to assist in the creation of appropriate policies and laws for the reconstruction of house sites and housing, including provisions to improve and protect land tenure through development and implementation of low- cost land rights formalization.

SUMMARY

Haiti is the poorest country in the Caribbean and Latin America. In 2001––before the floods, hurricanes, and food crisis of 2008 and before the massive destruction caused by the January 2010 earthquake––54% of the population lived on less than $1 per day and 78% lived on less than $2 per day. Life expectancy is 53 years.

The January 12, 2010 earthquake affected one-third of the country’s 9 million people, leaving more than 1 million people homeless. Much of the inadequate infrastructure in the capital and surrounding areas collapsed; the offices of the president, the United Nations, and dozens of NGOs were destroyed. Many of the houses built and purchased by the millions of people who migrated to the capital and surrounding areas over the last decade were destroyed. Within days of the disaster, significant numbers of people began migrating back to rural areas. The extent to which survivors of the earthquake will remain outside of Port-au-Prince in rural areas and smaller cities is not yet known.

Land rights in urban areas are largely undocumented. Prior to the earthquake, the majority of residents in Port-au-Prince and other urban areas lived in informal settlements. The earthquake has pushed several urban land tenure issues to the fore, including: establishing a system of land claims and dispute resolution as residents attempt to resettle, take possession of rubble, and re-build; establishing rights to areas of undeveloped land for temporary and transitional housing, as well as for long-term reconstruction; and clarifying and developing institutional authority for land registration, land-use planning and dispute resolution. Authorities will have to balance the need to assert authority over land in the interest of public health and safety with the need to protect vulnerable groups, such as informal tenants, many of whom may be displaced by efforts to strengthen control over land and land-use planning. Rights to land of hundreds of thousands of informal tenants in Port-au-Prince, displaced by the earthquake, are currently unclear.

Despite progress made toward a stable democracy since 2004, Haiti’s socio-political structure and supporting institutions remain weak. Even before the 2010 earthquake, the government largely lacked the capacity to create and execute policies or to deliver core public services.

Agriculture is the main source of livelihood for Haiti’s rural population, but agricultural productivity has declined.Farmers lack the needed resources and agricultural inputs. Weak governance of natural resources, scarcity of productive land and unsustainable farming methods have caused intensive erosion, deforestation, and widespread land degradation.

Customary law governs access and tenure security of rural land in Haiti. The customary system has provided security of access to land through deeply engrained and relatively stable systems of personal and social relationships. The land tenure system, which includes a dynamic mix of ownership, leasing, sharecropping, and wage labor, has generally been compatible with the development of smallholder agriculture. Studies report that peasant farmers have been willing to invest to increase land productivity regardless of the tenure type (e.g., ownership, leasehold, sharecropping) and without formal land rights. However, the customary system may not be able to withstand the pressure of the recent environmental disasters, loss of livelihoods and assets, urban-to-rural migration trends following the earthquake, and increased dependency on productive land. In addition to recognized barriers to improved land productivity in Haiti—lack of infrastructure, absence of permanent institutions providing agricultural extension and research, lack of functioning capital and credit markets, limited off-farm rural labor opportunities, and general rural disenfranchisement—the existing tenure system may need to be considered.

Published / Updated: August 2010