Haiti: Homes and Land Are Sources of Life

Below are excerpts from the International Forum on the Crisis of Housing, held in Port-au-Prince May 19-21, 2011. During the forum, hundreds of Haitians, plus allies from around the Americas, developed strategies to force a solution to Haiti’s greatest crisis: homelessness. Almost 17 months after the earthquake, more than one in nine remain displaced in camps and in other dangerous and inhumane lodging. Neither the government nor the international community has offered any viable plan for resettlement of this population. On the contrary, government officials and private landowners are stepping up violent evictions of people in camps.

We, groups of survivors living in internally displaced persons’ [IDP] camps plus social and grassroots organizations, assembled for three days in Port-au-Prince, state:

• We heard testimonies about the living conditions in IDP camps, wherein our basic rights as individuals and communities are violated every day. We heard of the many diseases contracted by people living under tarps, of the pain of women suffering from all kinds of violence, and of children who cannot attend school or plan for their futures;

• We discovered that most of us in the camps are living in fear. We live under the threat of eviction, as both the government and private landowners are maneuvering to force us out (even setting fire to some camps), even though we have nowhere else to go. According to an International Organization for Migration report published in March 2011, more than 47,000 people have already been evicted and 165,977 more face the threat of eviction. We resolve to fight against these evictions and to ask for reparations for victims of forced displacement, a human rights violation;

• We were pleased to hear the testimonies and analysis of friends from foreign countries like the United States (New Orleans and Miami), Dominican Republic, and Brazil on the struggle for housing rights. We salute the determination of our friends and the movements they represent;

• The Haitian government, ruling classes, and international institutions have not responded to the housing problems that millions of Haitians have long faced and that have become more serious since January 12, 2010. Sixteen months after the catastrophe, 700,000 people are living in the streets and many more families are living in horrible conditions in shantytowns. Many people had to return to damaged houses that could collapse at any time. We reject false solutions such as the distribution of tarps or building of temporary shelters;

• We resolve to continue the struggle to force the state to define a policy on housing that guarantees the right of all Haitians to have a home to live in that respects their dignity. The government should start housing construction projects to respond to our needs;

• The government must define a land use policy for the country. Before the earthquake, 80% of the population in Port-au-Prince was living in 20% of the land. We want housing discrimination to end. We reject all the wealth and infrastructure being concentrated in only some parts of the city. We also reject the reconstruction of the nation’s land only to create free trade zones;

• The Parliament must draft and vote on a law to guarantee the right to housing;

• The government must look for and acquire land though expropriation [eminent domain] so that there is sufficient space for housing needs;

• The population must participate in decision-making. We have to say what Port-au-Prince we want to build. Those that come from other countries with plans already drawn up cannot determine this for us;

• We are ready to give our contribution (in financing, work, and materials) so we can create housing that respects people’s dignity. However, the government must finance construction projects to let us get housing as soon as possible, and immediately create a special fund to finance public housing. There is a lot of money being wasted that could be invested instead in housing;

• Homes and land are the source of life. The government and our communities must take all measures for these resources to remain this source of life, instead of turning them into a commodity;

• Institutions like BNC (National Bank of Commerce) and the commercial banks should establish special programs to help the population repair or build good houses, with particular attention paid to those with few economic means and those with disabilities;

• The government must implement rent control, since rents have risen up to 17 times higher than before [the earthquake]. We must keep speculators from making millions off of our misery and despair;

• The government must guarantee security as to where we live. Land use must be based in prevention of the biggest risks (earthquakes, hurricanes, landslides, floods, tsunamis, etc). The government must develop education and training programs so we can prepare for these and other risks;

• The right to housing cannot be separated from our other rights: to work, health, education, leisure, a clean environment, etc. All house construction must be done in a way that facilitates our enjoyment of all of these rights;

• The Parliament should ratify the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as an important tool;

• The government must plan for public spaces that allow our communities to play sports, hold meetings and assemblies, and carry out cultural activities;

• We believe that cooperative housing is a viable alternative for those without great economic means;

• We want houses that respect our local architectural style and that use as much local material as possible, representing our culture. We want houses to have yards and gardens where we can grow vegetables and medicinal plants. We want houses that respect a bit of privacy that everyone needs. We want houses that provide space for us to live as families with neighbors in the lakou [traditional communal courtyard];

• Each neighborhood must have a cultural center to educate children and youth on the values of Haitian culture;

• In the houses we are building as in collective infrastructure, we must remember people with disabilities and facilitate their mobility and daily activities;

• Every housing construction project must give special attention to the rights of women. It is good, whenever possible, for the title to the house to carry the name of the husband and wife. In inheritance, men must not benefit disproportionately to women. In housing law, the government must protect the rights of women living alone or in a family where a husband has multiple wives. Women and men have the same right to housing. Our organizations must struggle against all forms of physical and moral violence that women are subjected to in the home. Work in the home must be shared equally between men and women. We request a special training program to allow women to be integrated into all levels of the construction work being carried out;

• We denounce the corruption scandals in the management of housing programs by the government, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], and the ICRH [Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti].

We resolve to:

• Fight against forced evictions and all forms of intimidation on the part of the government and landowners, who inflict more misery on us when they force us to move without providing alternative sites for housing. We ask all communities to organize in order to rapidly circulate information regarding intimidation and threats;

• Strengthen our organizations and alliances amongst grassroots groups and social movements;

• Make the struggle for housing a priority, and support homeless people and those living in camps;

• Disseminate information and conduct trainings across the country, building organizational strength to force the government to respect these rights;

• Remain mobilized to change our society and our government, aimed at constructing a new state that gives more importance to people’s lives than to money, and that defends the interests of the exploited classes. Only this kind of government can respond to our demands for housing;

• Stop considering housing as an issue that can be resolved on an individual or familial basis. Only collective solutions can revolve the problem of access to land for us to build on, rent speculation, and environmental management;

• Create training programs on radios, in churches, temples, and schools. We will organize trainings and debates in the camps and in low-income neighborhoods. We will launch a special newsletter on what is happening in the camps and shantytowns;

• Participate in a week-long mobilization in October 2011. We ask for a national day each year to celebrate the right to housing for all;

• Ask all grassroots organizations and all other movements to mobilize with us on the housing issue so that we can achieve this dream of justice and liberty.

Signed by [hundreds of representatives from at least 40 grassroots and Haitian non-governmental organizations and at least 35 IDP camp committees in Haiti, plus ally organizations from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, the U.S., and Belgium].

Translated by Alexis Erkert and Monica Dyer, with help by Beverly Bell.

Copyleft Beverly Bell. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Beverly Bell, Other World.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. You can access all of her past articles regarding post-earthquake Haiti at www.otherworldsarepossible.org/haiti.