Mark Weisbrot
The Guardian Unlimited, August 22, 2011

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Port-au-Prince, Haiti — At this sprawling IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp of battered tents and tarps here in the neighborhood of Barbancourt in Port-au-Prince, a confrontation was underway. A landlord who claimed ownership of the land on which some 75 families had been living since the earthquake was very angry. A crowd of hundreds had gathered, and a man in his 30s said that the landlord had beaten him and destroyed his tent.

“These people have been here for 19 months, and I want them out of here!” the landlord shouted. He was yelling in English now because a group of activists had arrived, including the actor and human rights campaigner Danny Glover. They were defending the camp residents, but the landlord wasn’t having it.

Meanwhile a group of heavily armed troops from MINUSTAH – the UN military force that has occupied the country for the past seven years – arrived on the scene. They were tense and sweating in the morning heat, and as the standoff continued and the crowd spilled into the street, another contingent of troops arrived, bringing the total to about 15.

Finally, a well-known human rights lawyer, Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), arrived. He explained to the landlord — in another heated argument — that there was a legal and judicial process for evictions, and that as a matter of law, people could not be evicted without a court decision. The standoff came to an end, for the moment, as residents returned to the camp to avoid being locked out and possibly losing their possessions.

But nineteen months after the earthquake, there are still almost 600,000 people living in camps, mostly under tents and tarps. Despite the billions of dollars of aid pledged by governments and donors since the earthquake, there are probably less than 50,000 that have been resettled. And for the 600,000 homeless, the strategy seems to be moving in the direction of evictions – without regard to where they might end up.

“The government, in collaboration with international donors and some NGOs, is trying to pretend that there is no land,” says Etant Dupain, an activist with the group Bri Kouri Novel Gaye (Noise Travels, News Spreads). His group is organizing to stop the evictions, and he was present during the confrontation in Barbancourt on Saturday, where he tried to defuse the confrontation by talking to the landlord, whom he happened to know. “But there is land – they gave a big piece of land to MINUSTAH, and this was cultivated land.”

Indeed this seems to be the heart of the problem: The international donors, led by the U.S., do not seem to care enough to resolve the problem by “building back better,” as President Clinton promised after the earthquake. Or building much of anything, really. (Clinton heads up the Haiti Interim Recovery Commission – which until recently was called the Haiti Interim Reconstruction Commission, as well as being the UN special envoy to Haiti.)

A visit to another IDP camp called Corail, about 12 miles outside Port-au-Prince makes this clear. About 10,000 people live in “transitional shelters,” made of plywood and with a cement floor and a roof of corrugated steel – not exactly a house but a huge step up from a tent or tarp that can be entered with a razor blade and gets flooded in the rain. The shelters are about 18 square meters and designed to last about three to five years. But just across the fence, another 60,000 are surviving in tents and tarps. Although it would not be a permanent solution to the housing problem – people need to be resettled in homes, and equally importantly, they need jobs – transitional housing could be built for the entire IDP population at a cost of around $200 million. This should be doable, considering that $5.6 billion has been pledged [PDF] by international donors since the earthquake.

But to do this, the government would have to acquire the necessary land. This is entirely constitutional, as it is in the United States and other countries, and compensation could be provided to the landowners. Land ownership is of course horrendously badly documented in Haiti, but that is no excuse. The land could be acquired first and the owners compensated as their claims are settled.

That is where the will is lacking, and the “international community” should bear most of the responsibility here, because in reality they are in charge.

Meanwhile, landowners or those who claim to own the land inhabited by about 1,000 IDP camps have stepped up their efforts at evictions, often through violence and coercion. Some have hired thugs with machetes and knives to destroy tents. In the Port-au-Prince suburb of Delmas, police have been deployed at the orders of the mayor, without a legal order to evict, destroying tents and using force to evict the residents -- the majority of whom are women and children. Sometimes with the collaboration of NGOs, they have cut off water supplies. In late May, a 63-year-old woman was killed when a security guard working for the landowner knocked her to the ground in the camp of Orphee Shada.

Some 94 percent of IDP camp residents have said they would leave if they could, according to a recent Intentions Survey from the International Organization for Migration. They just have no place to go.

Half of all American households donated money to Haiti after the earthquake, for a total of $1.4 billion in private donations; and the U.S. Congress has appropriated more than a billion dollars. Why can’t this money be used to provide shelter for the victims of the earthquake, 19 months later?