Ronel Thelusmond of the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture on Social Housing, Land Reform

Part 1 (see Part 2 below)
"Haiti Needs a Social Policy for Housing"

Introduction by Beverly Bell
Published on Other Worlds, February 17, 2011

Ronel Thelusmond is the director of the technical division of the National Institute for the Application of Agrarian Reform (INARA), part of the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture. An element of INARA’s mission is to manage land conflicts, particularly as they relate to national development. We asked Ronel how the government could address the complications of land tenure and land concentration to get housing for the estimated 1.5 million people who lost their homes during the earthquake and who are now living under sheets of plastic or nylon in the streets and other public spaces.

Land in Haiti is characterized by two issues: social injustice and insecurity. I say social injustice because land hasn’t been equitably divided, and less than twenty percent of the population in Haiti owns any. I say insecurity because the government offices in charge of overseeing land matters are dysfunctional.

In order to talk about building homes for people, the government has to deal with the issue of land security, but they’re unable to. They’re not functional, they’re not taking any proactive action. And there are at least five different government offices which give land titles and they don’t interact with each other. They’re all issuing decisions at the same time and that creates confusion and problems. Every institution is looking out for its own interests and there isn’t any coordination taking place in any real way, and this applies to international aid as well.

The law expressly gives the government the right to find land to build new houses on, and it says what measures the government can take to take control of that land, as well. In short, the government has the necessary means and the legal tools for displaced people to have places to build homes. The question is if it’s willing to use those means, if it has the political will.

There are areas on unused plots that aren’t accessible by transportation that people have begun moving onto. There are people who are rebuilding homes with the exact same materials as before the earthquake, in the exact same manner. Since the government is almost entirely absent from the rebuilding process, so people have just begun the process on their own, and this is worrisome.

It’s complicated, too, because the land titles often aren’t clear. It’s hard to identify owners and their land rights, and to identify the exact boundaries of the plot of land in question, because we end up dealing with one communal section [township boundary] and another; they overlap.

What the government needs to do, first off, is determine the boundaries of a property and then research what people are involved with it, how much land there is, and what rights people have concerning this land. Based on this study, we could draw up a proposal for developing that land. The government has to contact institutions which are out there working and draw up an inventory of where land is available.

The Emergency of People Living in Tents
As for the emergency of people out there living in tents in sub-human conditions, we’re not seeing much concern at an institutional level. The government hasn’t created any real policies which would provide people with a place to go home to. Or if it has, the population hasn’t caught wind of it. Those of us who work with the government haven’t gotten any official communiqué laying out a roadmap for helping people efficiently obtain homes.

People have the right to a secure home. This violation of their human rights must be denounced, so the government can take its rightful place and create the conditions for decent housing.

It’s only via social movements, organizing, mobilizations for action that those in charge will take the appropriate measures. Otherwise, people will be living in these tents for a long time.

Plus, we can’t rebuild houses the way they were built before. Haiti needs a social policy for housing. The government has to create the social elements and conditions under which people that don’t have a home can get one.

And building houses has to be part of a broader development program for people to live like human beings, to control their own lives. We need programs that create broader means of production and sources of income. You have to look at health, education, recreation.

Collective Participation in Reconstruction
In the Dominican Republic they have housing co-ops. Why can’t we create something similar here? Why can’t the government make use of the funds it has and let people take part in building their own houses? It’s possible.

But before we can even talk about construction, we need clear policies toward a comprehensive development plan. We at INARA believe that there should be a national debate, with a chance for all people to present proposals. This is about letting people participate in the building themselves, letting them have a say in what vision they have for the nation. A comprehensive, national development needs to involve the participation of the entire population.

The matter of reconstruction calls us to sit and think, to dialogue. It’s not only a matter of building houses. We have the example of Kosovo, where they’ve rebuilt buildings but they haven’t dealt with the other social problems. If you don’t deal with other problems, you’re still going to be left with a very fragile society.

And this is why, here in Haiti, people are talking about reorganizing the state. That means sketching out a society that’s more just, more humane, a society where the rich can share with others. We’re talking about a society that’s free of exclusion. As long as exclusion and social injustice reign, we won’t be able to talk about a different kind of Haiti.

Only through collective discussion and dialogue will we be able to arrive at a consensus and say just what sort of country we all need. A country where all of us are in charge, a country where we are the ones who collectively make decisions for ourselves, rather than having a small group of people making those decisions for us.

Again, one of the tools which the people must use is organizing. They have to organize themselves to pressure the government so that their rights as human beings will be respected.

The Republic of Port-au-Prince
Here another, a broader issue is at stake: the expansion of Port-au-Prince. We must have zoning. This means the government should define where homes can be built, where factories can be built, where irrigation can be done, et cetera. Otherwise we’ll continue to be in trouble.

There is land available, in the metropolitan zone of the department of the West [the equivalent of a state, which includes Port-au-Prince]. One of the largest landowners in Haiti is the government itself. But the government doesn’t even know what land belongs to it, because a full survey has never been done. INARA began to work on this but it didn’t have the necessary resources to finish, even though the constitution gives it the right to do this.

We can’t speak of development without speaking of decentralization. Everything they are doing is focused on Port-au-Prince. Why is that? It has to do with the mentality of centralization in the capital which has been in place for many years now.

Creating a Different Haiti
The earthquake of January 12 has forced us to sit and reflect, as a people, and ask ourselves what direction we are headed... To define a national policy will bring us all dignity, and that will allow us to be the ones in charge of our land. We are the ones who have to decide what’s right for us.

I think it’s about hope, about working to strengthen social movements to take destiny by the reins, to create a different Haiti. A beloved Haitian nation that benefits all people.

Many thanks to Larousse Charlot who transcribed this interview, and David Schmidt who translated it.

Part 2: Land Reform Must Be Pillar of Reconstruction: INARA head

Other Worlds Are Possible, March 3, 2011

Ronel Thelusmond is the director of the technical division of the National Institute for the Application of Agrarian Reform (INARA), which is part of the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture. Extreme concentration of land, giving little to no access to the 60-80% of the population who are farmers, is one of Haiti’s primary challenges. In part II of an interview, Ronel speaks to the barriers and opportunities of agrarian reform. (See also “Haiti Needs a Social Policy for Housing.”)

Our mission [at the government’s National Institute for the Application of Agrarian Reform] is to enact agricultural reform so people can get land in good condition and make it productive. What we say is that we’re going to bring back security and see to it that the people who work the land can be guaranteed that they’ll profit from their work without someone else coming in and robbing the land from them.

We’re also supposed to reinforce unity among peasants and define the minimum and maximum amounts of land a person should own. But INARA has never had the necessary means to be able to conduct agrarian reform.

Recent History of Agrarian Reform
[In his first term], President Aristide issued the decree to create INARA. But it was President Préval [during his first term] who took the first action toward agrarian reform in the Artibonite Valley, in 1999 through 2001.

That experience was a modest success, with close to 6,000 families in the Artibonite getting a total of 5,000 carreaux [15,938 acres] of redistributed land. The Artibonite has between 30,000 and 40,000 carreaux [95,629 and 127,506 acres] total. They gave each peasant half a carreaux [1.6 acres], which came out of the holdings of large landowners and also the state. The goal was to see to it that the peasants could earn an income higher than the minimum wage.

The land each family got was practically nothing, but it was the compromise solution given land pressures and the number of people who were demanding land at the time.

But people weren’t made the owners of those small plots. They didn’t get titles to the land, only given a usufruct contract [the right to use the land and own all products from it] with the state. And this made the situation very fragile. It meant that people couldn’t appeal to the justice system. Then other challenges arose, like a blight called black straw which affected rice, plus hurricanes, and droughts and floods.

With time, the government expected to create non-agricultural activity which would allow for more employment in other areas, thus decreasing the pressure put on the land. The hope was that people would come and bring investment and create jobs and transformation. Unfortunately, those complementary measures never took place.

After the [2004] coup d’état which removed Aristide, Latortue came in as Prime Minister and gave land reform the coup de grâce. He disapproved of the reforms which had been taking place in the Artibonite, so [large landowners] started taking land away from the peasants. And that’s when the peasants began to fight back again. In fact, the conflict continues to rage in the Artibonite.

I can tell you that close to 40% of the people who’ve been given land by the government in the Artibonite have had their land outright stolen from them. And unfortunately, up to this point, no concrete actions have been taken to see to it that the government’s authority is respected.

Then came the second administration of President Préval. He came in with a discourse of reconciliation, a mentality of bringing back peace in society, so the land-related problems were set aside. They didn’t deal with them.

Today, INARA has a program with the Inter-American Development Bank to remove obstructions on 28,000 carreaux [89,254 acres] in the Artibonite so peasants currently working that land are legally protected. We have other, smaller programs underway around the country.

Challenges to Land Reform
When we talk about land security, there are three issues we have to take up, with serious problems at each level: Which land are we talking about? What rights do people have to this land? And which people have these rights?

Take the last question. Thirty to thirty-five percent of the population don’t have birth certificates. If people can’t be identified, they can’t establish what relation or rights they have to a plot of land. And as for determining the [boundaries and owners of the] property itself: the documents and titles are non-functional. Furthermore, people don’t have the resources for the extremely high costs of the procedures. The government has failed to create the necessary conditions which would allow people to own the proper title to their land.

All the work is proceeding slowly because the first thing you need for a true agrarian reform is political will. But the political trajectory which is being followed so far is a neoliberal policy, which is more oriented towards private property than state-owned property. For example, we’re seeing more interest in pushing the people towards free-trade zones than towards the land.

Despite all the talk about it, they haven’t even passed an agrarian reform law. The government is playing the role of observer more than really supporting people.

Then we’re talking about a whole group of government institutions which are involved in land matters but that don’t have much of a relationship with each other. Each one is doing something different. So if INARA is only providing plots of land, but the other players aren’t playing their parts, we still won’t get results.

And we can’t fail to take into account the broader political and economic context. Agrarian reform doesn’t just have to do with the land, it has to do with water, credit, technical assistance.

And take people who come from rural areas and go looking for work in the city. The ideal way [to reverse this] would be for the government to create agricultural sources of employment. I mean creating a master plan, mechanisms that would allow people in the countryside to earn money, creating schools and programs which encourage people to leave Port-au-Prince. Unfortunately, there are more people coming into Port-au-Prince than going out.

In summary, for agrarian reform to work, it has to be part of a bigger package of reforms and a broader comprehensive economic development policy. At this time, we don’t have any such plan.

Beyond that, we can’t talk about agrarian reform if we don’t confront the problem of environmental degradation. We can’t talk about agrarian reform if we don’t deal with issues of social injustice, the problem of inequality.

Land Reform and Food Sovereignty
One proposal would be for the government itself to take charge of land in conflict, which means they would do all transactions to allow for a gradual transition of the land. The State is the only party that can take the appropriate measures to put a stop to today’s land insecurity.

If the state doesn’t fulfill its responsibilities, then violence is what comes next. That’s when peasants take matters into their own hands to use force to defend what they have. And if we want to create a society in which the rule of law is respected, we have to allow the institutions whose purpose is to defend people’s rights to play their role.

The only thing that’s going to move the country towards policies that respond to people’s needs is a popular movement. That is, for the peasants who work the land to organize themselves to pressure the government to take responsibility, to play its role as arbiter.

I would say that agrarian reform and food sovereignty have to be pillars in a plan for national reconstruction. People have to be able to eat, and the people who work the land have to be supported. When food is imported, it causes competition with peasants who’re producing food. Look at the problem of rice: the nation certainly has the capacity to produce rice, to be self-sufficient as a rice producer, but rice is freely entering the country without being taxed. This as an illegal exchange, a form of dumping. And that’s what we need to avoid.

If we want to fight against poverty and misery, we need to start by changing our orientation so we, as the Haitian people, take responsibility for our country’s own development.