Land tenure and disputes in Southwest Haiti

After severe floods last October, a woman from the Woman’s Cooperative in Les Anglais, southwestern Haiti, found herself and her family with nothing to eat and no possessions to her family’s name, save one: her parcel of land she inherited upon the death of a family member. She took the title to her land to Port-à-Piment, a town a ways down the coast, where, by accounts in Les Anglais, people have more economic resources at their disposal. There, in Port-à-Piment, she reported to have traded the title to her land for a sack of flour. Without her formal title and ownership of the plot, without further claim in her land holding her back, she returned to her former plot and chopped down all the trees. She then took the wood to make charcoal to sell as a meager income for her family.

The ongoing role of land tenure and rural development is etched in the landscape of southwest Haiti. The current state of environmental degradation across the country is the result of generations of deforestation, intensive hillside agriculture, and a dependence on natural resources. There is a convergence of decreasing availability of natural resources paired with rapidly increasing population pressures. There are ongoing intellectual debates surrounding the role of land tenure in facilitating rural development and how improved conflict resolution mechanisms and understanding of land holding patterns can productively influence program design, specifically in watershed restoration and land management projects.

 Quantifying and contextualizing land conflict in southwest Haiti
















To better understand the existing land holding patterns and land management systems , a partnership of national and international institutions are pursuing a two-part research project to quantify the patterns of rural landholdings and contextualize them with qualitative understandings of the systems—formal, legalized and informal, community-based—of dealing with land-based conflicts. Sponsored in part by AC4, the partnership includes researchers from the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), students at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia the American University of the Caribbean in Les Cayes, Environmental Law Institute (ELI), Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The goal of this team is to pursue answers to the land tenure question as part of ongoing environmental and legal projects in Haiti. Improved understanding of land holding patterns and understanding of dispute resolution mechanisms have the potential to improve project staff’s planning and management.

The first part of the project is a quantitative assessment of landholding patterns on the household level. The project seeks to improve and verify data on household landholding patterns in southwest Haiti, including the average size of plots, the number of plots per household, the average distance from the household, and type of land access. Data from a household surveys will be collected and analyzed in comparison with socio-economic and agricultural data collected in the earlier household survey conducted by the Côte Sud Initiative and the Port-à-Piment Millennium Village. The majority of land within the Port-a-Piment watershed is being used for agriculture and agro-forestry. The analysis will seek to further explore the relationship between the poverty of the population and the agricultural and resource-management practices in rural zones with the realities of the small-scale plot holding system.

The second part of the project is a qualitative evaluation of the potential and existing dispute resolution mechanisms in the South Department and Port-à-Piment watershed. –A SIPA Master’s Capstone class, under the guidance of Professor Marc Levy, seeks to identify the most pressing issues on the subject of land tenure in Haiti, to uncover the mechanisms that are currently in operation as a means of resolution as well as to suggest new methods which have been utilized successfully in other relevant international practices. They will investigate and identify how the current Haitian legal framework and dispute resolution mechanisms, address the complexities surrounding the historic and current formal and informal resolution system. For their final report, the Capstone group will work with their qualitative data and their analysis of international best practices to create a set of recommendations for small-scale improvements, from judicial trainings to support of community-led cooperatives.

Preliminary findings reveal a dispute-prone system

Within the formal and informal system in Haiti, researchers identified a number of actors that are implicated in land dispute resolution mechanisms. These include notaries, government tax collecting agents, national land management agencies and local community-based organizations. In Port-au-Prince and the regional city of Les Cayes, students identified important formalized, legal and government-operated systems in place for land disputes and resolution. In the rural communities along the southwestern coast of Haiti, there are a range of community-based organizations like women’s cooperatives and community notaries, that demonstrate how land disputes manifest in the complexities and inefficacies of the current system.

The teams defined the formalized system—including surveyors, notaries, judges, and national agencies— in an effort to identify the current functioning systems. They also provided analysis of observed inefficiencies which they suggested are largely due to lacking sufficient training and lack of consistent application of the formal system. Most cases of disputes were rarely a result of lack of knowledge of these formal systems; on the contrary, even the most remote community groups can cite the formal process to settle a land dispute. People are aware of the formal state processes but few use them. Several key factors create a thriving informal system: accessibility to formal systems is limited by costs, social power inequities and access to the legal representation, and lack of formal documentation of ownership. Therefore informal dispute resolution mechanisms were found to be more frequent. The reality is exacerbated by an archaic records system and inconsistent adherence to formalized titles and land division that put into question the importance of engagement in the formal process, even if one does have means to do so.


Haiti’s landscape is heavily cultivated and largely deforested and linked to issues of land tenure, plot size, and management practices





Key stakeholders, from community-based organizations in rural southwest Haiti to national bureaus tasked with land management, cite a history rooted in Haiti’s independence and the inheritance system for land acquisition as the primary drivers of the complex picture of small-holder plots. Communities report, and soon to be verified by household surveys, that the countryside is a patchwork of small parcels stemming from generations of land being equally divided, often without proper documentation, between surviving family members; conflicts and disputes within families arise frequently. Small rural land holdings with insecure tenure can arguably lead to over-exploitation of the plot itself, with minimal investment to maintain soil health or prevent against erosion. Lacking mechanisms to enforce protection of natural resources, the land tenure system as it has progressed has been one of the many complex drivers of deforestation in Haiti. Due to growing population pressure, increasing agricultural production, and an increasing tourism industry, researchers believe that even the degraded land will increase in value. This will inevitably require improved dispute resolution mechanisms to ensure long-term land management and growth in the region.




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