PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive says the Haitian government will appropriate land to build temporary camps for earthquake victims. The decision, announced in an interview with The Associated Press, is potentially explosive in a country where a small elite owns most of the land in and around the capital.
That elite, a traditionally corrupting force in Haitian politics, has the power to bring down the government.
The government owns some land but not enough, Bellerive said in an interview Thursday, meaning he has no choice but to take over private terrain.
He would not say how much land will be appropriated.
A report posted at the Web site of the International Organization for Migration on Friday said a minimum of 450 hectares (1,112 acres) of flat, non-flood plain land is needed to settle 100,000 displaced people, and Haiti's government has identified only 19 hectares (47 acres).
The Jan. 12 quake left 1.2 million homeless, roughly half of them in Port-au-Prince, meaning the government would need to find a total of at least 2,700 hectares (6,672 acres) for quake survivors in the capital, where about a third of Haiti's nearly 10 million people are concentrated along with the government and almost all industry.
Bernard Fils-Aime, a businessman, property owner and president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Haiti, said he was not aware of anyone in the business community being approached by the government about land. He said the issue would need to be treated cautiously.
"Land is one of our very scarce resources and an issue that has underlined many political conflicts in Haiti since independence," Fils-Aime said. He said he was sure the issue could be negotiated amicably but warned, "You don't want to create more conflict."
Aid agencies have criticized the government for dragging its feet on the thorny land issue as relief agencies work against the clock to find temporary settlements for the homeless before the spring rainy season.
Human Rights Watch said Friday that "there is little evidence that meaningful efforts have been made to negotiate the land acquisition and secure proper land titles. It is essential that this be given priority" and that any appropriations "be done in a non-arbitrary and non-discriminatory manner."
The relief agency Oxfam International warned last week that "The temporary camps where people have congregated are fast becoming over-crowded slums."
"The government ... needs to clarify whether there is government land available or if it needs to confiscate private land instead. These decisions need to be taken quickly."
The Haitian government has seemed to operate on a slower timetable. On Friday, the economist leading a government emergency commission on shelter held a news conference, saying government panels will make decisions in three to four weeks, and that the homes will be built in five or six months.
In the meantime, Charles Clermont said, people in the private sector have offered to build 20,000 to 30,000 temporary homes on private land and, presumably, sell them to the government.
Impromptu camps have sprung up on every bit of available land — school and university grounds, public gardens, a golf course, the central Champ de Mars plaza or simply on sidewalks. But the camps, many made of little more than bed sheets propped up by sticks, have little sanitation, and early sporadic downpours already are adding to the misery of their residents.
Health workers warn the rains can bring disease in the camps — something Haiti's already strained health system can hardly handle.
Haitian law provides for the government to seize land as long as it is in the public interest and the owners are fairly compensated, said lawyer Benissoit Jude Detournel, who handles property disputes.
"There has to be a just and equitable indemnity, taking into account the market value of the property," Detournel said. He said setting a price is difficult now in the quake's aftermath.
The government has appropriated land in the past without conflict — to build a wider road on the western outskirts of Port-au-Prince four years ago, to protect underground water aquifers 14 years ago and to construct government buildings in downtown Port-au-Prince in the 1970s, said Jean-Andre Victor, an agronomist who worked on a failed government attempt to survey land ownership in 2003.
But Detournel said his firm still is litigating for owners of land expropriated by the government near the Port-au-Prince airport in the 1980s to build a free-trade zone of factories that churn out T-shirts and other products sold in the United States.
Compensation was paid at the time, but more people showed up later demanding payment, he said.
Squatters, corrupt notaries and judges often means multiple individuals can hold title to the same properties, he said. Detournel said his firm takes few land dispute cases "because you can end up dead, or with someone casting a Voodoo spell on you."
In and around Port-au-Prince, most land is owned by the 11 families generally referred to as "the elite" who have business monopolies and control the government through corruption, said Reginald Abraham, a Haitian-American property developer among more than 2 million Haitians in the diaspora.
"They embed with the government, they decide what's going to happen to the land. They have the government blocking people like me who want to come home and help rebuild Haiti." Abraham said his Haiti United Group, aimed at encouraging Haitians abroad to invest in the country, has more than 900 projects "just sitting on government desks" including plans to develop Gonave island and Isle a Vache as well as building a much-needed port on the southern peninsula.
Bellerive is clearly aware of the stakes.
He told the AP on Thursday, in a separate interview, that the government could fall as political opponents capitalize on its inability to respond strongly to the Jan. 12 earthquake.
Camp-dwellers are also offering resistance. Many don't want to move out of the debris-choked capital, which would separate them from family, jobs and aid. An Oxfam survey of 110 people showed less than a third of them willing to move out of the capital.
Meanwhile, those camps are becoming ever more miserable.
Leonel Martine, a 42-year-old electrician, said a light overnight shower Friday left his camp in ankle-deep water and soaked the mattress he shares with his wife, his daughter and two grandchildren.
"My wife spent the night standing, holding the baby," he said.