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Lessons for Haiti from the Asian Tsunami

by Joshua Kurlantzick
February 2, 2010

In the rush to save as many of the injured from the Haiti earthquake and to provide basic social services in Port-au-Prince, there has been less focus on how to prevent the tragedy’s aftermath from being exploited. But as the 2004 Asian tsunami showed, Haitians and foreign donors will need to move quickly to ensure that areas of Haiti damaged by the earthquake are not quickly snapped up by speculators, forcing people from ever returning to their homes.

When the 2004 tsunami hit, I was in the south of Thailand. After early confusion over the scope of the damage, we quickly realized that a catastrophe had occurred, and when I went to the island of Phuket, much of the construction along the coastline had been decimated. People were in shock. But it wasn’t long before developers began to take over much of the damaged land – in Thailand, as in most other developing nations, land rights are hard to document. Developers who allegedly wanted to secure land along the beautiful coastline, to build new resorts, either sent goons to forcibly take over land or tried to quickly buy out survivors returning to their homes.

Without formal land titles, many tsunami survivors – in Thailand, and in Sri Lanka – had little recourse but to turn to the local police or courts – which, in many of these areas, had close ties to the same powerful local businesspeople trying to grab land. When I traveled through southern Thailand a few months after the tsunami, I met one angry resident after the next, claiming they had lost their lands and had to move to Bangkok to look for work. Worse, the rapid redevelopment of areas like Phuket set the stage for worse damage in the event of another tidal wave, since unchecked coastline development was destroying the local ecosystem – primarily, mangrove forests – that served as a natural barrier against the sea.

This kind of large-scale land-grabbing could easily repeat itself in Haiti, where land rights barely exist. (Even if they did, many people have lost all their documents in the earthquake.) One potential solution would be to institute a short-term freeze on any land transfers in Port-au-Prince, so no one can buy up or steal survivors’ properties. This will provide some breathing space so that, in the longer-term, the Haitian government can develop a system to adjudicate survivors’ land claims – and possibly develop a more effective formal system of land titles.

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