GLOBAL: Taking on the land-grabbers

A student surveys the remains of her house in a village in West Aceh after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (file photo).

LONDON, 26 October 2010 (IRIN) – Property developers in Indonesia and Thailand moved in quickly after the 2004 Tsunami, snapping up land from those relocated into resettlement camps to build luxury resorts, further squeezing the livelihoods of the poor.

Land grabbing happened after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Haiti earthquake, and after cyclones and floods in the Philippines, according to the World Disasters Report 2010 (WDR).

It can involve outright violence, or carefully orchestrated legislative measures – as after Katrina – says David Satterthwaite of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), and one of the WDR report’s authors.

In New Orleans, public officials pushed through planning and zoning legislation which changed housing ownership patterns across the city, orchestrating what Sara Pantuliano, head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at UK think-tank the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), describes as “one of the starkest examples of a disaster accentuating inequalities between city residents”.

Deepening inequality

Displaced residents may lack land tenure, or have no identity card or documentation demonstrating their right to land, making it difficult for housing associations and NGOs to help them, says WDR.

“Unless disaster aid quickly learns to work with the untitled, the unregistered, the unlisted and the undocumented, it can support and even reinforce the inequalities that existed prior to the disaster,” said the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights in WDR.

Shifting the power balance in favour of the vulnerable is notoriously difficult, admits Pantuliano, but is a cause that NGOs should take up more forcefully. “Too often we focus on the quality of shelter we can provide, but struggle to get past the more challenging questions of how to shift power balances in emergencies, and how not to exacerbate the vulnerability of the worst-off.”

Some 2.57 billion urban dwellers in low and middle-income countries are vulnerable to unacceptable levels of risk, fuelled by rapid urbanization, poor local governance, poor services, rapid population growth and rising urban violence, said WDR.

A team of researchers at the ODI is looking at the impact of displacement and urbanization in Sudan, Kenya Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Gaza, Somalia and possibly Iraq.

Depression, isolation

Governments often overlook the social implications of forcing people to move, said Pantuliano. “Planned settlement can isolate communities; it can lead people to depression, to isolation and more vulnerability… driving youths to join gangs or to take up prostitution” she told IRIN.

It can also cut them off from jobs: Displaced communities in Manila, the Philippines capital, for instance, were pushed out of the city centre, meaning thousands could not easily access their jobs servicing the many businesses in the area.

In Haiti, reconstruction plans to move communities to “new, safe cities”, meant moving people to distant camps, outside the capital, Port-au-Prince, where they did not want to be, said Alfredo Stein, an urban planning expert at the Global Urban Research Centre at the University of Manchester. Ex-residents continually attempt to return to the centre to try to re-claim their land.

Response challenges

Local authorities often struggle to respond quickly to resettlement challenges because of strict land-use regulations; lack of money to fund relocation; delays in getting official permission from regional or national authorities; and the high cost of building materials, said the IIED’s Satterthwaite.

After a disaster the national government may decide to improve building standards, as was the case in Pakistan following the 2005 earthquake, which can further delay rebuilding.

Local advocacy groups and housing associations are often best-placed to help communities, said ODI’s Pantuliano, as international NGOs often get confused about what role to play in resettlement.

But international agencies can also play an important role, she said. “We do not propose NGOs get involved in land reform, but they should intervene in issues that fall squarely in the protection mandate, such as documenting land rights or advocating for access to temporary and permanent land.” This work may involve land surveys, research, advocacy, and providing legal aid to vulnerable people to avoid land grabs, she told IRIN.

“We are trying to put this more at the heart of humanitarian organizations’ work… Post-tsunami NGOs woke up too late to these issues, despite local organizations pushing them to do something,” said Pantuliano.

What works

Cassidy Johnson, a lecturer in building and urban design in development at University College London, identifies two factors that can help displaced people exercise their right to their land: the presence of strong community action groups, such as slum-dwellers’ associations, which collectively rebuild and which have strong links to local government to enable them to lobby for their rights; and the existence of residents’ joint savings schemes which means there are funds to draw on for rebuilding.

This was the case in the Philippines, which is regularly affected by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, storm surges, landslides, floods and droughts. Here the Homeless Peoples Federation has helped communities resettle following five disasters from 2000 to 2008: Its 70,000 individual members collectively saved to rebuild post-crisis, and swiftly organized themselves into rebuilding committees, post-crisis, said WDR.

Local branches of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, with support from the British Red Cross, have also been active in securing land tenure rights for families post-disaster in the Philippines, said Pete Garatt, disaster response manager at the British Red Cross.

“The most successful [land rights] work is done by local groups – we have seen this in Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Khartoum – as these issues were already on communities’ radar screens,” he told IRIN at the launch of WDR.

Wherever possible, communities should be encouraged to take the lead themselves, rather than waiting for others to respond, said Pantuliano. After the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, communities successfully reoccupied their old land because they got on with rebuilding permanent houses themselves, rather than waiting for government permission. “They left the government with little choice but to allow them to stay put,” she said.

Moving forward, the idea of “building back better” which has become standard government parlance after an emergency, must be redefined, said WDR. Rather than addressing purely better quality infrastructure, it should describe “land for the landless and homes for the homeless”.

And building back better must also stress that resettlements, if they must occur, are well-placed, added Pantuliano.

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