Dealing with the Land

Written by Plant With Purpose on March 3, 2011 in General

“If you’re one of the many, many aid pundits out there, but through some adverse miracle land is not central to your paradigm, the fact is you’re missing the plot.” –Tales from the Hood blog

A few of us at Plant With Purpose subscribe to the Tales from the Hood” blog, which is a collection of one man’s stories, reflections, and opinions about the humanitarian aid industry from an insider’s perspective and from some of the worst neighborhoods in the world. The February 27th blog entry, which you can read below, is particularly relevant to our work as it discusses a root issue faced by many communities we work with: land ownership.

In Northern Thailand, for example, the Burmese hill tribes we work with are in constant fear of their land being taken away from them by the government. Plant With Purpose is trying to work with the government, which thinks the land is being exploited, by helping farmers improve their practices so they won’t deteriorate the land. The hope is that this will result in a “win-win” for the hill tribes, who will be able to live off the land, and the government, who will have tenants working to reverse deforestation.

Here is what the Tales from the Hood writer has to say about land issues:

“Deal with the *Land*”

from the “Tales from the Hood” blog

I’ve written about land before. If my neighborhood was to be leveled by a huge – or even just a medium – disaster, if I lost everything; if the records of land ownership, wherever they are, were somehow also lost, I shudder think about how I might go about proving that I own the piece of ground where my house is now.

* * *

I spent about half of November 2009 weeks slogging through the still damp outer neighborhoods of metro-Manila that had been slammed by Typhoon Ketsana. In some places floodwaters reached almost to the third story, and in some places it was still more than a meter deep. People were crowded into unbelievably squalid “temporary relocation centers” – and not to self-aggrandize, but I’ve been to a few disaster zones and am not one to use the term “squalid” wantonly. In some (not all) cases those centers were themselves flooded: families of five crowded onto less than four square meters of raised platform space over thick, black water that smelled like, and if fact was, sewage.

My employer, along with most others involved in that response, was doing the predictable assortment of food and NFI distribution, and some “livelihoods” interventions, mostly cash-for-work (CFW). I remember that we all sat in a Jollibee one afternoon, eating greasy chicken and commenting on the fact that most of those displaced by Typhoon Ketsana were actually urban squatters who would have no place to go after the displacement centers.

I was back this past January (2010). More than one year later, Typhoon Ketsana survivors were still living in some sort of “temporary” space, tents, mostly. And why? Well, I can tell you that it’s certainly not a technical problem: We know how to build “transitional shelters” that are in many instances nicer than what people had pre-disaster. Nor is it money: spend-down is always always always a challenge. Everyone I know involved in Typhoon Ketsana recovery complains that more than a year later their relief grants are all underspent.

You have to spend money building that T-shelter somewhere. The issue is land.

* * *

I did the Typhoon Megi and Pakistan Flood responses back-to-back, late last year. And I can tell you that while even now there are relief distributions going on and the DRR types (who I love dearly… mostly) are going on about early recovery and “building resilience into relief”, it’s all going to be a lot about nothing if the land issues aren’t adequately addressed.

Asset replacement is all good and well, as are emergency shelter and shelter “rehabilitation” kits. Soft loans and maybe cash transfer help. Seed fairs and health extension are steps in a good direction. But unless the land issues are sorted out, it will all be about like band-aids on syphilis.

If those people from Isabella or KPK who depend for their livelihood on less than two hectares of land for which their claim to ownership is based on several generations worth of verbal ascent (or maybe they’re just squatting for three generations) suddenly find themselves at the mercy of official or unofficial “interests” in “their” land, they’ll have no recourse.

And they’ll be totally screwed.

* * *

As practically everyone who was even partially paying attention during the early days of the Haiti response remembers, land was a key issue. And it still is: three weeks ago, as I was fighting the urge to laugh (“Power”), I was also standing in the middle of a huge tent camp. Hundreds of thousands of urban squatters suddenly have nowhere to go. The government can’t figure out where to put them all. For all practical purposes, they are refugees in their own country.

Anyone who’s even just driven past Corail knows that the technical challenges of getting a nice T-shelter attached to a flat slab are not the issue. And very much like in the Philippines, pretty much everyone in the industry who I know personally complains that spending down grants – especially shelter grants – in Haiti is a challenge, still a year later. We know what to do – which is to say that we know how to build a decent transitional shelter. And we probably have enough money to do it.

But we have to spend that money building those T-shelters on a particular patch of ground somewhere. And call me paternalistic, but I want to do it on a patch of ground that “our” beneficiaries will not be forcibly evicted from once the INGOs have all gone and the journalists and actors are all onto the next most interesting thing.

Despite what you might hear about politicians coming or going, or actors doing this or that, the issue in Haiti right now is land.

* * *

Disaster response teams in the field and at HQs need to start focusing on land on, like, day two. (We usually put it off until about month 2 or 3.) We all know the importance of the land issues, particularly in urban disaster responses. It’s time to start treating land as it’s own core issue, rather than burying it somewhere in the shelter and/or camp coordination cluster. For every NGO responding to the disaster, there needs to be someone on the team whose job it is to specifically to understand the land issues at play in that context. We need to start sooner rather than later to look for workable strategies to address land concerns for the poor affected by the disaster.

(Note: “workable”, not necessarily “innovative”… there’s a huge difference… just sayin’.)

Cash-for-work has it’s place, but long-term it is basically pressure on a gaping wound. Vocational training as a disaster response intervention is an early admission of failure.

Deal with the land.

Land needs to be the central focus of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). Market access, health systems, last mile delivery, value-chain analysis, MFI financial sustainability, and all of the ‘way trendy livelihoods stuff going on right now is all good and well and incredibly important. But it’s also all somewhere between swimming upstream and falling over the Niagra if the people we’re targeting have no land. Basic things like simply documenting existing land tenure laws before a disaster happens can make a huge difference in advocating for landless poor sooner after the disaster happens. Working with people to document their own land holdings or land rights pre-disaster will make more difference down the road than expensive early warning systems, prepositioning fancy gadgets.

Deal with the land.

Development programs too often take land for granted. The second biggest and most common flaw that I see in development programs is simply that they naïvely assume their target population has stable, uncontested access to the land where they live and work. (The biggest, most common flaw I see is failure to do good assessments.) And this is not just an urban phenomenon, by the way – it affects rural poor just as much. And as soon as there’s a shock (it doesn’t even have to be a full-on disaster), and people are displaced or can’t pay the rent, then there’s a whole new class of “poor.” Investments in health and agricultural extension go out the window. And again, land is a key issue.

Development workers: take the time to understand the land context of the population you’re working with. Understand both the sociological and also the legal relationship between them and their land. Now that I think about it, you should probably also understand their spiritual relationship to their land, too. If the people you’re trying to help have to move tomorrow – whether they own, rent or are just squatting on the land – your years of effort may very well evaporate into thin air.

Deal with the land.

Is there a human right more basic than having a place to exist in a place? If you’re in advocacy, chances are that FGM or ethnic-cleansing or human trafficking or child soldiers, or maybe even debt relief are far more interesting than land. But think about it: if people have land – that is, if they have a place to live, unmolested, and make a living.. I won’t say that other problems go away, but they become far more manageable.

Deal with the land.

If you’re one of the many, many aid pundits out there, but through some adverse miracle land is not central to your paradigm, the fact is you’re missing the plot.

Yes, I get it: much more fun to whinge about the waste in the aid system (and there’s plenty to whinge about). Or to point out that INGOs are self-interested (duh), or rant about badvocacy (I do it, too). And while those are all important issues, it’s all peripheral if the people you claim you’re concerned about have no place to call home or to make a living.

Deal with the land.

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