Land rights for the poor in post-Yolanda recovery

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

Among the myriad problems that must be addressed in the national and international efforts to hasten recovery from the devastation left by typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda — and to do it right — an important aspect should be included: land rights for the poor.

This suggestion came from Tim Hanstad and Roy Prosterman, leaders of Landesa, an advocacy group that has worked for 46 years to secure land rights for the poor in 46 countries.

The Aquino government would do well to study the idea seriously, for two reasons. It’s not only a requisite component in implementing a thoroughgoing recovery program for the devastated communities and the economy, but also in resolving the long-festering problems of agrarian reform and much-needed urban land reform.

Hanstad and Prosterman made the suggestion in a recent article titled “The poor get washed away,” published in the International New York Times.

With reference to natural disasters akin to Haiyan/Yolanda, the authors cited the experiences in Aceh (now an autonomous province of Indonesia) and Haiti. As regards resolving the problems of landlessness and lack of secure property rights among the poor, they pointed to successes in South Korea, Vietnam, and Rwanda.

Taking off from the impact of Haiyan/Yolanda – killing more than 6,000 people (including over a thousand living in a “single squatter camp” in Tacloban) and leaving more than four million homeless — Hanstad and Prosterman wrote:

“The developing world’s landless poor routinely bear the brunt of these disasters. Families without secure rights to land (and that is a majority of rural residents in many developing countries) often remain in their homes when it is dangerous to do so, fearing they won’t be allowed to return. And without the security of ownership and access to collateral, their homes are often not built to withstand earthquakes, typhoons and other disasters.”

“Landlessness and the lack of secure property rights among the poor not only hurt a country’s resiliency and slow post-disaster recovery,” they continued. “Those inequities also hold back economic development, perpetuate poverty and fan social tensions.”

Fixing these problems is not easy. But many countries, including South Korea, Vietnam and Rwanda, they pointed out, “have reformed their laws and institutions to provide the rural poor with enforceable rights to the lands they live on and farm.”

It’s important to study these success stories, Hanstad and Prosterman stressed, because “the vulnerability of the world’s landless — squatters, indigenous people, farm laborers and tenant farmers — cannot be overstated.”

In Tacloban, for example, “government officials are considering buying a six-acre parcel that was a squatter camp and preventing its reconstruction,” they warned, “just one of the reported cases of efforts to seize valuable land vacated by occupants who fled Haiyan and lacked legal title.”

A previous instance was when a cyclone struck the Indian state of Orissa in 1999, killing 10,000 people. Many belonged to poor fishing families who refused to evacuate their coastal villages, “believing it was a ploy to evict them from the government land where they had built their huts.”

And in Haiti today, more than 100,000 (majority of them landless poor) remain in temporary shelters four years after an earthquake flattened their homes. A key factor hampering rebuilding there is the lack of secure land rights among the displaced, said the authors.

However, in Aceh, devastated by a tsunami in 2004, remedial steps were taken. Initially, the government relief effort fell short, the authors narrated, as “displaced renters and squatters received only small cash payments to buy building materials or to pay rent, while landowners received new homes.”

Years later, tens of thousands, who still lived in squalid temporary barracks, vigorously protested, compelling the government to provide them with new homes built either at their old sites or in new locations — “all with secure title to the land.”

“Aceh has since made a remarkable recovery. The region is at peace, the economy is growing, life expectancy is increasing and poverty is falling,” Hanstad and Prosterman exulted. They concluded that while providing secure land titles wasn’t the sole factor, “the recovery could not have been achieved until the fundamental issue of land rights was addressed.”

As regards our country’s situation, they suggested:

“The recent disaster in the Philippines could provide the opportunity for the country to sweep away the biggest roadblock to growth and stability there – the widespread lack of landownership among the poor.”

As foreign aid continues to pour in, the international community should “seize this moment,” they advised, to press for “enforcement of the country’s long-ignored land tenure reform laws (which) call for government distribution to the poor of large swaths of public land, and for purchase and distribution of certain private land (including idle or abandoned property and bankrupt plantations).”

“The landowning elite has resisted these reforms, but implementing them,” they emphasized, “will help the country and its landless poor recover and prosper.”

Prosterman, now 77, knows the Philippine land problems at bottom, having visited the country several times. In the 1960s he urged the World Bank to support agrarian reform in the country. But he became disillusioned with the government’s failure, starting under Ferdinand Marcos, to carry it out.

This international activist, as he is known, has been twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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January 18, 2014

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