When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November, killing more than 6,000 people and leaving more than four million homeless, one group was particularly hard hit: the landless poor. More than a thousand of the dead lived in a single squatter camp.
While natural disasters may seem like equal-opportunity destroyers, they are not.
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.
This has profound consequences that extend far beyond the squatter camps and plantations with their legions of impoverished laborers.
Landlessness and the lack of secure property rights among the poor not only hurt a country’s resiliency and slow post-disaster recovery. Those inequities also hold back economic development, perpetuate poverty and fan social tensions. Fixing this problem is not easy. But many countries, including South Korea, Vietnam and Rwanda, have reformed their laws and institutions to provide the rural poor with enforceable rights to the lands they live on and farm.
Those success stories are important because the vulnerability of the world’s landless — squatters, indigenous people, farm laborers and tenant farmers — cannot be overstated.
Consider the case of the cyclone that struck the Indian state of Orissa in 1999, killing an estimated 10,000 people. One-third of the dead were poor fishermen and their 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. Those communities were washed away.
Fears of displacement by government officials and developers are not unfounded. In the Philippine city of Tacloban, which was ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan, government officials are considering buying a six-acre parcel that was a squatter camp and preventing reconstruction. This is just one of many reported cases of efforts to seize valuable land vacated by occupants who fled Haiyan and lacked legal title.
Likewise, consider the situation in Haiti. Almost four years after a powerful earthquake struck the island nation, more than 100,000 people, the majority of them poor and landless, remain in tents or other temporary shelters, and many others have moved in with relatives.
A key factor hampering rebuilding efforts is the lack of secure land rights among the displaced. A 2012 report by the London-based Overseas Development Institute described a “chaotic” and “almost Kafka-esque” land tenure system in Haiti in which “it is almost impossible to know definitely who owns what.”
Time and again, those who have the least lose the most. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In the Indonesian province of Aceh, devastated by a tsunami in 2004, the government relief effort initially fell short. 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 of squatters and renters were still living in squalor in temporary barracks. Protests ensued, and government officials agreed to provide them with new homes built either at the sites of their old homes 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. While providing the poor with secure land rights was not solely responsible for the progress, the recovery could not have been achieved until the fundamental issue of land rights was addressed.
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.
The international community should seize this moment, as aid continues to pour in, to press for enforcement of the country’s long-ignored land tenure reform laws. These laws 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 will help the country and its landless poor recover and prosper.
Tim Hanstad is the president and chief executive officer, and Roy Prosterman is the founder and chairman emeritus, of Landesa, a nonprofit group that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor.