PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive says the Haitian government will appropriate privately held land to build temporary camps for earthquake victims.
He would not say how much terrain will be taken over.
Haitian law provides for such takeovers as long as they are in the public interest and the owners are fairly compensated, said lawyer Benissoit Jude Detournel, who handles property disputes.
"There has to be a just and equitable indemnity, taking into account the market value of the property," Detournel said. He added that setting a price is difficult now in the quake's aftermath.
The government has appropriated land in the past without conflict — to build a wider road on the western outskirts of Port-au-Prince four years ago, to protect underground water aquifers 14 years ago and to construct government buildings in downtown Port-au-Prince in the 1970s, according to Jean-Andre Victor, an agronomist who worked on a failed government attempt to survey land ownership in 2003.
Now, international aid groups say hundreds of hectares (acres) are needed to get quake victims out of overcrowded makeshift camps in public parks and lots in Port-au-Prince. Officials say 1.2 million Haitians were left homeless by the Jan. 12 quake, about half of them in the capital.
Camps have sprung up on every bit of available land in Port-au-Prince — school and university grounds, public gardens, a golf course, the central Champ de Mars plaza or simply on sidewalks.
One reason for the quake's devastating human and economic toll is that nearly a third of Haiti's nearly 10 million people were concentrated in the already overcrowded capital, as were the government and almost all industry.
Relief workers are working against the clock to find temporary settlements for the homeless before the spring rainy season.
Early sporadic downpours already are adding to the misery of people living in makeshift shelters of bed sheets propped up by poles. Inadequate sanitation combined with the rains could bring disease to a still-traumatized nation, adding to other strains on Haiti's health system.
The nation has the highest AIDS rate in the Caribbean, with 2.2 percent of the 10 million people infected.
Bellerive can expect opposition to the land seizures in a country where land is a sacred and conflicted issue — as well as from within his own government.
He told the AP on Thursday, in a separate interview, that the government could fall as political opponents capitalize on its inability to respond strongly to the Jan. 12 earthquake.
Resistance is also expected from camp-dwellers.
Many in the makeshift camps in Port-au-Prince, some of which are evolving into shantytowns, don't want to move out of the debris-choked capital, which would separate them from family, jobs and aid.
In the meantime, the camps themselves are becoming ever more miserable.
Leonel Martine, a 42-year-old electrician, said a light overnight shower Friday left his camp near the prime minister's office in ankle-deep water and soaked the mattress he shares with his wife, his daughter and two grandchildren.
"My wife spent the night standing, holding the baby," he said.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Katz contributed to this report.