Hatian Property Laws: Sowing and Reaping Devastation

February 24, 2010

For the use of the membership only (572 words)

Pictures of Haiti’s earthquake devastation reminded me of a National Geographic aerial photograph along Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic (the two nations share a Caribbean island). The photograph shows a heavily forested Dominican Republic but a barren Haiti, which once had been heavily forested.*        

I bet some are thinking, “Oh no, here comes another academic, probably a tenured geology professor, telling us that tree-cutting causes earthquakes.” Rest easy, I’m not offering earthquake theories — and while I’m tenured, I’m a professor of economics, not geology.

My point is that Haitian land stripped of trees and Haitian land covered with earthquake debris have a common cause — a dysfunctional system of property rights. The dysfunction promotes an economic myopia where any future benefits — from preserving trees to constructing longer-lived buildings — become less important in economic calculations when recipients are uncertain of receiving those benefits. 

Haiti’s heritage is not good. A brutally ruled, slave-centered colony, independence there brought only a series of home-grown tyrants. Nevertheless, Haitians themselves bear responsibility for the state of their property rights. If not the Haitians, who else, pray tell?

Does that mean I’m blaming the victims of the devastation for the devastation, be it land stripped of trees or land covered with earthquake debris, including thousands of bodies? Yes. Haitians trashed private-property rights and they have reaped the consequences. Their Dominican neighbors, though hardly living in a property-rights paradise, didn’t strip their land. Nor do earthquakes of Haitian-like intensity elsewhere necessarily kill tens of thousands. The 1994 southern California earthquake, for example, killed less than 100 people.  

The economist, Hernando de Soto, in his celebrated book “The Mystery of Capital,” included specifics about the pathetic state of private-property rights in Haiti. He estimates that 68 percent of Haitian city dwellers and 97 percent of their rural counterparts live in housing for which no one has clear legal title — no one. 

Tell me, if you were building a house for which you had no legal title, how interested would you be in building a more durable structure? Not very. Certainly, you would be less interested compared with having clear title. After all, you’re unsure about someone coming along and taking “your” house, and you’re unsure about your ability to sell the house in the future. The resulting shabby construction won’t cause earthquakes, but it’ll make earthquake-related damages more extensive, even fatal.

Lack of property title in Haiti is not surprising, says De Soto. For Haitians to settle legally on government  land, they must first lease it for five years. Finalizing a lease requires 65 bureaucratic steps, taking two years on the average. Then things get worse: Subsequent purchase requires another 111 bureaucratic steps, taking 12 more years — a total of 19 years of red tape and paperwork in a country where, to compound the problem, illiteracy is pervasive.   

The National Geographic  photograph was a predictor of the earthquake devastation we’ve witnessed. A people who have little incentive to save trees, or when they do cut to replant new trees, will end up constructing buildings that crumble like houses of cards under the stress of an earthquake. 

Any effort to rebuild Haiti that does not include eliminating this property-rights vacuum will be throwing good money after bad, leaving seeds of future devastation waiting to germinate. An easy job? No. International “do-gooders” with quick fixes need not apply. 

Norman Van Cott, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University. A longer version of this essay was published by the Foundation for Economic Education. Contact Dr. Van Cott at ipr@iquest.net.

* The controversial photograph was taken by James Blair for the feature, “Haiti: Against All Odds,” National Geographic, Vol. 172, No. 5: 645-670.


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