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Project January 13, 2015

Canaan: Haiti's Promised Land

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Media file: haitiphoto.jpg
Image by Allison Shelley. Haiti, 2016.

After a major earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, leaving 1.2 million people displaced, Haiti's government expropriated a vast stretch of land north of Port-au-Prince--but never identified and paid the land owner. Within months, thousands of people had descended there claiming pieces of their own, on which they began building homes, gardens, and businesses of all types. Residents themselves are transforming this scrub-covered range of hills with no water, electricity, roads or other city services into what is now Haiti's third-largest urban center, erecting their own electrical poles, making cinder blocks and trucking in water. Called Canaan, after the biblical Promised Land, it went from a population of nearly 0 to 300,000 in just a matter of years. 

But after declining to resolve the issue over who owned the land, Haiti's government hasn't begun the process of registering the ground underneath the people who now live there. Without land titles, the city's residents have no collateral: they cannot get micro-finance loans, and moreover, they have no traditional mechanism by which to claim, demand, or leverage, governance: roads, electricity, water; schools, hospitals, security.

According to the U.N., in 2004, nearly one billion people lacked tenure security in urban areas globally. Haiti's quake displaced an incredible 1.6 million people, many of whom still live in tenuous conditions. Already, early arrivals are renting out land that they don't really own. 

What can a group of displaced people—too often written off as helpless victims—teach the world about urbanism in the 21st Century? Is Canaan a promised land or another disaster in the making? Nine years after it began, we return to Haiti to investigate how the residents of the world's newest city navigate land rights, urban planning and governance--on their own. 

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