Who Owns Anything?

February 23, 2011

Paul and Joegodson

Joegodson got a call from a cousin in Bon Repos. He went to talk with him. It turned out to be about land that the extended family owns.

Long ago, sometime in the nineteenth century, a peasant from Cap Haitien settled in Saut d’Eau. His name was Polikap, which means he was Pol from Cap Haitien. He used to travel around the mountains and trade his livestock from time to time. In those days, it was possible to buy a karo of land for some chickens or a goat. One karo is 3.19 acres. Polikap wound up with twenty karo in Saut d’Eau and five karo in a beautiful place called, appropriately, Belleville. He also had a number of children who continued to multiply. An unknown but substantial number of Haitians are descended from Polikap. Joegodson, it turns out, is a direct descendant of Polikap. And so, he, like the others, has a claim to these plots of land.

Joegodson’s cousin brought him up to date for a reason. Someone in Saut d’Eau has found the papers that prove ownership. The first thought was that Joegodson could maybe use this website to publicize the land for sale. Instead, the issue is leading Joegodson to probe the complexities of owning land. Why sell it? To whom? Finally, together, we are asking questions about who can claim ownership of any part of the planet. There are many on-going tragedies interwoven into these few karo of land. We’ll sketch just a couple of the issues that Joegodson faces. By the way, his questions are disturbing everyone involved.

In Belleville are five beautiful karo of land. Belleville is higher in the mountains above Port-au-Prince than Petionville or Kenskoff. And so it is even more desired by the bourgeoisie. Rich people like the temperate altitudes for a number of reasons. The climate is attractive; in Belleville, you are spared the heat of Port-au-Prince. The land is fertile. The five karo are forested with avocados, mangoes, and other fruit trees. It allows the rich to separate themselves from the poor of Port-au-Prince.

Now, Joegodson has found that all is not paradise up the mountain. There are squatters on different parts of the land that belong, according to the records, to his extended family. The local rich have, over the generations, crept onto the land that belongs to his poor peasant family. There are a couple of big homes there. In fact, these wealthy people were aware that some people from Saut d’Eau had already claimed the land that they built upon. Like everywhere in Haiti, even the rich risk that someone might come along some day with proof that they own the land. However, now, there are also some poor homeless people, displaced from the earthquake, who have pitched tents on other parts of the land. The wealthy people, who don’t own the land anymore than the poor squatters, have been trying to chase them away. The descendants of Polikap in Saut d’Eau don’t want to chase anyone off.  In fact, the whole issue is fraught with danger. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that these beautiful hills could be drenched in blood. Moreover, there are now so many descendants of Polikap that it makes no sense for them to think of inhabiting the land. Who among Polikap’s heirs should live there? Who are Polikap’s heirs? Some people in Saut d’Eau are trying to figure that out.

In Saut d’Eau, Polikap left twenty karo. What to do with that land? Saut d’Eau is one of Haiti’s most important cultural centres. It is the spiritual centre of vodou. Every July, people come from all over to bathe in the waterfalls. And, so, some of the descendants thought to sell the land to developers. They asked for Joegodson’s help in doing it.

But there are huge ethical problems in the way. Joegodson has begun a conversation within the extended family. Again, no one knows how far the family of Polikap now extends. But, because he had a few extra chickens many generations ago, his heirs have to confront ownership of some beautiful and desired properties.

The land in Belleville would have to be sold to people who can afford it. Foreigners would be first in line. People with the money to buy the land would already be privileged. They would use the land to separate themselves even further from the poor. The poor squatters would quickly be booted back down the hill into the heat of Port-au-Prince. The rich squatters could not be moved. Their continuing presence would need to be negotiated.

Likewise, the first in line for the land in Saut d’Eau would be hoteliers. The ones that would pay the highest price would be quite willing to rehire the descendants of Polikap as chambermaids and groundskeepers. Private land ownership is the source of poverty. Only the owners tell you that it’s the source of wealth. And so, Joegodson is probing the many owners of this land.

The Native Canadian historian Anthony J Hall has been developing a promising and challenging thesis in his volumes on the rise of the American empire of possessive individualism. This neoliberal order that we witness today Hall places in the context of the European imperial project that was accelerated by Columbus’ arrival in Haiti (Hispanola) in 1492. First, it is unfair to reduce 1,500 pages of text to a paragraph like this. However, Joegodson is intrigued at the way that Hall’s insights into the evolution of the idea of private property in North America have direct consequences for his current dilemma in relation to his family’s inheritance.

Hall notes that the Canadian constitution recognizes the prior Amerindian presence on the territories of North America. In fact, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 formalized the alliance among the British Crown and sovereign Amerindian nations. Those First Nations had no prior understanding of the notion of private property. According to the Royal Proclamation, their land could not be sold directly, except to the Crown. (There were strategic reasons for this, of course, that need not vitiate the kernel of the philosophic position that saw land as a commons. The Native perspective was an impediment to possessive individualism and the capitalist empire that is still trying to divide the planet into plots of private property.) This development was the result of British policymakers schooling themselves on the successes of New France and New Holland in their alliances with the Indians. The territory that the Royal Proclamation conceded belonged to the First Nations was precisely the land that the British colonists (those who would become the Americans) wanted in order to extend their empire across the continent. Eventually, Canada and the United States were formed as two separate political entities with different historical visions of the very meaning of land.

Why Hall’s work is important is that he shows that the Canadian constitution, of which the Royal Proclamation of 1763 is a part, represents a framework to counter the pressure upon peoples whose common lands are being appropriated and privatized. Of course, there are many Canadians who do not want to know anything about the incorporation of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 into the Constitution of 1982. But it is important not only to keep it alive, but also to see what new realities can issue from it. For Joegodson, these are not simply academic questions; he is trying to protect his own future and that of the descendants of Polikap, an ex-slave who surely never knew where it might lead when he handed a chicken over to another peasant in a beautiful mountain that would someday be called Belleville.

A recent article on land ownership in Haiti might be helpful. Here are some Haitian peasants who know which way is up. We are sympathetic to the work of Navdanya International of Vandana Shiva.

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