The Miami Herald
January 1, 2002

Legalities a hurdle for Salvadoran quake recovery

No land title, no aid to rebuild


 SAN PEDRO NONUALCO, El Salvador -- The walls and roof are tin, fastened by what the person who lives inside hopes is thick and sturdy cable.

 There is no window, plumbing or even a kitchen. A scrawny chicken is strutting through the living room -- the only room.

 This is María Julia Piche Reyes' new temporary house, one of nearly 300,000 just like it given to El Salvador's earthquake victims. For Piche and many of the country's poor, the provisional tin shacks may be the only homes they get. Unlike other Salvadorans whose houses were flattened by temblors that killed more than 1,000 people this year, Piche will not get an abode built of stone and wood.

 Piche, a longtime squatter, lacks a property title to prove that the adobe home that tumbled to the ground on Feb. 13 was hers. If she can't prove she owned it,
 international relief agencies won't replace it.

 ``I don't feel secure,'' she said. ``I'd like to have a house that's a little better built, something with proof that it's mine, something that I know won't fly away with a big gust of wind. I would love a kitchen.''

 Piche's predicament underscores a widespread difficulty in Central America, a region suffering natural and man-made disasters that force people from their homes. An estimated nine million people pushed about by war and rain lack titles to the land and homes they occupy.

 In Nicaragua, the situation sometimes leads to shoving matches at City Hall, where people go to demand papers promised by politicians on the campaign trail. In
 Guatemala, it leads to gun battles. In El Salvador, it means that many people who lack property deeds are likely to live permanently in one-room tin shelters.

 Piche built her house 38 miles southeast of San Salvador 18 years ago, when the mayor was ``giving away'' plots of land to locals. She took a piece, built a house and stayed put. Although there are laws in El Salvador that would grant her ownership, she never got around to legalizing the place.

 ``People who had houses get a new one,'' Piche lamented. ``It seems it's only poor people who are hurt by this rule.''

 Officials estimate that 70 percent of the 280,000 families left homeless by two earthquakes earlier this year have no such paper record either.


 ``Before the quakes, they never had to prove the land was theirs,'' said Juan José Hernández, manager of the Freedom and Progress Institute, a government-funded land title program. ``The whole family lives there, has for years, and nobody ever said a thing.

 ``It's a great number of people.''

 Several factors led to the lack of titles. Some people, like Piche, simply moved from war or flood zones to public and private properties. Others inherited houses but never bothered to fix the paperwork. Still others bought their homes in what they thought were legal transactions they neglected to register.

 ``They have hand-written promises of sale. They have notarized sales contracts -- which are worthless,'' Hernández said. ``They have the word of their neighbors.

 ``But they don't have titles.''

 The United States is among the donor countries that demand property titles for a quake victim to receive a new house. The United States spent $67 million on earthquake relief here this year for reconstruction that it acknowledges is sometimes delayed by its own rules.

 ``It hasn't been easy,'' said embassy spokeswoman Catherine Jarvis. ``If a family lives there for generations but has no title, how do you prove it? Some of these cases are taking a while.''


 To address the widespread problem, the government has begun a small title search program for some of those affected. In some towns, people who can prove ownership will be granted land titles. A process that involves lawyers and legal notices can take up to eight months.

 In some cases, construction has begun on the government's word that a title will eventually be produced. The Salvadoran government has promised to give donors a refund if a title is not produced.

 ``We can't build a house and then have the rightful landowner come say, `That's my house!' '' said Carlos Lobo, head of the Spanish Red Cross here, which built 850 homes. ``We had all these people who lived alongside a railroad. We can't build for them. The land is not theirs. It would be illegal on our part.''

 Housing Vice Minister César Alvarado said an already daunting task was made even more challenging by the lack of documentation. Twenty percent of El Salvador's housing stock was damaged or destroyed in two quakes that struck Jan. 13 and again a month later. In all, 174,000 houses were wrecked and 107,000 others damaged.

 The government distributed enough tin and wood for victims to build 280,000 temporary houses -- $600 sheds for which tenants pay $10 a month. But donations covered only 75,902 permanent homes, enough for half of those in need. The United States has recently pledged an additional $100 million toward reconstruction.

 ``The rebuilding process demands that you know the building is safe -- and know clearly who it belongs to,'' Alvarado said. ``Some of these cases are going to take longer than others.''

 Rebuilding, he said, will take at least 18 months. ``They have to help us some other way,'' neighbor Israel Alvarado said. ``They can't kick us out of here with all the years we've been here.''

                                    © 2001