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RIGHTS-ANGOLA: Beauty Is in the Eye of the Evictor

Christi van der Westhuizen

CAPE TOWN, May 15 2007 (IPS) - The Angolan government forcibly evicted 20,000 poor people, including small-scale farmers, and destroyed 3,000 homes between 2002 and 2006 in the capital, Luanda, “to facilitate development and ‘beautification’ in the public interest”.

Human Rights Watch, an international lobby group, and SOS Habitat, an Angolan non-governmental organisation that focuses on housing, have published these findings in a report released Tuesday titled ‘”They pushed down the houses” – Forced evictions and insecure land tenure for Luanda’s poor’.

Research found that evictions of Luanda’s poor are not isolated events. A pattern of abuse is laid bare in the study, showing a concerted campaign by government to clear poor areas around the city.

Those affected included the elderly, children and female-headed households – left destitute by evictions that took place without regard for ownership or tenure claims, and in the absence of legal grounds for removal.

“Many people cultivated and lived in these areas for decades; others settled according to custom, with the permission of elders. The government never formally or legally expropriated the land people occupied or gave them a chance to claim their rights to the land,” said Luiz Araujo, director of SOS Habitat, according to a press release from Human Rights Watch and SOS Habitat.

Most evictees only realised they were being turned out of their homes when bulldozers and trucks arrived, and victims were typically not allowed to gather their possessions. In those cases where residents were informed of an impending eviction, they were not allowed enough time to rescue their belongings.

The report quotes a 35-year-old woman who was evicted from Luanda’s neighbourhood of Cambamba II: “They arrived and did not talk to anyone…and they pushed down the houses…There was time for nothing…we could not take anything out. They broke my bed, my oven; they ran over everything. I tried to do something and they took me. I was trying to get my stuff out and they threw me in the police car.”

Local government officials and police used violence, intimidation and “excessive force” to remove poor people from informal areas around the city. Shots would be fired into the air or into the ground. Four people, including a five-year-old child, were hit by stray bullets or shot at – while many were assaulted with batons or the butts of guns.

In certain cases, Angolans were detained without being charged. Several of those arrested reported physical abuse. Police also harassed members of SOS Habitat when they requested information on the evictions or tried to explain evictees’ rights to government officials.

While compensation was offered in some instances, it did not reflect the value of belongings that were destroyed in the demolitions. Evictees who were relocated have found themselves in areas without sanitation or education and health facilities. Informal markets on which many poor people rely for their livelihoods were destroyed in the evictions.

Angola’s Land Law, passed in 2004, includes measures to protect people at risk of eviction. However, the implementing regulations were not adopted, rendering those measures unenforceable.

The same law also provided for the “regularisation” of informal land tenure. It allocated the responsibility for regularisation to individual Angolans, who were required to apply for this within three years – failing which government obtained the right to claim their land and remove them by force.

Angola is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. According to Human Rights Watch and SOS Habitat, it has contravened article 11 of the covenant which determines that people have a right not to be forcibly evicted from their homes. International law allows for expropriation and even forcible eviction, but only when it can be demonstrated that such action is in the public interest.

Government has on occasion denied that the evictions took place. At other times, it justified the actions, blaming evictees for trespassing, or citing the need for development and “beautification” projects in the public interest.

Human Rights Watch is investigating whether the areas affected are in the part of southern Luanda for which government has given a concession to a company called Empresa de Desenvolvimento Urbano Lda (Urban Development Company Ltd) to upgrade and develop.

The report says that “while the government claims that it is improving living conditions in Luanda, it is making such conditions worse for the most economically vulnerable by evicting thousands…and by depriving them of the necessary assistance to help them (to) re-establish (themselves) elsewhere.”

Human Rights Watch and SOS Habitat are concerned that “thousands of Angolans remain vulnerable to forced evictions caused by the government’s failure to address widespread insecurity of land tenure. The majority of Luanda’s estimated 4 million residents hold no formal title to their house or land”.

The two organisations have demanded that the government immediately cease evictions and follow due process. They also demand that authorities investigate the allegations of abuse and take appropriate action – and that land registration be improved to ensure that informal occupancy gains legal protection.

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