Bara’a, the seven-years-old boy trudges under the weight of a small plastic container he carries around the fringes of the neighborhood where he lives, looking for water among “licensed” houses in Al-Mugheirat village off the circular road east of Amman.
The mission of Bara’a and his peers in this poor neighborhood lies in finding a “drink of water” for the homes of their parents, where services have been cut because of the squatter nature in which they were built on government land, which the government insists on reclaiming.
The suffering of residents goes back two generations, when they fell victim to “the temptations of brokers who sold them cheap land without registering it at the Department of Land and Survey”, because they were ‘tribal frontages’. Sales were concluded through ownership “deeds” that are not officially recognized, as Walid Al-Shamayleh complains. He is the owner of one of 1500 houses built “outside the law boundaries” between Al-Mugheirat neighborhood and the adjacent Umm Sayyah. “We took the risk of buying, although we knew the deeds were illegal, and here we are, without proof of ownership”, he adds.
In addition to Al-Mugheirat, these problems apply to two other neighborhoods in east Amman overlooking the Amman-Zarqa highway. These are Umm Sayyah (700 houses) and “Karajaat” (200 houses), near the yard where junked cars are collected. These neighborhoods are geographically connected to dozens of squatter residential gatherings within the parameter of Zarqa, the second largest city in the Kingdom after the capital in population (xx million people).
In general, this crisis affects the lives of around 150,000 individuals in various areas of the Kingdom, according to officials in municipalities. Among the areas with contested lands is Al-Jaffer, 240 kilometers south of Amman, Al-Azraq, 90 kilometers north east of Amman and Al-Dleil, 60 kilometers east of Amman.
Zarqa neighborhoods like “Prince Faisal”, Khaou, Al-Khalayleh, Al-Zawahreh, Jina’a, Al-Hussein, Al-Batrawi and Sarrout are now full of residences without services, with a population estimated at 80,000.
Residents of Al-Shamayleh and other neighborhoods thought that “the solution was near, when the municipality of Amman decided in 1998 to build roads, schools and medical centers, and to install electric transformers and water lines.”
The present mayor, Omar Al-Ma’ani, however, ordered the provision of any services to these squatter areas within the capital boundaries stopped, months after he assumed his post in 2006, claiming that this encourages encroachment on treasury land. Since then, at least every three residences share one water or electric meters, after the area of squatter activity extended, despite government and municipal attempts to stop them.
The decision to stop providing services until the issue of ownership is solved continues to promote angry reactions among squatters. The last sit-in took place two weeks ago, and dozens participated in it in front of the Amman Municipality building.
A high official at the Amman Municipality explains the contradiction between the two decisions by saying that: “Service provision permits were extended for a short period of time, after the neighborhoods expanded to include thousands of citizens.” But the official, who preferred to remain anonymous, adds that reversing the decision “came to avoid the phenomenon of expanding the encroachment on government land, and came at the same time as taking stock of treasury land and encroached on, and requesting citizens to pay for them.”
An Old but Renewed Conflict
The problem of houses built on government land appeared in the Zarqa Governorate; a population mosaic, after the first Palestinians migrated from their land in 1948.
Some citizens recall demonstrations that took place in the early eighties in this town adjacent to the desert, when the government of Mudar Badran moved to prevent families from Bani Hassan tribes from building on government land. The problem became more serious later after governments looked the other way, and until 40% of houses in Al-Rusayfah (the largest town of Zarqa) and parts of Zarqa were built on government land, according to Mazen Shotar, Director of the Land and Survey Department.
In return, residents of squatters insist that their lands are listed under “frontages” earmarked for tribes ever since Jordan was established at the turn of the last century.
The Governor of Zarqa, Sa’ad Al-Wadi Al-Manaseer emphasizes that distributions among tribes are not part of the cases of squatter lands, noting that the latter are different government lands.
While he argues that “Encroachers built simple houses gradually under the cover of darkness, in order to create a de facto status for the municipalities”, Al-Manaseer warns that “every house built on these lands will eventually be demolished and removed, and the equipment used in illegal building activity shall be confiscated.”
Encroachers choose late night hours, specifically on Thursdays and Fridays, to build houses on government land, the market for which is still active despite government procedures and the absence of guarantees at the Land and Survey Department, according to complaints by the residents of those areas.
Over the past three decades, brokers sold thousands of dunums of government land without registration deeds. Most buyers were returnees from Kuwait after the second Gulf war (1990-1991), which witnessed the return of about 400,000 Jordanians, as well as simple employees and workers looking for a ‘roof above their heads’, as land traders assert.
One of these traders, who did not wish his name quoted, accuses “accidental and unlicensed” brokers of offering plots at half price, exploiting limited resources of buyers and their ignorance of laws. The price of a half dunum thus stands at about 7,000 Dinars, against a sales deed that is not recognized at the Land and Survey Department.
With the increase in demand as the result of higher land prices, brokers tended to sell the same plot of land to more than one citizen, exploiting the ignorance of buyers.
One of the residents complained: “We discovered later on that a plot of land in El-Mugheirat was sold to someone else. When the building was up, others came demanding ownership of the land. There were verbal fights among different parties.”
The problem persists between the residents’ objections against the estimates of the Land and Survey Department and the latter’s insistence to get paid for the land from its owners.
Surveyor Mohammad El-Awartani says that the buyer receives a “deed paper” which includes fields with the names of the seller and the witnesses. The land sold with this deed is specified by mentioning adjacent plots in all four directions (copy attached).
The reason the capital and Zarqa, where more than half the population of Jordan resides, are selected is due to the fact that people wish to live in close proximity to work and services. Another reason is the high value of land in these two cities, and claims by members of some clans that they own land there. This situation helps brokers, most of whom are from the area, to convince those wishing to buy land for “attractive” prices against deeds, adds Awartani.
Although the state does not recognize these papers, owners of squatter houses hope that the government will treat them fairly. “At the end of the day, the government will delegate the land to us against nominal prices”, hopes Waleed Al-Shamayleh in Al-Mugheirat neighborhood, reminiscing a government move to open the door for “registering” land against “one Dinar” in some areas in Zarqa and Al-Mugheirat in the early 1990’s.
15,000 citizens or less than 10% of the contested squatter areas, benefitted from that decision. Land prices were paid on installment basis over long years, before the government cancelled the choice of selling its encroached on property.
The Director of the Land Department asserts that the “One Dinar” sale was also suspended, “in fear that the phenomenon of encroaching on thousands of dunums without any right would get out of hand, which would harm the state treasury.”
Debate over the Legality of the Tribal Frontage
While the Department of Land and Survey denies the existence of the term “Tribal Frontages”, tribal leaders assert that old decisions were passed to divide government lands among them, at the time when the East Jordan Emirate was established in 1921 (turned into a Kingdom in 1946).
The Department Director believes that this term emerged as a rule among clans when the state was established, and that the “rule became a law in the eyes of some.”
When the state was established, the government surveyed and recorded vast areas in 35 locations, but stopped the project when conflicts emerged among clans and tribes during the parcellation and registration process in five locations.
For this reason, Mr. Shotar asserts that the Department of Lands “does not recognize these deeds”, reminding that “any sales operation outside the registration department is not legal and is considered null and void.”
The consecutive governments formed many ministerial committees to deal with the issue of “tribal frontages” but with no results, as Shotar recalls.
Despite the size of the problem, no court cases were initiated. The parties settled for presenting their cases to administrative rulers, hoping they will be treated with fairness, according to squatter residents. Measures taken by the administrative leader were restricted to apprehending some “brokers” temporarily before releasing them against a pledge not to sell new lands later on.
The former representative, Mous Al-Khalayleh from the Bani Hassan clan, spread around most Zarqa neighborhoods, asserts that “most built land in Zarqa and Al-Rusayfah areas were actually “tribal frontages” for Bani Hassan and other tribes.” Khalayleh sees that “they were supposed to have been divided ages ago as tribal frontages to those who deserve them, but the government’s delays in doing so made the problem worse.”
Shaikh Enad Al-Fayez (Bedouins of the Center) agrees with this logic, urging the government to “solve the tribal frontages issue for the purpose of encouraging tribe members to cultivate the land, develop themselves and open opportunities for them to earn their living.”
Shaikh Al-Fayez demands that frontages be distributed in accordance with current laws.
The government recently declared its willingness to incorporate 19 different laws regulating selling, buying and leasing land in one law to facilitate procedures for citizens.
Sources at the Department of Land and Survey expect that law amendments will not end problems related to tribal frontages, pointing out that this term does not exist in any of the current laws at present.
Waiting for “deeds confirmation” at the Department of Land and Survey, or reconciling the conflict that has been rampant for a number of decades, Bara’a and the children in his neighborhood continue the search for a drink of water, and continue to study on candle-light in the absence of services from most squatters.
Laws Governing the Land and Survey Department:
-Law for Preserving Government Land and Property No. (61) for the Year 1964, aimed at dealing with issues related to delegating and leasing government property. This Law was amended in 1974 No. 17 and 1077 No. 53.
-Instructions issued by the Cabinet of Ministers regarding government property, noting that current laws provisions clarify how to commence with procedures for delegating and leasing government property within “land division” in previous contracts, i.e. allocating special basins and listing names of neighborhoods in a list of who deserves ownership in this basin from among the area residents, (Source: Department of Land and Survey).
Brief Historical Background
Tribal frontages, according to Al-Fayez, were used for grazing in the forties and fifties by Jordanian tribes. Al-Fayez talks about previous agreements among tribes to specify parties for the frontages, without any role for governments in these understandings. Among these is the agreement signed in 1974 among Karak tribes and Bani Attiyeh in Al-Qattraneh and Al-Hassa, and another one among Bani-Sakhr and their neighbors in 1974.
This report writer could not obtain copies of the agreements, based on claims that they were lost with time.
Mohammad Al-R’oud, a house owner in Al-Mugheirat neighborhood insinuates that officials collaborated in sales operations, saying: Brokers who sold hundreds of plots are well-known to government parties, and have not been held accountable for their action.”
The Director of the Land and Survey Department responds by saying that the party to decide in cases of fraud is the judiciary, and he calls upon those who have suffered to resort to courts to “retrieve their money from the brokers.”
Mohammad Al-R’oud, who has lived in Al-Mugheirat since 1997 complains that he and hundreds of his neighbors petitioned the Land and Survey Department to reduce the payment for the land, after it opened the door for making the situation right in (1998 – 2006). However, special government committees estimated the price per square meter to be 20 Dinars for everyone who purchased land after the decade of the nineties, or 20 times the symbolic payment required from those who purchased their land in the seventies.
On the other hand, some brokers from east of the ring road, who refused to mention their names, argue that “they are selling their property and that of their ancestors and relatives.”
One broker (40 years old) from tribes living around Al-Mugheirat insists that buyers benefited from the purchase operations, “because the price of land increased to a large extent to cover the difference between the purchase price with a deed and the amount paid to the government.”
A Renewed Crisis
Some brokers continue to post advertisements about selling land. Upon checking with one of these advertisers, this report writer found out that he is selling against sale deeds (attach advertisement clipping with telephone numbers deleted).
Brokers accuse “fictitious offices that trap customers with attractive offers and payment on installment basis in those areas, for less than half the cost of the land.”
The Penal Code deals with land sellers “against deeds” under the item of “Fraud”. The penalty reaches three years in prison.
One of the brokers was jailed three times at North Marka security district, and was made to sign pledges never to sell land again, but he reneged on his pledge and went back to his profession saying: “These are tribal frontages that we inherited from our ancestors and it is our right to deal with them.”
Who is responsible?
In Al-Rusayfah, there is a competition between the municipality and the Land Department over the right to invest into plots of land in this city. After the municipality leased land plots for one Dinar per plot, and established a handicrafts estate on them, it turned out later that the municipality does not have an “official authorization to do so from the Government Property Department,” according to Mohammad Al-Sharbati, the spokesman on behalf of shops that were affected. Al-Sharabati wonders, “What is our fault? What crime did we commit? Why does the municipality not take responsibility for its decision?”
These 45 traders are under the threat of being evicted after they established their shops on land that the municipality does not own.
What complicated the situation further is that services were provided to the area according to occupancy permits and licenses issued by the municipality.
From its side, the Department of Land and Survey asserts that the land on which the handicrafts estate is built “was reclaimed by the state treasury from the Phosphate Company in 1996, and then gave it up in favor of the municipality against a nominal payment through a partial authorization for a period of five years” The municipality of Al-Rusayfah, in turn, authorized those lands for a group of citizens to establish a handicrafts estate.”
Yet after five years, the Land Department reverted to demanding the return of the land.
The municipality has another opinion. The municipal council director Mousa Al-Sa’ad asserts that the Cabinet of Ministers authorized the municipality in 1997 to lease those lands on long term basis. Al-Sa’ad says: “This is an old problem. We received official correspondence of signing contracts with investors in this area for the same fees and providing the necessary facilities.”
Between the multiplicity of references and deferring crises, Bara’a and all his peers continue their search for drinking water at neighboring houses, while the problem of their fathers and grandfathers remains suspended until this thorny issue is solved.
*** The case of selling land in the Badia according to car tachometers
The issue of exploiting “government land” takes different forms, some of which are fraudulent, through which vast areas of land were sold to citizens against deeds.
One of these cases took place in Mafraq Governorate (the second largest governorate after Ma’an in area). In detail, four employees from Mafraq Land Department exploited 600 dunums from treasury land, and then sold parts of it after dividing them into 10 dunums each, for 60,000 Dinars. The perpetrators were referred to the legal system six months ago and the land was returned to the treasury.
The issue of “squatters” and “frontages” applies to most governorates. Ma’an, the largest governorate in area, located 220 kilometers south of Amman, is witnessing continued encroachment against government land, especially that a number of “investment projects” are expected there.
The former representative Ahmad Al-Khattab says that some brokers delineate the borders of the plot they want to sell with the “car tachometer.” Along the same lines as what happened in Mafraq, the director of Ma’an Land was arrested for distributing thousands of dunums of Al-Jaffer basin area (260 kilometers south of Amman) illegally.
In the Jordan Valley, the problem of encroaching on treasury land escalated into armed confrontations during the Cabinet of Ma’rouf Al-Bakheet (2005 – 2007), in the midst of an interlocution where the perpetrators asserted their “tribal right” to those lands.
This report was completed with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and under the supervision of Sa’ad Hattar.