Dozens of villagers crowded into the candlelit land registration office to put their fingerprints on the document that would mean a significant amount of income for them and a gorgeous piece of land in southern Bangladesh for me.
My team and I had worked hard for two years to get to this point -- the first land purchase. Two weeks before I wasn't sure if the project would even go forward; some early investor commitments fell through and the villagers were in an uproar because for over a year we had been telling them we would buy their land, but had not delivered on our promise. One angry villager went as far as cutting down some of the beautiful mahogany trees on our intended project site. We got the local government to intervene to save the trees, but this created additional ill will (understandably) with the community.
Fortunately, just a couple of days before our trip to Jessore, after months of meetings and negotiations, I convinced a few forward-thinking Bangladeshi businessmen to invest their faith and their taka in me and my dream of creating a socially and environmentally responsible resort out of mud.
Because all of the legal paperwork that would allow my investors to own the company had not yet been completed, one of the investors came to Jessore with me to co-buy the land in his name for collateral (when he receives his company shares he will transfer the name back to Panigram Resort).
I anticipated problems with the land purchase; this was the first time that we had done it and the first time for anything in Bangladesh is always a struggle as we figure out the system. Sure enough, our day started with a delayed flight and an hour wait for our colleague who was on another plane.
When we got to Jessore, I learned that none of the sale deeds had been printed yet because we still had to consult the local attorney about some issues with the complicated Islamic inheritance laws. (Because few people have wills when a landowner dies, their land is distributed among their heirs. This means that even small pieces of land in Bangladesh are often owned by many people.) The land registration office was outside of Jessore City, so we drove a half hour to the proper thana (a Bangladeshi legal division, similar to a U.S. county) intending to print the documents when we arrived. When we got there, however, the power was out, so we had to wait an hour for the electricity to come back on. When it did, my local agent, Koli, got to work on the documents, but unfortunately twenty minutes into the work the power went out again. My investor started to become frustrated with the disorganization.
Forty minutes later the power came back on and Koli finished his work. I told him to print whatever he had and said that if there were any small changes we could make them by hand. Ten seconds after I said that the power went out again for an hour. (Panigram Resort will have alternative energy not only because we want to be "green", but also because the municipal power in this part of the world is woefully unreliable!) Finally, in the middle of the afternoon, we were able to get a printed set of documents.
The villagers were waiting for us at the land registration office. Because we still had not told the villagers that I am the owner of the project (I hate the dishonesty, but I lost two pieces of land before because the price increased by a factor of ten once they found out it was a foreign owner), I went into a small room to privately sign the documents before we handed them over to the landowners for signatures.
Koli took all of the landowners around to the back side of the land registration building for the signing; there were several bamboo stalls set up in between the date palm and jackfruit trees that villagers use to conduct business. It took the rest of the afternoon for all fifteen people to sign the documents that sold me just an acre of land (our first parcel). When the sun went down we migrated into the land registration office which was now lit by candles.
When the first group of people finished signing the documents they came to us to get their money before we filed the registration; my investor, Pintu, gave them pay orders. The villagers had never seen a pay order before and did not believe that we were giving them real money. We explained to them that they just had to open a bank account and that the bank would cash the check immediately.
Koli took them to the local bank to open an account, but sadly the bank teller had never seen a pay order before either and told the villagers that it would take a week for them to get their money if the check cleared. The villagers were understandably upset, as were we because the entire point of a pay order is that we pay beforehand and the money comes directly from the bank so that we can avoid the check clearing process.
We called several other banks in Jessore city and we were told that because the pay order came from a different bank and originated in Dhaka, it would take a week for the money to clear. The villagers almost walked away from the deal, but Koli worked with the banks to convince the villagers that they would be able to get the money, they just would have to wait for it. The villagers agreed to proceed with the sale, but they would only let us register our documents after the money had cleared the bank.
I drove Pintu back to the airport so he could catch his evening flight. We were all frustrated that the land registration didn't finalize that day. I assured Pintu that it would go through in a few days and tried to relieve some of his annoyance with the disorganization by having him read my Huffington Post article about my first investor meeting ("Ecopreneur: Never Let Them See You Sweat"); he felt better after reading about that adventure!
A week later the pay orders cleared and the land registration was finalized. A few days after that, the investors officially closed on the first round of equity and I went back to Jessore to buy the next piece of land. For the second purchase, all of the land documents were printed beforehand, we arranged to pay the villagers in cash, and Koli had procured a generator for the print shop near the land registration office, just in case we needed to make some corrections...
Buying land in Bangladesh wasn't easy, but just look at my new view!
This article is also cross-posted on the Panigram Resort website: www.panigram.com.