Building a sustainable foundation for land rights

Technicians in Benin receive training on GPS systems for cadastral measurement. Developing local expertise ensures sustainable capabilities to collect and maintain cadastral information. Photo by: Trimble Photo Collections

Around the world, millions of people live and work on land they do not own or have legal rights to occupy. While they may have permission of the state or landowner to use the land, seldom is there any long-term guarantee of their right to use the property. As a result, these residents have little incentive to invest in property improvements. In rural areas, a farmer who has no tenure or assurance of access to the land is unlikely to install irrigation or other systems that could improve agricultural productivity. In urban areas in developing countries, the absence of defined property rights is a common factor in slums, where there exists little or no investment in land improvement.

In his 2000 book “The Mystery of Capital,” Hernando de Soto presented the theory that a unified legal system of property rights is the catalyst that releases the capital value of land. De Soto shows how secure title and valuation of land and property are fundamental drivers to economic stability and growth. The success of developed nations comes in part from centuries-old systems for gathering, managing and sharing information about real property, including its ownership, extents, value and usage. Known as a “cadastre,” this body of information is an essential component of secure title and property rights.

In many locations, the absence of cadastral information makes it nearly impossible to gain a secure title to land or real property. Part of this comes from the lack of mechanisms that can reliably describe land and its ownership. For example, the boundary of a parcel may be poorly defined, if it is defined at all. Parcels may be known only by general reference to natural features; simple oral descriptions of land are not uncommon. Within families or clans, land ownership may be assigned and transferred with little documentation and is often disputed. Without clear titles, banks and other funding sources are unlikely to provide financing for capital projects or other improvements.

In many Western countries, cadastral information has been in place for centuries, and their economic strength supports de Soto’s arguments. But in developing nations, cadastral data is often incomplete, inconsistent or simply nonexistent. Records and maps — often kept in multiple locations — may contain conflicting or inaccurate information.

Solving this challenging situation calls for technology. Accurate surveys and descriptions are needed to establish boundaries. Suitable record-keeping, including maps and deed records, can help track the chain of ownership and usage. The basic tools for cadastral surveying, mapping and records management have evolved into powerful combinations of field-measured data and historical records. Often based on technology from geographic information systems, today’s cadastral information helps users visualize the location and relationship of parcels. GIS can link this physical data to information on ownership, valuation, taxes and land usage. In the field, global positioning system technology has helped to revolutionize the measurement of property boundaries and improvements.

Creating sustainable land rights

In creating a modern cadastral system, developing regions can enjoy a surprising advantage over developed nations. As a developed country seeks to improve and streamline its systems for land information and administration, it must overcome deeply entrenched practices and antiquated methods. Tackling these technical and procedural roadblocks can be a slow, costly effort. For example, the work to install a new system for land information in Germany has required years of effort.

Recent advances in technology work to the advantage of developing nations. GPS and related technologies have radically reduced the time and cost for collecting and managing information such as boundary measurements, location and types of improvements and land usages. By using the new systems, nations can leapfrog paper-based record management and implement digital methods to gather and manage cadastral data. This approach is faster, easier and more cost-efficient than the older methods.

In developing new systems for land information and administration, it’s important to focus on a sustainable approach. The key characteristics include:

  • Authoritative systems. Any cadastre must assure the publics trust in land records and tenure. Cadastral information is typically kept in the public record and must be accurate, verifiable and traceable. Physical measurements must be conducted using accepted methods and with the appropriate precision. This ensures longevity and reduces the potential for conflict and fraud.

  • Local management. Work to maintain land information systems must be easy and cost-effective. While the initial setup and data entry may require outside expertise, ongoing maintenance should be handled by local agencies using tools and processes tailored to local needs.

  • Efficiency. Even in areas of low labor costs, efficient systems reduce costs and free up resources for other uses. Capital that might have been spent on developing land information can be invested elsewhere, such as transportation, infrastructure, or health and social needs.

  • Durable systems. Long-term operation of land administration systems calls for professional equipment and software. While some consumer-grade GPS receivers and mapping software may seem attractive, only commercial-quality systems can provide the functionality and support needed for effective cadastral management. This is especially important in smaller nations, where repair time and staff turnover may be problematic. Users realize the significant benefit from the investments by commercial providers to maintain, update, and support their technologies. The need to re-engineer solutions due to consumer product obsolescence or software system evolution is minimized.

Digital cadastre

A modern digital cadastre merges field information and historical records in a single system. By using GIS-enabled platforms, users can readily share and utilize land information in multiple ways. The cadastre becomes an important layer in the GIS, where it can be utilized for title guarantees, valuation and taxation as well as regional planning and land-use management. Experience in Africa, Asia and South America has demonstrated how digital methods promote rapid economic development. For example, in Benin a recent implementation of modern methods will enable 30,000 occupancy permits in urban areas to be converted to land titles. In Benin’s rural regions, roughly 85,000 households will receive titles or certificates to their land. As residents gain legal title to their land, private sector investment and activity can finally start to happen.

Developing nations can bypass the years of paper-based documentation endured by many regions. They can move directly to modern, low-cost land and cadastral information systems built on modern spatial reference systems provided by GPS. The return on the investment will be rapid and long-lasting. By combining easy operation with the financial and social benefits of land tenure, a modern cadastral system makes an essential long-term contribution to society.

Want to know more? Check out Land Matters, a new campaign to showcase innovative solutions in the areas of food security, economic development, conservation and more.

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About the author

  • Matt delano trimble devex

    Matt Delano

    Matt Delano has served as business area director for Trimble Land Administration Solutions since the unit was formed in 2011. Working for Trimble for over 10 years, Matt has held a variety of senior-level roles in marketing and sales as well as distribution management. He is a licensed professional surveyor with more than 15 years of practical experience in private sector cadastral and consulting work.

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