Whose land is it anyway?

By Naki B. Mendoza 03 July 2015

Sharifa Juma, a farmer in Lushoto, Tanzania. To address the staggering issue of land ownership, businesses are now responding with innovative solutions. Photo by: Georgina Smith / CIAT / CC BY-NC-SA 

“Buy land, they're not making it anymore,” goes a famous saying by American poet Mark Twain, referring to its inherent value. Unfortunately in most developing countries, land ownership is barely tracked, leaving enormous untapped potential to generate wealth and boost prosperity.

The private sector has taken note. From large multinationals to angel-backed social enterprises, businesses are springing forward with innovative solutions to address the issue.

According to U.N. Habitat, the rights to more than 70 percent of land worldwide remains unregistered. It is an issue that the development community has increasingly engaged with, and one Devex has explored through the Land Matters series.

The gaping paucity of titles means that property rights are not guaranteed. Farmers cannot legally pass down ancestral lands to their children. Families cannot secure a mortgage or use property as collateral for a loan. And local communities are shut out from negotiations with extractive companies. For governments, it represents a sizable loss of tax revenues or, crucially, a foreign direct investment that will never be made because of uncertainty over property rights.  

The situation has created a space for businesses to apply innovative technologies to plug the gaps.

Data and analytics giant Thomson Reuters has set the bar with its proprietary land information system to streamline land management and registration in developing countries. Land deeds, often scratches of paper that can be misplaced or damaged, are now being digitized and archived in government databases using Thomson Reuters’ Aumentum system.

In many countries the digital platform to register land is the difference between a simple upload and a multiday journey to a municipal registrar. The system is linked to satellite mapping features which tie specific land titles to precise geographic coordinates. Gone is the ambiguity of property lines that are traced to shifting landscapes or changing markers that can give rise to disputes.

At its core, Aumentum functions as a single, open and transparent access point for information related to land management. Tax and valuation assessments of land are automated to provide citizens with open data on revenue collection. Governments can also track and aggregate previous land transactions to monitor capital flows or track investment patterns.

“It’s about information, but it’s about getting that information in play and in use in a way that makes a difference for the communities that we serve,” Joe Jackson, a managing director for Thomson Reuters’ tax and accounting group, told Devex.

Since launching Aumentum three years ago, Thomson Reuters has partnered with governments around the world looking to improve their land management systems. Cape Town, South Africa, last year reported 915,148 properties on its tax roll — a 66 percent increase since 2000. In Jamaica it now takes two days to register a new property, compared to 45 days just 10 years ago.

Technology has provided a key boost for secure land tenure, but in some cases legislation has also proved vital.

Five years ago, advocacy work by local NGOs in the Philippines helped push through legislation that granted executive agencies the power to issue titles over previously unregistered land, circumventing a more onerous judicial process. The result: Nearly 60,000 urban land titles are being issued each year, compared to only a few thousand per year before 2010.

Yet for nearly 4 billion people, the problem of land security is much more fundamental. That is approximately the number of people around the world do not have a formal address, according to London-based tech startup What3words. No address often means no identity. Citizens cannot report crime, receive aid or vote, simply because they cannot communicate where they live.

What3words has innovated a solution — dividing the world’s land into 57 trillion 3-by-3 meter parcels identified by a random three-word combination that serves as a unique address to name the location’s GPS coordinates.

The idea is that words are a human-friendly system, easier to remember than alphanumeric coordinates or antiquated longitudinal positioning. Entering a three-word name in the system will populate a precise location where an address might not exist. While this may be a convenient way for smartphone users in rich countries to pinpoint their friends on a beach, in developing countries the function can be critical for emergency response or delivering aid.

Areas with no formal address systems — crowded favelas or remote villages, for example — can now have a place on the map.

"We are empowering citizens and enabling governments," said Krishma Nayee, humanitarian and development lead for What3words.

There can of course be significant lags if governments choose to adopt this idea as a way to migrate to a more conventional postal address system. But the message promoted by social enterprises such as What3words is that development innovation is leapfrogging traditional approaches.

“This is ready. It is being used in over 170 countries and by hundreds of businesses now,” Nayee told Devex at a recent social enterprise conference in Washington, D.C.

To read additional content on land and property rights, go to Focus On: Land Matters in partnership with Thomson Reuters.

About the author

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Naki B. Mendozamfbmendoza

Naki is a reporter for Devex Impact based in Washington, D.C., where he covers the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America and Australia.


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