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Land governance is such a broad topic that the question, “What data is important to land and resource rights?” will garner different answers depending on who you ask. Environmental NGOs may think natural resource concessions while agricultural ministries may think subsidies to local farmers and real estate agents might think property values. Given the wide reach of the topic, the most fundamental challenge to tackle before defining open property rights data is to determine precisely what we mean exactly by land and resource rights information.
So, how did we determine what can be characterized as ‘land rights data’?
First, we identified our objectives for opening up data in land information. Our primary aim is to understand how open data that can enhance tenure security and advocate for opening datasets that will bring transparency in land transactions through insuring sellers possess a recognized right, and making the details of those rights readily available – including any potential overlapping use rights. This primary focus on tenure security has narrowed our focus to land rights data– that is data related to the rules and processes of land tenure.
We recognize that land investments and natural resource use rights, such as concessions are closely tied to property rights. There are countless documented cases that demonstrate the harm that can be inflicted on communities and their lands as a result of a lack of transparency and accountability in land transactions and the negotiation of natural resource use. To name an example, the village of Lidong in Malaysia experienced a major drop in fish stocks, and loss of access to forest resources and cropland as a result of the expansion of palm oil farming. The argument for more transparency around agricultural lands and concession contracts, as well as the potential impact that the interoperability between this data and land registry data (assuming it exists) could have on community stability are clear. However, we are primarily focused on the influence that property and resource rights documentation have in this case. In fact, the findings of the CIFOR study in Malaysia indicated that 77% of respondents from the village were not notified of the palm oil expansion in part because their tenure wasn’t formally recognized by the state registry.
Once we figured out our objectives for the study, we determined what data is important to stakeholders working toward this goal. We spoke to:
These interviews, and our own research objectives informed the development of a range of open data use-cases (which we will detail in the coming months), as well as the identification of several major categories of property rights data. Based on our research, we have identified three core land information aspects- cadastral data, registry data, and land use type, each defined in greater detail below.
At its core, the cadastral map displays land parcels. These unique, geographically referenced units are defined by the formal or informal boundaries that mark the extent of lands held for exclusive use by individuals and specific groups of individuals. Parcel boundaries are generally verified by certified surveyors, so this data is held in the survey office. However, a more recent trend is to have land administration services, including the land registry and sometimes the planning, housing and valuation departments, consolidated within a unified Land Agency – such as can be found in Jamaica, New Zealand and is currently being established in Liberia. At the very least, integrated computerized registry and cadastral systems are becoming the standard, ideally with government agencies sharing data electronically and making for a more comprehensive cadastre that displays parcel IDs and land-use information.
The responsibility of land administration may not be centralized within one jurisdiction and instead tasked to the states, counties or municipalities. These complications can lead to overlapping cadastres as well as confusion about what the land administration community means by cadastre. For example, in Tanzania, the cadastre that maps mining rights is maintained within the Ministry of Energy and Minerals, while the property ownership cadastre is maintained within the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Human Settlements.
Natural resource cadastres, such as mining, forest or agricultural cadastre, do not necessarily include ownership attributes, nor do they define overlapping rights of other land users, but they still play a role in identifying property claims. At worst, a lack of interoperability between these cadastres could grant governments a free pass in granting land and resource concessions without the knowledge of local land holders. Moabi DRC, a natural resource monitoring initiative in the Democratic Republic of Congo, monitors land use by overlaying different maps, including concessions and indigenous lands. The potential to integrate natural resource monitoring with the land cadastre made gathering input on this issue from natural resource stakeholders important.
Maps of lands with parcel layer that displays boundaries and occasionally additional layers, such as aerial imagery.
The land registry is a database comprised of property rights and interests. In theory, it is held within the land agency and should include records of ownership (also known as the title or deed) for all registered land parcels within a jurisdiction, be it at the municipal, county or national level. For each property, the registry generally includes:
Financial information, such as the status of mortgages and sales history data may also be stored here. The Swedish Land Agency, Lantmäteriet, provides a wealth of information within the land registry, both on the features of the land itself as well as financial, tax and ownership information. However, most of the registry data is not available for free.
The accuracy of information within the registry hinges upon how much of the jurisdiction is formally documented and registered, and whether typical land market transactions are being regularly lodged and recorded (a challenge following subsidized systematic registration campaigns which are often donor funded). Documentation varies widely, and in many emerging economies, registered properties make up a small fraction of the total land This is especially the case in rural areas.
Registry with records of registered parcels of land. This data is usually captured when a property transfers ownership.
This data details the past sales on the property and is often captured within the registration process, but shared with the tax office.
Tenure type refers to the status of different rights and restrictions interested parties have to a piece of property. For example, an individual with freehold tenure over a piece of land has full rights to private ownership. Alternatively, in leasehold tenure, a landlord – in some cases the government – grants occupancy rights to another for an agreed price (or conditions) and over a specific term. This is the standard in places like the United Kingdom, parts of the US (such as much of the state of Hawaii) and on customary lands.
The tenure could also be classified as publicly-owned or indigenous communities may have customary tenure to a piece of land. In situations where customary tenure is granted, lands are governed by the traditional or indigenous community that occupies them and they are often unwritten. Sometimes the customary status of these lands is formally recognized by the state, so although they are governed by traditional norms, they still have statutory recognition.
In New Zealand, information on tenure type for all parcels, including customary lands held by the indigenous Maori people, can be found in the integrated land registry and cadastre, however this is not the norm. In many emerging economies, simply identifying what lands are state lands, customary lands, and private lands can itself be a tremendous challenge. There is often no clear agreement, particularly in regards to lands occupied by indigenous communities where rights might not be recognized by the state. Finally, publicly-owned or customary lands may be managed and maintained by different government agencies and so this data may be stored in yet another cadastre.
Tenure type refers to the rights and restrictions interested parties have to a piece of property. It may be captured in the land registry or evident from which cadastre the information is held in.
As is clear by both the multiple government agencies and jurisdictions that handle land issues, there is not a common national-level repository where all the property rights data is stored. Combining these disparities with the diverse definitions of ‘open’ within land data from country to country makes defining open data difficult. In Brazil, land management responsibilities are divided among the federal union, states and municipalities. Only property rights data for rural lands are available in the centralized national land registry and cadastre, while the states and municipalities administer urban properties. The national-level Ministry of Agrarian Development is responsible for the administration of lands occupied by the quilombo communities. Even when the data is dispersed, having all the data described above is still a best case scenario. This reality biases any definition of open property rights data toward highly statutory and established land administration systems.
Finally, the disparities in the broader country-level context needs to be taken into account when advocating for open data. At the recent Anti-Corruption Summit, the UK Government announced that it is planning to open up land registry data on private owners. As a country with strong global influence, this act will not only be lauded, but serve as an example to be adopted across the developing world. However, the UK is a highly developed and relatively equitable country with a 150 year old land administration system that holds 24 million titles. Opening up data on property owners’ names in this context has very different risks and implications than in a country with less formal documentation, or where dispossession, kidnapping, and or death are real and pervasive issues. For the purposes of this project, we are working to keep these biases in mind, especially as it relates to scoring countries on the openness of land ownership data for the Global Open Data Index.