My House is My Castle?

Imagine for a moment that you do not have secure rights to the house you live in. Imagine living without a title, deed, or lease to prove your claim to the place you call home. Consider what it would be like to live without any confidence that your government would enforce your claim. In fact, it might even be the government that issued a timber, mining or agricultural concession on your property, without so much as informing you. Would you invest your savings or labor in improving the property knowing that you could be displaced? Would you leave the house empty during the day knowing that in your absence someone could take it from you? How would that affect your ability to work or send your children to school? Consider how it would impact your ability to use the property for collateral, or pass it along to your children.

For a majority of the world’s population, these are not rhetorical questions. These are daily realities.

A functioning land administration sector is the foundation of a national economy, critical for economic growth. In advanced industrial countries we often take infrastructure, such as an up-to-date and accurate land registry and cadastre for granted. Unfortunately, digital land registry and cadastral systems with national coverage exist in only a fraction of the world’s countries, with the World Bank estimating that more than 70 percent of land in emerging economies is undocumented. From urban shanty towns to smallholder farmers, one-third of the people on the planet do not have documented rights to their land.

Without accurate information regarding land rights, many sustainable development goals— food security, sustainable resource management, climate change mitigation, and equal rights to property for women— remain impossible to achieve, not to mention the potential for conflict when rights are not recognized and enforced. Furthermore, this lack of data on land use and rights limits government’s ability to equitably assess taxes, deliver services, or plan for development

The lack of land rights documentation is also a major barrier for private investment. Without clear records of ownership, fraudulent property transactions abound. And without an accurate, complete, and accessible government land registry, interested buyers have no way of verifying that they are negotiating to buy a property with the actual owner. In fact, a recent report commissioned by the US Agency for International Development and the European Investment Bank found that land tenure issues are seen as the biggest risk for investment by companies acquiring land in emerging economies.  

While many emerging economies have struggled in adopting efficient land administration systems, there are some bright spots worth noting.  Former Soviet states in particular have flourished in adopting exceptionally modern and equitable land governance frameworks since the collapse of the Soviet Union. One need only look at the 2018 World Bank Doing Business Report to notice that six former Soviet states– Lithuania, Georgia, Belarus, Estonia, the Slovak Republic and the Kyrgyzstan– top the list in terms of time, cost, and steps for registering property.  While not a perfect indicator, the ability to register property is illustrative of the success found in eastern Europe in improving land administration processes and adapting them to the market environment.  It should also be noted, however, that these eastern European countries possessed a number of advantages as compared to other developing countries– namely, a highly educated workforce, functioning governance institutions, a history of administering land, and perhaps most importantly, a tabula rasa in terms of laws and policies. Without that historical legacy, or entrenched processes (and potential opposition to change by land professionals and state officials), these governments were able to more quickly modernize.

Increased demand for land and a greater understanding of the importance of land rights in sustainable development and poverty alleviation have sparked efforts to document and formalize such rights around the world. Unfortunately, traditional approaches to documenting and recording property rights are not keeping pace with increased demand worldwide. However, recent technological innovations, including drones, accessible satellite imagery, smartphones with GPS, and cloud computing are making it easier than ever for individuals, communities, and organizations to map and document land rights.


Putting Land Rights on the Map

Cadasta Foundation, a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit, is working to meet the growing demand to document land and resource rights for those left out of formal land administration systems. Cadasta works to tackle land administration constraints with easy-to-use digital tools, technology, and services to help its partners efficiently document, analyze, store, and share critical land and resource information, particularly in places where governments are failing to provide the public good of equitable and affordable land administration.

Although citizens holding land informally suffer most acutely from a lack of recognized and secure land rights, they are not the only actors affected. The lack of information on land rights, property boundaries, and infrastructure is a constraint to economic development and security for public and private sectors alike. The basic identity conferred by recognizable street addresses is a boon to private sector actors looking to deliver goods and services, while governments benefit by having data that serves as the cornerstone for planning, infrastructure delivery, and revenue collection.

Cadasta works with governments, nonprofits, and communities from around the world to support their land and property rights documentation efforts. By offering a secure suite of mobile and web-based tools, partners are able to directly record and capture evidence of their property claims by using GPS-enabled smartphones. Even in the most remote areas, the Cadasta platform is designed to collect multi-layered information about people’s relationship with land and resources, including spatial dimensions, footage from drones, digital maps, video or audio interviews, photographs, paper attestations, tax receipts, and other supporting documents. The platform is also able to process and store data that has already been collected through traditional paper-based surveys and maps. In addition to offering users their technical platform and tools, Cadasta also supports its partners by providing land information system expertise and training in their efforts to document their rights.


Cadasta at Work

This approach was recently used in the town of Mufulira, Zambia, where the volunteer mapping group OpenStreetMap (OSM) Zambia used Cadasta’s tools to document the property rights of residents living in an informal settlement. Following a brief remote training by Cadasta’s staff, the OSM team trained community members to collect land rights information using Cadasta’s tools. Despite having little experience using smartphone technologies, the team was able to record the rights of over five thousand households and properties in just two weeks.

Working with OSM Zambia, the City Council of Mufulira is using the data they collected to assist in their planning and infrastructure delivery and to issue Certificates of Occupancy.

The example of Mufulira can be replicated in other districts. Indeed, the Zambian Ministry of Local Government is working closely with OSM Zambia and Cadasta to identify ways to replicate the project and expand the available data on housing and land use. With collaborative and fit-for-purpose approaches such as Cadasta’s tools, the technology now allows for cost-effective measures in closing the data gap; ensuring that citizens are protected, government has the data it needs to make critical decisions and provide services, and that businesses can utilize the information.

Additionally, in the Indian state of Odisha, government officials made history and headlines in May of 2018 with the Odisha Liveable Habitat Mission by handing out formal land rights to two thousand landless residents of urban informal settlements. For the first time, these non-transferable, but inheritable titles recognize the rights of the informal settlement residents.

Speaking with the Thomson Reuters Foundation about the initiative, G. Mathivathanan, Commissioner at the State Department of Housing and Urban Development, noted “Now the slum dwellers can live without having fear of being evicted.”

The pilot project utilized Cadasta’s tools for data collection and was coupled with community data collectors, imagery from drones, smartphone applications, and participation from local government. The project has plans to expand to cover two hundred and fifty thousand households and a million citizens by the end of 2018. The initiative is already being touted as the “world’s largest slum land titling initiative.”


Property Rights are Human Rights

Land and property rights often don’t make it into lists of top ten rights or even consciousness in developed economies not because they aren’t valued, but, in part, because they are so fundamental that they are often taken for granted.

Without secure property rights, you could leave for work in the morning and come home to find that someone had changed the lock to your home and moved in. Or someone could claim your vegetable garden just as you were preparing to harvest your fruit and vegetables. For most people in Europe, North America, and some parts of Asia, this is so beyond the realm of possibility that we do not give secure land and property rights much thought. But ask any farmer, indigenous community, or resident in an informal settlement in an emerging economy what rights they need to climb out of poverty and you will hear a resounding: secure land and property rights.

This piece originally appeared in the 27th issue of CREDO Magazine.