Calling All Land Owners: From Tech to Tenure



worldbanklandpoverty-hiresCash transfers in IDP camps? Check. Rapid diagnostic testing? Check. Medical alerts? Double check. Cellular technology is an essential tool for development and a major source of empowerment for citizens across the Global South, helping millions around the world to take control of their health, education and livelihoods. Now, according to a recent study by the CATO Institute, cell phones can be used to document land ownership through a form of consensus community mapping that, if strong enough, could serve as proof weighty enough to force governments to formally recognize the property rights of millions of displaced persons in the Global South.

The topic was at the forefront of the World Bank 2014 Land and Poverty Conference, held in Washington, D.C., where the use of geographic data procured from satellites, drones, and databases was said to be influential in enabling governments, companies and communities to spur their own economic and sustainable development. However, where property rights are not clearly defined, sustainable development is impossible.[1] The CATO Institute is seeking to address this by putting rights and ownership back in the hands of the people.


Re-Inventing and Old Idea


The Institute suggests that communities of informal land owners should use “participatory cadastral mapping” to bypass the government in creating their own land registries.[2] The goal is to create a permanent, real-time, visual record of land parcels and a searchable database of owners and ongoing activity. Historically, land titles were created by landowners themselves. They were agreed upon at community levels and were later recognized formally by governments. Most informal land claims are undisputed within communities so a mutual verification of rights among neighbors would serve as a record of existing property patterns, which can be used as evidence of ownership with which to combat land grabbing, for example.

cell phone gpsThe concept isn’t entirely new – the digitization of land and community data has been occurring since the 1990s; however, research has shown that efforts to improve property protections have so far been grossly inefficient. Government-sponsored initiatives are generally bogged down in bureaucracy and often end up reinforcing property claims of elites and economic investors. Further, digitized data registries are often out of date, inaccurate, and housed in government offices far out of reach of those in remote areas seeking compensation and title for their lands

Current techniques used by governments, agencies and their partners include high-resolution satellites and aerial imagery and GPS. For denser urban settlements, traditional line-of-sight surveying is used and, for subsistence plots, rough boundaries or point locations using consumer-grade GPS systems (read: hand-held cellphones) can demarcate land boundaries accurate to 10 meters.[3] By using cellphones, the data can be uploaded to a real-time, searchable database via SMS technology, which negates the need for a personal computer to interact with the registry. The system would be accessible to anyone with a phone. Currently registries exist in regional offices, which are often out of reach for many.

Costs for the system would be exponentially lower than those currently borne by IFIs, NGOs and governments. A pilot project that mapped areas in India in a similar way reported that the effort cost as little as a dollar per land parcel.[4] The largest costs would come from the initial design and configuration of the data infrastructure and user interfaces. Other costs include hiring experts to administer training. Local language tutorials would be offered to help the people to interact with the registry themselves, at which point third-party intermediaries would be removed from the initiative. Since there would be minimal costs for governments in setting up and maintaining satellite and aerial technology and the ensuing registries, they could allocate funds elsewhere, such as for infrastructure or social services.


Moving Forward


men_phoneIf enough communities are able to demonstrate the ownership of their lands, they will collate a “critical mass” of evidence necessary to achieve formal recognition of their land rights.[5] Formal land regulation is a benefit both for governments and their citizens, in that it helps to expand market-based economies. Governments with more stable economies can enable landowners to obtain mortgage-backed loans and can outline public areas suitable for social infrastructure like schools and flood abatement programs.[6] Further, “once people have clear titles, they can use them as collateral” for investments in micro-financing or other ventures, which would spur economic development.[7]

Relatedly, land regulation means increased access to social services and utilities. With community boundaries clearly established, citizens can develop addresses where none existed before, which is a huge developmental setback in areas such as squatter communities and slum cities. Citizens can then register a de facto mailing address to register for utility services or set up communications with local services, hospitals, and schools.

It remains to be seen how land registry would impact nomadic cultures and other cultures that exist and prosper outside of the legal realm of government. If the concept were to be made a reality, careful considerations would have to be made to ensure that economic development exists alongside community rights, traditions and cultures rather than in place of it.

Click here to access the CATO Institute’s full report. Click here for more about how de facto mailing addresses are making a difference in provision of services.

For more on what was discussed at the World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, see here.

See below for examples of how lives have changed after individuals obtained titles to their lands.




[2] p.5

[3] p.6


[5] p.1


[7] Ibid.



Sarah Anstett

Sarah Anstett

Sarah is a writer, researcher, and development practitioner currently based in Toronto, Canada.

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