Land and Property Ownership: A Story Beneath Our Feet

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Full Property Guide

The lack of transparency about property records gets little media attention. It’s just not sexy enough for most journalists, as several land policy experts have lamented.

Specific conflicts over land ownership, between local communities and corporate interests, for example, may make national headlines. But the underlying causes of such controversies — including power imbalances, corruption, weak land rights laws and hazy records — go underreported.

The lack of accurate records is one of the key problems and the source of widespread insecurity about property rights, experts say.

The scope of the undocumented land problem is dauntingly huge. The ownership of  70 to 90 percent of land in emerging economies is undocumented. 

Fewer than half of the world’s countries (and just 13 percent in Africa) have registered or mapped the private land in their capital city, let alone beyond its borders, and public land is often not registered at all,” summarized World Bank land expert Klaus Deininger in a 2018 blog post. Fewer than a third of countries maintain records digitally, he said.

The major societal implications of these problems should invite coverage, particularly the deleterious effects on the environment and indigenous peoples. Traditional communal lands may be transferred to corporate owners who displace residents, exploit the resources and damage the environment. Poor land records facilitate corruption. More broadly, the lack of land rights can inhibit investment.

Because of the importance of the issue, land tenure security is addressed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG Target 1.4, SDG indicator 1.4.2). The metric is “the proportion of the total adult population with secure tenure rights to land, with legally recognized documentation and who perceive their rights to land as secure, by sex and by type of tenure.”

Country-by-country perceptions of land tenure security will be measured by PRindex, a joint initiative of the Global Land Alliance and Overseas Development Institute, and the emerging results may be fodder for articles.

Potential Benefits From Reform

Accurate, current and transparent records systems, experts say, bring multiple benefits.

They can:

  • improve investment
  • reduce corruption
  • grow tax revenues
  • encourage infrastructure development
  • protect farmers
  • create stable and transparent real estate markets
  • help in responding to disasters
  • improve urban planning
  • facilitate health care
  • promote conservation of the environment and sustainable resource management
  • protect indigenous communities

Because the implications of poor record-keeping are far-reaching, the World Bank and other organizations, public and private, are promoting modernization of land registries and cadasters. (See the 2018 report Systematic Property Registration: Risks and Remedies.) Potential new helpmates are aerial images and blockchain systems. But progress is still impeded by high costs, initial and sustaining, and official resistance.

The Organization of American States created a toolkit for modernization of the cadaster.

Land policy debates, over transparency of records and more, are in play worldwide, including in the European Union and the United States.

World Bank Is Key Source of Information

Numerous World Bank reports hint at potential stories.

There are national level reports. For example, the World Bank took a close look at Vietnam’s land records issue in 2014. “In essence, the problems with transparency came down to attitude, capacity and leadership at the responsible local government agencies,” according to the Vietnam Land Transparency Study.

The World Bank is involved in many land-related projects. Search on “land registration and cadastre.”

Also deserving journalistic follow-up is a 2018 World Bank report exploring the potential value of using satellite images to create better maps so as to help improve tax collection.

An excellent collection of datasets can be found on the Land Portal website.

South Africa’s anti-corruption agency found “major systemic weaknesses” in a land reform project which resulted in the fraudulent acquisition of land worth more than 382 million rand (US$28 million), according to a report exposed in January 2019 by the South African newspaper Business Day.

Multiple Reports Available

A wide array of other reports emerge from internet searches. This is a sampling of some useful ones, covering reform ideas and the scope of the problem.

“Registries are highly vulnerable to both petty and grand corruption,” according to a 2018 academic paper, Innovations in Land Registry Management, that reviews some of the activity around land registry reform.

Bribes paid for land services can be over 50 percent in countries such as Cambodia, India and Pakistan, according to the Land and Corruption portfolio hosted on the LandPortal website.

Transparency International, which says that in Africa land corruption affects 50 percent of the population, recently started a competition to interest young people in land reform advocacy.

One excellent guide to the link between land rights and corruption is published by Curbing Corruption. It summarizes the “Forms of Corruption In Land Governance.”

A 2018 report by the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at the Schar School of Policy and Government of George Mason University states, “Money laundering in real estate (MLRE) constitutes a rapidly growing problem in both developed and developing countries.”

The Netherlands is a major international consultant on land reform and publishes a newsletter on the topic, Kadaster Abroad.

Access to land records is frequently restricted. Only 1 percent of countries open up their land ownership data, as opposed to 10 percent of countries opening up budget data, according to the Open Data Barometer. Land ownership data ranks as the least likely data to be available in an open format and under open license among the fifteen types of data tracked by Global Open Data Index developed by Open Knowledge International.

Open Data Barometer Global Report: Availability of open datasets for government accountability. Screenshot

 

Little Media Attention

Although specialized trade publications often report intensively on real estate sales, new developments and economic trends, they and the general media largely ignore land issues.

Investigative journalists may use property records as they pursue other stories, such as on political corruption, but they rarely probe the land system itself or investigate the frustrating opacity of land records.

One exception is the land coverage of Place, a project of Thomson Reuters. Recent stories included:

Efforts to modernize records systems are not without controversy, as evident in Kenya, according a Reuters article about a lawsuit seeking to halt a government initiative said to have been launched without proper consultation.

Privatization of land record systems may have advantages, but also can be controversial. One such debate arose in Australia over potential conflicts of interest, reported Financial Review.

Not Many Prizes

There is limited financial encouragement of journalism on land issues.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a grant-giving nonprofit organization that supports independent global journalism, has sponsored data-driven journalism projects related to land rights and property rights.

The Impact Journalism Grant, sponsored by N/Core and the Omidyar Network, aimed to advance innovative reporting on the topic of land and property inclusivity in India.

NGO Reporting

Most of the big-picture land policy reporting is being done by NGOs, occasionally using investigative techniques.

Mongabay in August 2018 wrote about how Indonesia’s plan for a “one-map” database did not include maps of indigenous territory in its unified land-use map database.

In the April 2017 report “São Paulo: Does Corruption Live Next Door?,” Transparency International “shows how easy it is to disguise the identity of the real owners of more than US$2.7 billion worth of property behind shell companies.” For this research, TI identified the Brazilian legal persons who own real estate titles in São Paulo’s most valuable areas. Then it identified offshore companies behind such Brazilian legal persons, using data from the São Paulo State Trade Board.

The Rights and Resources Initiative in 2018 found that indigenous peoples and local communities manage massive amounts of carbon in the trees and soil of their forests, yet governments largely fail to recognize their rights to the lands they have cared for, sometimes for millennia.

The World Resources Institute in 2018 reported in Scramble for Land Rights that “without formal legal recognition of their land rights, communities struggle to protect their land from being allocated to outside investors.”

In a 2017 report, Transparency International analyzed problems related to real estate and money laundering in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, concluding that “despite international commitments, current rules and practices are inadequate to mitigate the risks and detect money laundering in the real estate sector.” Also see TI’s 2017 report Tainted Treasures: Money Laundering Risks in Luxury Markets.

A 2015 article by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists was critical of the World Bank’s role in protecting the property rights of a tribe in Kenya.

NGOs: Good Sources of Information

Advocates for land rights can be excellent sources.

In some countries, for example, efforts are underway to advance collective tenure security.

Note the work of The Tenure Facility and the International Land Coalition. For a great overview with lots of country detail, see the report Collective Land Ownership in the 21st Century: Overview of Global Trends.  

For a summary of the transparency reform agenda, see a blog post on Land Portal by Laura Meggiolaro, and another, by Romy Sato, on the value of data.

The Gender and Land Rights Database (GLRD) deals with gender inequalities embedded in land rights by exploring the country profilesgender and land-related statistics and the recently-developed legal assessment tool (LAT).

Merida has projects in Ghana and Indonesia. Cadasta has created tools to document the land rights of residents living in urban informal settlements. One project in India was touted as the “world’s largest slum land titling initiative.”

There are many more international and national groups working on land reform issues of all kinds.


This guide was put together by Toby McIntosh, director of GIJN’s resource center. He was a Washington-based reporter and editor with Bloomberg BNA for 39 years and the editor of FreedomInfo.org, a nonprofit website. He also runs a blog, eyeonglobaltransparency.net.