Exposing How US Universities Profited from Indigenous Land

A joint investigation by a historian and a journalist revealed that a number of US universities were beneficiaries from land expropriated from Indigenous communities. The authors, Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone, reveal what tools helped them uncover the story. They built a geodatabase and traced the money to find out where the land had come from and how much was paid for it.

Land Ownership: Community Rights Under Threat

The claims by Indigenous peoples to the land on which they farm, graze animals, hunt and live are often unrecognized, tenuous, and vulnerable. Despite their historic use of the land, they often lack legal security. The exploitation of natural resources located on traditional community land is one of the most frequent problems for Indigenous communities. And “commons” land may be sold by governments into private hands. The absence of clear ownership rights has many consequences.

Investigative Journalists Unearth Property Stories

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Full Property Guide
Research into property records has played a major role in uncovering corruption. The following sampling shows the variety and importance of investigative reporting in this area. Collaboration
The shores of the Nile River make up some of the most expensive and prime land outside various African capitals, with most of it secured for tourism-related activity. However, until recently, little was known about who owns that land. That’s until InfoNile, a Uganda-based geo-journalism nonprofit focusing on issues in the Nile Basin, embarked on an extensive collaboration.

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. Read a 2021 report by the Columbia University Center on Sustainable Investment, Transparency for Whom?

Land Ownership Records: So Useful, but Challenging to Find

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Finding out who owns land can be tough. While property registration systems exist in almost all countries, the quality and availability of the information vary widely. World Bank experts estimate that only 30 percent of the world’s population has a legally registered title to their land, a widely quoted figure that Bank officials stress is a rough estimate. See also our guides to great stories based on land records and resources to help report such stories.What’s more, property records are often incomplete or inaccurate. “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.