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.
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.
Property records hold a wealth of information. Uncovering who owns land can be critical for reporting on stories ranging from political corruption and environmental crimes to deceitful treatment of indigenous peoples. GIJN has compiled an extensive resource page on property records.
Full Property Guide
Research into property records has played a major role in uncovering corruption. The following sampling, mostly from 2018, shows the variety and importance of investigative reporting in this area. Tracking Official Corruption
“Millionaires Among the Nominees” is a story by the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN) based on investigating the property holdings of 121 Bosnian politicians, highlighting the assets of the 10 richest ones. CIN reporters compiled information about the candidates’ property from land records and from asset declarations, combining them into a CIN database of “politicians’ assets.”
Sometimes it’s about tracking down expensive homes owned by public officials and corporate executives, as was done on several occasions by journalists in Armenia. “Skirting Disclosure Laws: Armenian Officials and Their Assets in the Czech Republic” describes a probe conducted by Hetq Online, published by the Association of Investigative Journalists, which also wrote: “Undue Influence?
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.
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.
We’re back from the wonderful Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Lillehammer with a new roundup of resources for you. Thanks to everyone who came to and shared the presentation I did there with Margot Williams of The Intercept, 100 Best Databases for Internet Research. You can find links to all the resources that Margot and I talked about in this post.