Secure land rights is the path to end global poverty

Wednesday, 3 April 2019 09:51 GMT

Lucila Cabrera, 86, sits at the porch of her damaged house by Hurricane Maria, a year after the storm devastated Puerto Rico, near Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Having a title, deed or lease is the key that turns informal occupants into citizens, yet 70 percent of the world's people still live without documented property rights

The lack of a strong land record keeping system is partially responsible for the slow recovery from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. With as many as 700,000 households lacking clear titles to land and homes, aid to rebuild properties has been denied to many.

Having a title, deed, or lease and an address is the key that turns informal occupants into citizens, who can enroll children in school, register to vote, or open a bank account. And yet, 70 percent of the world's people live in homes and on land without documented rights.

Without secure land rights, people live in fear of dispossession and eviction.

In urban slums around the world, residents are at risk of losing their shelter and belongings at any moment. In agricultural areas, farmers worry about surrendering their crops and livelihoods. This tenuous existence offers little hope and few footholds for families to climb out of poverty.

Given the positive societal impacts of secure land rights, I believe that finding solutions to quickly document land ownership and strengthen land rights record keeping is one of the top ten development priorities for the world.

Economists refer to unregistered property as "dead capital," because without a formal document, the occupant is not an owner.

With land rights recorded, land becomes a means for individuals to secure credit (a mortgage) and acts as the foundation for an entire country's economy. In countries where people hold title, the sum value of real estate often eclipses the annual production of goods and services.

Land rights are also tightly bound to many development issues, such as the social inclusion of indigenous people and the protection of women's rights. In fact, 13 of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals directly relate to land.

At the individual and family level, secure land rights increase household income, provide food security, and allow the largest tangible asset to be passed along to the next generation.

Secure land rights protect communities from exploitation, help grow strong markets that generate income and create jobs in poor communities and provide equity that motivates residents to invest in the livability of their community. In developing economies, secure land rights also provide the gateway to participation in the global economy.

Every year, the World Bank convenes a Land and Poverty Conference, and this year marked the twentieth. I was delighted to deliver a keynote address, as I believe that by using simple and available technologies, we can make significant progress in the fight for land rights worldwide.

The company I've built provides software to thousands of governments worldwide, helping them create maps, update record keeping, and streamline property records workflows, among other applications.This has given me the opportunity to see many system implementation patterns.

In the land information field, particularly in developing economies, many failures have resulted from attempts to install traditional top-down land administration systems. For one thing, there simply aren't enough land surveyors or resources to legally register all the undocumented parcels and households to match the rapid pace of urban growth our world now faces.

What's needed is a means to leapfrog the old ways with bottom-up methods that encourage local participation, like the digital mapping tools that the nonprofit Cadasta Foundation delivers.

Similar efforts are also ongoing in Africa by Medeem and others. These systems are making an immediate impact with flexible and simple solutions that take advantage of GPS-enabled smartphones and drones, to quickly and cheaply collect data and imagery to document land and property.

In the Indian state of Odisha, more than one million slum dwellers are gaining land rights, thanks to Cadasta's nimble smartphone apps and a collaboration between the state government, Tata Trusts, and the Omidyar Network.

Cadasta has similar efforts under way in Africa, Latin America, and Asia that are transforming how communities obtain documentation of land ownership. Similarly, in Zambia chiefs are acquiring fundamental land documentation using Medeem's field data collection technology and methodology. 

These examples of new methods and technology promise positive social impacts for generations to come.

Many more governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should prioritize secure land rights using this new technology to make a lasting impact with clear return on investment, for all involved.

As the CEO of a global company, I know that economic stability and growth can only be achieved with a strong foundation.

When looking to help the poor, we should therefore turn our attention to the foundation of secure land rights, as it contains the key to lasting economic uplift and, in turn, a more sustainable world.

Jack Dangermond is the founder and president of Esri, a global leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, offering powerful mapping and location intelligence technology