Home Articles The Big Story: Sustaining development: A land-administration challenge

The Big Story: Sustaining development: A land-administration challenge


With a vast majority of the population in the developing world without appropriate legal rights over the piece of property they own and live on, there is an urgent need for countries to build effective land administration systems for inclusive growth and development

History is dotted with wars waged over land. Land defines a country’s identity, its people, its culture and its progress. Early on, man learnt that well-managed land/territory is the prerequisite for prosperity and so evolved systematic mechanisms to administer land.

By definition, land administration systems (LAS) provide the infrastructure for implementing land policies and land management strategies in support of sustainable development (Williamson et al, 2010) but LAS are conventionally centred around cadastre. They use precision surveying technologies, have parcel and its boundaries as basic unit and confer clear, secure and legally valid titles on the owner. The developed world has been experimenting with building modern cadastre and land administration systems for 150-200 years now and they have highly evolved systems in place. However, the experience of the developing world (Asian, African and South American countries) is just 50-year-old.

Land administration systems whether highly advanced or very basic require a large-scale spatial framework to operate. Technology advancements allow increased accuracy of cadastral surveys, thereby facilitating consistency between cadastral, topographic and other land-related information. This integrated, coherent and interactive land information is paving way for the establishment of spatially enabled societies. However, this is the scenario in just about 25-30 countries, mostly from the developed world. Also, the existing LAS have limitations because they have no scope of including informal and customary tenures.

Majority of the developing countries have a cadastral coverage of less than 30% of the country. Many of these countries are battling with the legacies of complex and rudimentary colonial systems which were made to cater to the elite and do not recognise the range of informal, social or customary types of tenure. This scenario leaves a vast majority (about 70%) of the population in these countries without appropriate legal rights over the piece of property they own and live on, leading to land grabs, litigation, unrealised land value, lower contribution to the country’s GDP etc.

The global economic meltdown brought sharp focus on mortgage policies and processes, as well as on the need for adequate and timely land information, both in developed and developing worlds. Today, more than ever, there is an imminent and urgent need for every country to have complete coverage of its land through an effective land administration system.

Conventional land administration systems are costly, time-consuming and exclude informal and customary rights and do not serve the dynamic land administration needs of a country today. “In fact, traditional cadastral and land administration systems are often accused of locking development because of their preoccupation with accuracy,” says Stig Enemark, Honorary President, FIG. The need of the hour is a more flexible system that records and recognises not just formal rights but a continuum of rights including informal and customary rights; a system that manages the value, use of land and land development plans. In short, it should be a land administration system that is fit-for-the-purpose.

“Such a flexible extension of LAS should be based on a global standard and should be manageable by local communities,” says Christiaan Lemmen (The Social Tenure Domain Model- A Pro-Poor Land Tool, FIG, March 2010) of the Netherlands Kadaster, as standardisation allows for integration of data collected by communities into formal LAS at a later point in time. “However, while there is an urgent need to explore more flexible systems, it should not be misunderstood that formal land titling is unimportant and unnecessary. It is not enough on its own to deliver security of tenure to the majority of citizens in most developing counties,” exhorts Christiaan.

Technology to the rescue

There are several innovative ICT and geospatial new-age tools and approaches that are fast, scalable, cost-effective and provide an alternative solution to bridge the cadastral divide.

Continuum of land rights

The continuum of tenure is a range of possible forms of tenure which can be considered as a continuum. Each continuum provides different sets of rights and degrees of security and responsibility. Each enables different degrees of enforcement. Across a continuum, different tenure systems may operate, and plots or dwellings within a settlement may change in status, for instance if informal settlers are granted titles or leases. Informal and customary tenure systems may retain a sense of legitimacy after being replaced officially by statutory systems, particularly where new systems and laws prove slow to respond to increased or changing needs. Under these circumstances, and where official mechanisms deny the poor legal access to land, people tend to opt for informal and/or customary arrangements to access land in areas that would otherwise be unaffordable or not available (UN-Habitat: 2008)

»Volunteered geographic information: One potential solution to bridge the cadastral divide and move towards formal land rights quickly is using volunteered geographic information. The increasing use of location-enabled smartphones and image-based mapping enable amateur professionals to easily collect data. The ease of use and growth of Web 2.0 and cloud-based services facilitate aggregation, organisation and management of data.

It would be worthwhile if land professionals engage and encourage citizens or citizen volunteers, establish partnerships and involve them to capture and maintain land information in their neighbourhood. Such an approach could be potentially beneficial where land administration systems do not exist, or where the existing system fails to recognise the interests of the poorest in a country. “Crowdsourced data is people centric and have strengths in local knowledge, higher currency, wider range of geospatial data, greater attribution and good vernacular,” says Robin McLaren, Director, Know Edge. He, however feels crowdsourced data is not normally managed in a systematic manner with moderation, and, therefore, tends to have inconsistent coverage with variable and unknown quality and authenticity. “Despite these drawbacks, crowdsourced geospatial data is being used in an increasing number of professional and social applications where accurate, authoritative and assured (AAA) geospatial data is not required. It is delivering significant benefits to developing countries where up-to-date mapping is sparse,” he adds.

»High resolution satellite imagery: The past decade has seen the proliferation of high resolution earth observation satellites. The sub-metre resolution imagery from these satellites is capable of supporting mapping projects from 1:50,000 scale to 1:5,000 scales, making this a cost-effective and quick option for cadastral and land information systems. This approach is particularly suitable in rural areas, mountainous and desert-like areas with wide-open spaces. The information derived from imagery like landuse/land cover, change maps can be used for mapping and monitoring land registry systems. The frequent revisit of the satellites allows for frequent monitoring and updating of land systems.

However, the spectral resolutions available with the current day high resolution satellites are still not adequate for precise boundary measurements in urban areas. Though this scenario may change as image resolutions increase and prices drop, the need for in-field checks, surveys, and more importantly, agreement on where exactly the boundaries lie will remain.

»Unmanned aerial systems (UAS): The increased use of UAS as mapping platforms has caught the attention of land professionals as well. UAS are capable of being equipped with a variety of photogrammetric measurement systems like thermal or infrared camera systems, multispectral cameras, range camera sensors, airborne LiDAR sensors or a combination of the above. The higher resolutions available today also enable UAS utility in densely built-up urban areas. The advantages lie in its high flexibility, speed and efficiency in capturing the surface of an area from a low flight altitude. Being low-cost systems with lower operational costs, UAS is often termed as an economical alternative to high-cost traditional survey methods. In addition, further information such as orthoimages, elevation models and 3D objects can easily be obtained from the imagery obtained by the UAS.

»Point cadastre: The urgency to renew outdated and/or incomplete cadastres, the need to have more current and up-to-date, cheaper and fit-for-purpose cadastres is pushing land administration professionals in developing countries to opt for innovative technology means. When point features are combined with satellite imagery, freely available topographic maps (e.g. OpenStreetMap), and managed using cloud based GIS, a simple cadastral solution becomes apparent (Robert Antwi et al, 2012). In this, a single coordinate pair is used to represent a property. “The idea is that any spatial recordation of a parcel, even if only a single point, is better than nothing. More complete adjudication of boundary location might occur later, when there is suitable demand,” argue Dr Rohan Bennett and Dr Jaap Zevenbergen of ITC, Netherlands.

While this approach has been tried and tested successfully as early as in the 1990s in a few South East Asian countries, new and low-cost technologies like high-resolution satellite imagery, location-enabled handheld devices and smartphones are capable of capturing location information of the land parcels/dwellings. This can be coupled with attribute/textual data, enabling a basic cadastre in the shortest possible time with minimal cost.

»Digital pen: Digital pens have been around for more than a decade, but its application in geospatial data collection and mapping is a recent development. A digital pen can directly record spatial data (points, polygons, lines) and attribute data in digital format. Data can then be processed with CAD and GIS software to build a database while simultaneously collecting the field data. It eliminates the need to redraw the collected data, scanning of field sheets and georeferencing.

The significant contribution of digital pen system is in providing real-time and continuous information as soon as changes happen in people-land relationships. The digital pen system can be applied in preliminary survey such as in subdivision process, identification of boundary disputes and indexing parcel mapping which needs less accurate data than cadastral parcel mapping data (Hendro Prastowo, 2011). However, the technology is still new, post processing is required to get better quality data and workflows to scale-up the system are yet to be designed.

»Social tenure domain model: Most of the traditional land administration systems do not accommodate informal and customary tenures. Most often than not, governments do not even recognise the need for such inclusion. The Social Tenure Domain Model (STDM), developed by UN-HABITAT in association with FIG, World Bank and ITC, facilitates the recordation of all types of tenures, filling this gap. STDM enables to show what can be observed on the ground in terms of tenure as agreed within local communities. This agreement counts as evidence from the field (Christiaan Lemmen, FIG: March 2010). STDM is an effective pro-poor land management tool to address the technical gaps associated with unregistered land, upgrading of slums and urban and rural land management. This can also be linked to the cadastral system to facilitate the availability of integrated information. STDM will improve security of tenure, reduce evictions and lower planning and servicing costs.

»Harnessing the power of ICT: Being a prerequisite for the functioning of market economy and secure livelihoods, LAS create invaluable base data for all spatially based innovation. However, most countries fail to use this data and/or provide inclusive land administration services that reach all stakeholders in equal terms and tend to be slow in adapting alternative new approaches and technologies or game changing ideas.

Commenting on this trend, Peter Rabley of Omidiyar Network says, “If we do not harness the power of technology and ICT tools and are worried about doing things incrementally, it will fly past us. It is important to use cloud-based platforms to create a level-playing field in collecting and using spatial data.” Also, implementing ICT innovations based on open local data may empower citizens to communicate with public service providers. This will become a catalyst to transform the relationship between government, civil society and development partners.

Multilateral Push

While a host of alternative technology solutions are giving momentum to setting up LAS, multilateral organisations are creating awareness, devising frameworks, developing voluntary guidelines, formulating standards, providing technical expertise and training, and supporting with adequate funding for cost-effective development and maintenance of effective systems in the developing world.

» UN-FAO Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure: The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN-FAO) has recently proposed and endorsed Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure to serve as a reference and provide guidance to improve the governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests with the overarching goal of achieving food security. They contribute to the improvement and development of the policy, legal and organisational frameworks regulating tenure rights thereby enhance the transparency and improve the functioning of tenure systems. The guidelines recognise the centrality of land to development by promoting secure tenure rights and equitable access to land. The guidelines strongly justify the establishment of land administration institutions and systems such as registration, cadastre and licensing systems to record individual and collective tenure rights that are appropriate to countries.

»Global Land Tool Network: The Global Land Tool Network (GLTN), facilitated by UN-Habitat, is an alliance of global regional and national partners contributing to poverty alleviation through land reform, improved land management and security of tenure particularly through the development and dissemination of pro-poor and gender-sensitive land tools. GLTN aims to establish a continuum of land rights, rather than just focus on individual land titling; improve global coordination on land; and assist in strengthening existing land

GLTN partners have identified 18 tools to successfully implement land programmes, including tools to support efficient land management and administration. While recommending the use of technologies like GPS, GIS, remote sensing and geo-visualisation, GLTN suggests the realistic use of geospatial tools to create systems to provide easy access to land information for all stakeholders. GLTN also emphasises on the generation of more appropriate forms of large scale spatial information, rather than on the production of a few accurate cadastral parcels. It also recommends adoption of new approaches to spatial information upgrading and managing existing systems.

Now in the second phase (2012-17) of operations, GLTN will focus mainly to consolidate the gains of Phase 1 (2006-2011) and continue with the advocacy and knowledge management efforts; prioritise land tools; pilot test and roll-out of priority land tools and approaches at country level; mainstream gender, youth and grassroots; integrate capacity development and training into tool development process; and implement capacity development programmes and support tool implementation in targeted countries and/or cities/municipalities. The project will be implemented in six years with an estimated budget of $40 million, inform Clarissa Augustinus and Danilo Antonio of UN-HABITAT.

» Funding mechanisms: For over four decades, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Development Association (IDA) have provided support to member countries in strengthening land policies and administration systems. Over the past 20 years, the Bank has supported 76 dedicated land administration projects in 48 countries, totaling an investment of around $3.6 billion, and in addition, a further 228 projects (in 78 countries) had a secondary focus in land. Currently, the World Bank is providing funding of around $1.5 billion for around 46 projects which are classified as land administration and management projects, informs Keith Clifford Bell, Sustainable Development Department, East Asia Pacific Region, World Bank.

The World Bank supports and consistently recommends government policies that implement systematic land surveying and titling programmes that recognise all forms of land tenure. It emphasises on policy dialogue, research, public investments and operational support for the resolution of land tenure issues. The Land Governance Assessment Framework (LAGF), developed by the World Bank with several partners, aims to assess the status of land governance at country level in a participatory process. To date, LAGF assessments have been carried out or are underway in 13 countries.

To make sure the efforts and positive examples do not remain as isolated incidents, Klaus Deininger, Lead Economist in the rural development group of the Development Economics Group of the World Bank, recommends a shared understanding by all stakeholders of the existing gaps in land governance, clear indicators of progress that can be monitored, and ways in which government, private sector professionals, and civil society each can contribute to make things happen so as to build capacity and limit the power of vested interests.

Land administration for sustainable development

While geospatial technology plays a central role in building land administration systems, land administration is also about people, politics and places and requires an overall land management vision for the country. Also, LAS is a long-term strategy and so need to be resilient in the face of inevitable change.

Countries, for long, have relied and built cadastre and land administration systems to deliver security of tenure, nurture land markets and/or increase tax base. However, there is an imminent need for countries to take a broader perspective of developing LAS for sustainable development to meet the fast-changing needs of the world. According to Williamson et al (2010), future LAS strategies must support the well-being of countries, support initiatives aimed at meeting global warming and changing weather patterns, be sensitive to globalisation of the world economy and clashes between the haves and the have-nots and contribute to the reduction of hunger and poverty.

Going further, LAS will have to move more broadly into land governance and add comprehensive ‘people’ tools to its toolbox. Evolving from its existing narrow focus, LAS will then replace its technology focus with information sharing, and help in solving the broad societal issues as highlighted by the Millennium Development Goals including poverty eradication, wealth distribution, management of cities and in effect, contributing to the sustainable development.