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Protecting land rights using Wikipedia-style maps

Building data bases of land ownership, Wikipedia-style, would be a cheap and easy way for poor, rural communities to compile a record of property rights and land use, reducing corruption and helping to lessen illegal land grabs.

By Stella DawsonThomson Reuters Foundation / May 2, 2013

A girl cries during a protest in front of the ministry of justice in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in May 2012. Residents had gathered to demand the release of 15 land protesters, who were jailed over a land dispute with a Chinese firm after they clashed with police. Crowd-sourced or do-it-yourself land surveying could help small landowners prove their ownership.

Samrang Pring/Reuters/File


Imagine whipping out your smartphone, walking the boundaries of your property, and pressing “Send” to upload a map of your land to a common databank. You also could attach a photo of a legal contract proving your tenancy or ownership.

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Building land inventories, Wikipedia-style, would be a cheap and easy way for poor, rural communities to compile a record of property rights and land usage patterns. It also could reduce corruption and help lessen illegal land grabs, said companies promoting the technologies and advocates of crowdsourcing at a World Bank conference on Land and Poverty in April.

“Governments are so dysfunctional in many part of the world, this lets communities lay down a record of their land rights, and resolve disputes amongst themselves,” said Brent Jones, marketing director at ESRI, a mapping company that launched a free mobile application in April.

The pressure to record land tenure is mounting worldwide. Since 2005, investors have accelerated their purchase of large swathes of land, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia, for commercial agriculture, biofuels, mining, energy, and lumber to meet the growing global demand for food and resources as China and other developing countries industrialize.

There are no accurate global records of large-scale land investment and its impact on local people. However, the Land Matrix, a databank of big land sales launched a year ago, estimates that 203 million hectares 502 million acres) of large-scale land deals have been transacted – equivalent to eight times the size of the United Kingdom – in less than a decade.

LandMatrix is among those turning to crowdsourcing – that is, soliciting information from masses of people to help add or check data. After a year of trying to check each big land deal with limited success, it now is turning to Wikipedia-style fact-checking and open-source technology that is free for use in order to quickly build its database on major land transactions. Its new site launches in May.

Big commercial purchases can displace small-scale farmers, pastoralists, and forest people who have communal land rights that were unrecorded, leading to conflict over land resources. Corruption among local or national elites, who sometimes collude with investors in selling the land, results in the people who have used the land for generations getting little in return, even losing their source of livelihood.

Robin McLaren, a land surveyor who consults globally on mapping technologies, said building land inventories is urgent, and crowdsourcing is the only realistic way forward in face of today’s rapid changes.

“The current paradigm is broken,” McLaren said.

International development agencies, such as the World Bank and USAID, are financing big-government, top-down models of land inventory and titling, but they take years to complete.

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