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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.

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“We have 350,000 land surveyors in the world, and 1.2 billion people living in slums, and only about a quarter of the land surface is mapped for land tenure.  We cannot keep up, and we won’t catch up,” McLaren said.

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In contrast, crowdsourcing allows a community to quickly build up land records, which provide a powerful bargaining tool when national governments or international corporations claim rights, he said.

In the Congo, for example, Rainforest Foundation UK used mobile technologies for indigenous and other forest-dependent peoples to create maps of their communities and their customary usage of the forests in face of competing land claims from lumber companies, he said. The intent of the interactive maps is to ensure that forest people are equitable beneficiaries in developments, Rainforest said on its mapping website.

Doug Hertzler, senior policy analyst at ActionAid USA, who has worked with agricultural communities in Tanzania affected by palm oil plantations, called crowdsourced mapping “essential for effective campaigning.”  Without accurate information about who has land rights or records on land transactions, it is difficult to understand the scope of change and its impact, he said at a session on land grabs.

The ESRI application allows the user to locate the land on a Google-type map; draw in by hand the boundary lines or use a handheld device with Geo Positioning System (GPS) to walk the boundaries and automatically record the outline; and then enter the names of who has land title and when the land was acquired.  There is a charge for storing the data on the organization’s servers, Jones said.

Like Wikipedia, ESRI envisions competing claims to the land will be entered, but at least it will be transparent, and if communities work together on building the database, they also can resolve boundary disputes collectively, Jones said. “It also is a way to eliminate corruption by having land ownership open-sourced, transparent, and accountable,” he said.

Government officials said crowdsourcing has a place, but raised questions about how disputes over competing claims would be resolved. 

Thomson Reuters this week also launched Open Title, a program that allows rural communities in developing countries to register land titles using open-source technologies, helping them to build a land registry that can manage growth.

This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.

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