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10 Human Rights Impacts of Land Governance Digitalization

By Guest Writer on September 10, 2021

digital land rights

Digitalization – the adoption and use of information and communica­tions technologies (ICT) and artificial intelligence in different sectors and every­ day life – in the context of land governance is promoted as a way to increase transparency, efficiency, tenure security, and to protect against fraud and corruption, thus providing important benefits to all, including marginalized rural people.

Such potential contributions to the improvement of land governance and administration need to be carefully weighed against risks, such as a further worsening of existing unequal patterns of access to and control over land and other natural resources by the rural (and urban) poor.

From a human rights perspective, it is crucial to note that digital technologies are often applied in a context of structural inequalities and discrimination, as well as increasing commodification and financialization of land and nature.

Little research has been done so far on the actual impacts and implications of land­related digitalization processes, in particular for affected people and communities. The Disruption or Déjà Vu? Digitalization, Land and Human Rights research paper intends to look deeper into such processes and to offer a preliminary analysis from a human rights perspective – a perspective that is largely missing in the current debates on digitalization.

10 Land Governance Digitalization Impacts

The analysis and findings presented in this paper are the result of a research process that aimed at providing an overview of ongoing land­-related digitalization processes and at identifying their impacts and risks, with a particular emphasis on marginalized people and groups.

1. Land Governance Digitalization is Well Underway

There are a number of ongoing initiatives, processes and projects around the world pushing digitalization in the context of land. Although a great deal of attention has been given to the use of blockchain technology, this is only a small part of the story, and most blockchain projects are stalled or still in the initial phase.

There is an impressive amount of big projects funded by international agencies and institutions that are currently being rolled out in several countries, especially in the Global South.

However, land­-related digitalization processes also unfold in countries that are not targeted by highly funded projects. Overall, there is a strong focus on land administration (digital mapping, digital registries and cadasters, digitized land transactions, etc.). The stage of these initiatives varies considerably: some projects have only been announced or are in the initial phase, while others are mostly implemented and applied.

2. Digitalization Has Impacts on Human Rights

Digitalization in the context of land is already having a concrete impact on land governance and the rights of people and communities. The analysis of initiatives in Brazil, Indonesia, Georgia, India and Rwanda show how land-­related digitalization processes replicate, foster, and even exacerbate, discrimination against and marginalization of rural people.

In addition, the analysis points to longer­-term implications that may further entrench tenure models based on exclusive, private ownership and land markets, at the expense of other forms of tenure – in particular, collective and customary tenure systems – and more equitable distribution of land.

3. Human Rights Are Not Included in Digitalization

Despite their important consequences for tenure governance, land­related digitalization processes do not adequately take into account human rights and the associated international standards. Initiatives are carried out without prior assessment of human rights impacts and have no adequate monitoring provisions to ensure accountability.

4. Digitalization Doesn’t Address Tenure Issues

Despite a lot of talk about ‘disruption’ and the potential of ‘leapfrogging’ in debates around digitalization, ongoing initiatives encounter the existing ‘old’ structural tenure issues such as land concentration, lack of effective protection of collective tenure rights and systems, corruption, etc.

The analysis of digitalization processes in Brazil, Indonesia, Georgia, India and Rwanda show that initiatives do not address such problems. In several cases, they replicate and amplify existing forms of dispossession, create new forms of exclusion and foster land concentration.

Land is a deeply political issue and the use of digitalization processes technologies does not transform into a technical one. Consequently, digitalization processes cannot replace human rights-­based tenure policies.

5. Digitalization Fosters Market-Based Approaches

The analysis of land­-related digitalization processes in five countries shows that initiatives are inherently designed to make land ‘investible’ and attractive as a financial asset. All processes – either explicitly or de facto – put a strong emphasis on the promotion of land­related investment projects, the facilitation of land transactions and the promotion of land markets.

In particular, our analysis points out that digitalization processes foster a land regime that is biased towards private, exclusive ownership. In many cases, other forms of tenure and use are not only overlooked, but de facto erased, especially collective, customary forms of land management and tenure systems. This entails a significant reconfiguration, or even redefinition, of ownership rights.

6. Digitalization Leads to Private Company Land Governance

Corporations play a key and critical role in collecting land­-related information, storing data, providing the technologies and digital infrastructure, and even in delivering services. The research indicates that land­-related digitalization leads to a transfer of public sector roles from the state to the private sector and is linked to a surge in public­-private partnerships (PPP). Such arrangements blur the line between public and private actors, raising serious concerns around accountability and sovereignty.

7. Digitalization Creates Changes in Land Policy

Depending on their scope, many land-­related digitalization processes require significant changes in existing land legislation. Several of the analyzed countries are in the process of developing new legislation, ranging from administrative provisions to changes in civil codes, in order to fully roll out digitalization. Such changes typically do not focus on addressing critical tenure issues, but the creation of an enabling environment to allow for the use of digital technologies.

8. Digitalization Occurs Without Participation

The research shows that there is very little knowledge about land­-related digitalization processes among the public in the affected countries, especially among rural people and communities. The analyzed cases point to a top­-down implementation, thus reinforce existing structural discrimination and inequalities. Moreover, participatory processes for the design and monitoring of digitalization processes are virtually non­existent.

8. Bottom-Up Initiatives Face Structural Barriers

In some of the analyzed countries local people and communities, as well as civil society organizations, are experimenting with the use of digital tools to assert their rights. One important approach is participatory mapping of community lands. Such initiatives could provide a basis for digitalization processes that respond to the needs of people.

However, structural impediments (such as the ‘digital divide’, structural discrimination, power imbalances, etc.) and lack of recognition of community­-based mapping prevents these initiatives from shaping digitalization processes.

10. Digitalization Needs Human Rights Apporach

There is an urgent need to base land­-related digitalization processes on human rights, building on existing international standards in this regard. This requires embedding them in tenure policies that address structural discrimination and marginalization of rural people, effectively protecting collective and customary forms of tenure, and promoting equitable access to, and distribution of, land and related resources.

Initiatives further need to be developed and implemented through participatory processes, to ensure the effective and meaningful participation of marginalized groups. It is critical that human rights are also at the centre of policies related to the development and use of digital technologies in general (digital economy) – to make sure that they respond to the needs and aspiration of the people.

A lightly edited synopsis of Disruption or Déjà Vu? Digitalization, Land and Human Rights by Mathias Pfeifer, Philip Seufert, Astrud Lea Beringer, Roman Herre for FIAN International

Filed Under: Economic Development
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2 Comments to “10 Human Rights Impacts of Land Governance Digitalization”

  1. Gabriel Penteado says:

    Excellent article! I couldn’t agree more that when it comes to land title issues, where historically there is huge asymmetry of information and power, it is important to work directly with the communities affected. One great example that increases Davi’s chance against Golias, is the “Tô no mapa” app by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), in which capacity building is offered to traditionally invisible communities to map their own territory and strengthen their cases in legal disputes.
    Another reflection would be that the land governance digitalization faces the same structural issues as most developing themes. Surely the digital transition has its specific vicissitudes – and it is crucial to shed light on each topic – but how does it differ from the structural challenges like foreign aid or the project-based mentality that most international organizations end up using? And maybe the solution would be the same as in other areas: scaling up the concerns and controversies that happen on the ground to the money source, closing the gap of what happens in the ground with what happens in the policy and decision makers offices.

  2. Gabriel says:

    Excellent article! I couldn’t agree more that when it comes to land title issues, where historically there is huge asymmetry of information and power, it is important to work directly with the communities affected. One great example that increases Davi’s chance against Golias, is the “Tô no mapa” app by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), in which capacity building is offered to traditionally invisible communities to map their own territory and strengthen their cases in legal disputes.