23 Oct 2020

Digitalisation and access to land*|Gianluca Brunori

* Synthesis of the contribution to the “Expert meeting on Access to Land” organized by the H2020 RURALIZATION project on 15 October 2020

Written by Gianluca Brunori

Among all resources, land is the main source of livelihoods. As its availability is finite, distribution of land ownership is a key social justice issue. Moreover, land provides both private and public goods, the amount of which, and their proportions, depend on the way it is managed. For these reasons, regulation of distribution, mobility and management of land set the relations of power and the distribution of wealth in a society. In this short paper I analyse the role that digitalisation may play in support of land policies. I focus on three aspects of land policies: distribution of ownership, mobility, and land use and management.

A key aspect of any land regulation is the capacity of regulatory bodies to organize information about who has rights – and what types of right – on a given piece of land, and if the land is properly managed. Registry data have a legal status, as they demonstrate ownership or other forms of tenure. If legitimate owners don’t have easy access to these data, access to land is difficult as well. The organization of such information is a weak point of most regulatory regimes. When information is paper-based, administrative complexity is one of the most relevant sources of inequality as it limits the access to information by the powerless. Moreover, given the dependence of land rights data on people in the administrations, administrative complexity is an important cause of corruption.

Digitalisation can have a game changing role on access to land.  Digitalized archives, in principle, allow an easier access to data: owners don’t need to go to the registry to get a paper certificate but can download the information remotely. This reduces the so-called transaction costs, and also reduces the possibility of corruption. Blockchain technologies, based on cloud-based encryption systems, can help avoiding that the data are manipulated.  Georeferenced data can reduce the margins of error in the definition of the boundaries between properties. Digitalisation also offers an opportunity to integrate ownership registries with other land rights, such as customary rights or civic uses.

A second problem affecting land (especially in marginal areas) is related to fragmentation and abandonment. Given the existing property regimes, when the owner passes away property is distributed to heirs. When inherited plots are too small to have an economic value, they are abandoned. Several attempts are being made to encourage land consolidation through exchange, purchase and reselling, common management. Public administrations, land associations, land banks and land cooperatives have been created to encourage land consolidation. For example, land associations cluster land properties and lease them. Cooperatives manage the land on behalf of owners. Land banks buy land for absent owners and sell or lease it after having actively searched for suitable users. Digitalisation could improve the intervention capacity of these organizations by giving them easier access to information about the owners. Availability of satellite and drone data could improve the capacity to identify abandoned land, and integration of georeferenced data with the registry enables the identification of absent owners. Digital tools can also gather information about potential users. Certainty of land rights and improved access to land may stimulate tenants to make investments for a long-term better performance.

Another problem of access to land is related to land markets: when mobility is high – that is, it is easy to sell and buy – there is the risk of concentration. Land grabbing occurs because big owners buy land from the tenants who are too indebted or too old to keep it, or because its size is not sufficient for a profitable business. When mobility is too low, and in this case it happens mainly in marginal areas, owners don’t sell land for several reasons, one of which is that the transaction costs of selling may be higher than the revenue of the sale. With reliable information online, public administrations can monitor land mobility and support measures of contrast to concentration. When mobility is low, potential buyers or tenants can more easily find the land with the size and the characteristics corresponding to their needs. Moreover, crowdfunding platforms can support new entrants in getting necessary resources to make the investment. Public land banks can support the process by providing information about suppliers, potential users and transactions, and making information widely available.

Digitalisation provides game changing solutions also for enforcing land management policies. Remote sensing – gathered through satellites or drones – can give to public administrations the possibility of monitoring the quality of land stewardship, improving the capacity of the administrations to assess the risks and to anticipate environmental shocks such as fires, floods, landslides. In an increasingly performance-based policy approach, interpretation of images or sensors may help to estimate outcomes such as carbon emissions, biodiversity, water efficiency, soil erosion. Integration with payment data can provide huge opportunities for improving policy evaluation.

In synthesis, digitalisation can open many new opportunities for land governance. However, it is important to consider that it may also generate risks. Access to information may benefit much more those who have the capacity to use and interpret data. If not governed properly, access to data may lead to an increase of land grabbing: foreign investors may not even need local contacts to get information about land. Easy access to property data may result in a loss of privacy for the owners. And availability of data on stewardship may generate public stigma on bad performers, creating harm bigger than the deserved sanctions.

In sum, digitalisation can contribute significantly to the improvement of land policies, while it can at the same time generate unintended consequences. The way digitalisation is implemented, therefore, may have a significant impact: thorough design and an accurate assessment of its potential impact are needed.