WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Four years ago, Veronica Katulushi bought a small parcel of land on the outskirts of Lusaka and started to build the home in which she planned to retire.
As she saved money, the house grew until the walls were head-high, and Katulushi began thinking of putting on a roof and moving in.
But then, in a chaotic period ahead of Zambia’s national elections in August 2016, Katulushi, 60, got a call in the middle of the night.
“Veronica, there’s chaos here,” she recalled a voice telling her from the site of her future home.
“Some people [want to] develop the land,” she was told, as bulldozers were tearing down houses. Some 200 houses in the area were being demolished and Katulushi’s was the first.
The small parcel of land she had bought from a neighbor had never been formally registered with the authorities, and while Katulushi had a letter from the farmer confirming the sale, she had no title deed to prove ownership.
The case eventually went to court, and Katulushi and the other residents were able to get her land back. They are now in the process of getting formal titles through the Lands Ministry.
But a year and a half later, her retirement house remains unbuilt, and there is no compensation on the horizon, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Examples such as Katulushi’s have spurred important but scattershot initiatives over the years to improve land tenure security.
What has been missing, experts say, has been a unified effort to collect experiences such as Katulushi’s and use them to track the issue of insecure tenure globally.
“For land rights, there is no primary data at the global level. There are expert opinions, surveys, administrative data, but there’s no primary data - data that comes from actual people,” said Diana Fletschner, a senior director at Landesa, an advocacy group based in Seattle.
“If we get this data, it will completely transform how this sector operates,” she said.
This transformation could now be in its early stages, after a meeting of governments and experts late last year gave a green light to the foremost effort to establish a global measure of secure tenure.
It means national governments will now start gathering data that has never before existed.
The data push began around five years ago, when advocates decided to link their efforts with the process to develop the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a 15-year anti-poverty framework adopted in 2015 by 193 countries.
Because of that work, three parts of the SDGs include a focus on land and tenure.
But while the 17 goals were adopted more than two years ago, detailed work continues on hundreds of indicators - metrics that national governments will gather to track progress.
For a long time, the tenure indicators were seen as particularly problematic, in danger even of being pushed aside.
“The reason for this low ranking was because there was no data, which was the entire reason we’re doing this,” said Fletschner.
But a November 2017 meeting of the expert group that is overseeing work on the SDG indicators kicked off an important new phase of testing.
This continues a longer trend, as land and tenure have received increasing attention in recent years as undergirding a range of development concerns.
“Addressing poverty, climate change, food security, investment, peace and stability — for all of these, you need to have a sound land governance system,” said Oumar Sylla, unit leader with an alliance called the Global Land Tool Network.
As yet, Sylla says, some 70 percent of land in developing countries remains outside of the formal, public account of land ownership and value.
To start with, the main indicator under discussion would track “the proportion of total adult population with secure tenure rights to land, with legally recognized documentation”.
But it also goes two major steps further - to record how households “perceive their rights to land as secure”, and then to break those numbers down by sex and type of tenure.
By focusing on perception rather than solely on legal documents, any related monitoring will include traditional land-ownership systems that continue to dominate in many parts of the world.
Governments also will need to break down these statistics by sex, driven by the realization the tenure security of a woman often can be dramatically different from that of her household, the level at which national surveys usually record information.
While a woman can be secure in her property when she is part of a male-headed household, that can change quickly, for instance, if her husband dies and she lives in a country where authorities record only the name of a male head of household.
A similar situation could arise if the couple divorces, or the man takes a second wife, or in countries where laws don’t allow women to inherit land.
Some organizations have started to focus on how people perceive their own tenure security.
Perhaps the largest such effort, the Global Property Rights Index (PRIndex), is aiming to release data for more than 30 countries by the end of the year.
The PRIndex aims to bolster the broader SDGs framework by assisting in efforts to measure global progress around perception.
Nearly 30 percent of people in Colombia and Tanzania reported feeling insecure regarding tenure issues on the property where they live, according to a report released on Monday by PRIndex, as do a quarter of people in India.
In several scenarios, women reported feeling especially insecure, according to the PRIndex, an initiative by Omidyar Network (which has partnered with the Thomson Reuters Foundation on land rights coverage) and the UK’s Department for International Development.
The PRIndex findings from these three countries also showed perceptions of tenure insecurity tended to be especially high in cities, as was the case in India and Tanzania.
The SDGs address this issue, for the first time giving equal weight to tenure issues in both rural and urban areas.
Even as the past decade has seen steadily increasing focus on such issues globally, the conversation has been “very silent on the importance of land in urbanization,” the Global Land Tool Network’s Sylla said.
“Now we can measure in rural and urban settings,” he said.
Gathering data ensures an issue remains on a government’s radar, but it also offers a mechanism by which to advocate and demand accountability.
“We work in housing and try to bring people out of poverty, and tenure and land issues is one of the most important challenges that our network faces,” said Jane Katz of non-profit Habitat for Humanity International.
“If you don’t have secure land under that housing, you can’t build that housing,” she said.
By 2019, supporters of the new SDGs effort hope to have half of all countries reporting on tenure security.
Reporting by Carey Biron; additional reporting by Gregory Scruggs in Kuala Lumpur. Editing by Astrid Zweynert.Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org and thisisplace.org.