Modernizing land records in Honduras can help stem violence, says analyst

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Using digital technology to record land deals in Honduras can help clean up a corrupt system, protect the poor against eviction and stem violence in the world’s most dangerous place for environmental activists, according to an analyst.

Nearly 80 percent of the country’s privately held land is either untitled or improperly so, and acquisitions for mining, dams, tourism and other developments are often enforced through violence.

“When people are uncertain about ownership of the land they live on and cultivate, they have no control, and they are vulnerable to manipulation,” said Guillermo Pena, executive director of policy think tank Eleuthera Foundation.

“That’s when there is corruption, that’s when the land mafia gets involved, and there is then the chance of violence,” he said during a visit to New Delhi this week.

Honduras has been named the world’s most dangerous place for environmental activists battling big business to preserve their ancestral lands from mining, damns, logging, tourism and other mega-developments.

Nestled between Guatemala and Nicaragua on the Caribbean coast, Honduras is rich in forests and valuable minerals, including lead, zinc and copper.

The expansion of mining, agribusiness and energy projects in the Central American country has fueled an “epidemic” of violence against local communities and land rights activists, watchdog Global Witness has said.

President Juan Orlando Hernandez has pledged to tackle rights abuses in the country.

To do that, it is important that nearly 200 years’ worth of land records - nearly all in a dilapidated state - are verified and digitized, Pena said.

“There is a process under way to do that, and it is taking time,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Probably about a fifth of titles have been cleaned up so far, mostly in the urban areas, but this is important not just for the country’s economic growth, but also to reduce corruption and violence,” he said.

After the titles are digitized, the country may consider blockchain - a ledger system tracking digital information - to ensure transparency and greater efficiency for owners and investors, Pena said.

A pilot for testing blockchain - the technology behind the bitcoin currency - was launched, then stalled because officials were not convinced then of its benefits, Pena said.

The technology works by creating permanent, public “ledgers” of all transactions, potentially replacing a mass of overlapping records with one simple database.

Once a land record or real estate transactions is on blockchain, all the parties involved -- banks, government, brokers, buyers and sellers -- can track the deal.

Countries across the world - from Sweden to Dubai, Georgia to Britain and India - are beginning to embrace or test the technology in their national property records.

While the economic benefits of the technology are clear, equally important are its other effects, Pena said.

“When there is clear ownership, there is no manipulation, no corruption,” he said.

“That means there will be no role for the mafia, and less violence.”