Big Story 10

Hi-tech mapping threatens land rights across the 'digital divide': experts

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Countries are increasingly embracing drones and satellites to map land and minimize conflict rising from ownership disputes, but unequal access to these technologies can further endanger the rights of vulnerable people, analysts say.

With the easy availability of unmanned aerial vehicles, satellites and GPS systems, countries from Kenya to the Philippines are able to quickly survey areas that would otherwise require trained staff to manually record data.

But experts warn that those strategies could undermine the land claims of people living in such regions if they are not connected to the internet and are unable to take part in the process.

Several Indian states are using drones and satellites to update land records dating back to the colonial era.

The Philippines last December became one of the first nations in Asia to unveil an official policy allowing drone-assisted surveys for land titling.

In a country where legal titles cover only half the property, titling a plot of land requires submitting a survey for government approval.

That can be expensive and time consuming, said Rhea Lyn Dealca at the Foundation for Economic Freedom, a Philippines-based advocacy group that has joined government officials, service providers, and community leaders in pilot projects.

“Drones reduce the cost and time of surveys, and unlike traditional survey maps, the high-resolution photographic maps help residents verify their lots more easily,” she said.

“Community participation is important, even with more sophisticated technology,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Satellites and drones can significantly extend a government’s reach - particularly in rural areas - and increase accuracy and efficiency, said Beth Roberts, a program manager at the land rights advocacy group Landesa in Seattle.

Where governments do not have adequate resources, civil society and land users themselves can use drones and other technologies to establish and verify boundaries, she said.


But residents must be able to participate in the processes and validate the information, which can be a challenge if they do not have access to the internet, Roberts said.

“Billions of people remain unconnected to the internet. As governments shift to high-tech tools to map and record land rights, the digital divide has the potential to further marginalize rural communities and individuals,” she said.

She said that people must be informed of their land rights and be empowered to ensure that they are respected.

“This is especially important for groups and individuals who are likely to be excluded - among them women and youth,” Roberts said.

In Indonesia, rights groups say millions of people have been denied legal titles, because they live in conflict areas that fall outside the government’s mapping exercise, which it says applies only to places where land title is “clean and clear”.

However, non-state groups have also seized on technology to provide legal titles.

In Myanmar’s Kayin state, a decades-long fight for autonomy killed hundreds and forced tens of thousands of people from their homes.

The war officially ended in 2012 when the Karen National Union (KNU) and the military signed a ceasefire, but rights groups say threats to land tenure security have increased since then.

Rising investor interest in logging and mining, and the government’s move to set aside protected areas, raise the risk of land expropriation, said Saw Alex Htoo at the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), a rights group.

KESAN has been mapping land, including community forests and areas held under customary law, using GPS and GIS technology, and verifying the results with villagers, he said.

It can take six months to a year to approve an application, and KNU then issues a title, he said.

“Only with the involvement of the community can you decide issues such as how to establish ownership when the owners are not there. The satellite cannot tell you that,” said Saw Alex Htoo.