Blockchain potent force but 'no cure-all' for land rights

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Blockchain can prove a potent force to strengthen people’s land rights, but a poor understanding of how the technology works has so far limited its impact, researchers said on Tuesday.

From Georgia to the United Arab Emirates, countries are testing the technology behind the bitcoin currency to make land records more transparent or enable residents to find a flat and sign a lease within minutes.

But it is still poorly understood by governments and cannot solve every problem, said Tim Robustelli of New America, a think tank.

“There’s a general notion that blockchain is a magic bullet, can save the rainforest or solve world hunger – that’s not true,” he said at a World Bank conference in Washington, D.C. this week.

“It cannot, for example, make up for sloppy or incomplete data collection,” he said, adding that digitizing land records for example was a “huge bureaucratic and logistical” task.

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

If used correctly, it can tackle corruption “such as officials tampering with land records”, make services like property sales more efficient and provide greater protection against cyber attacks, said Robustelli.

Aanchal Anand of the World Bank said countries’ teething problems with blockchain reflect a broader tendency to “expect too much” from technology.

“Tech can look big and flashy, and like it can solve all our problems ... but the Big Mac burger never matches up to the one in the ad,” she said.

“There’s a lot of other pieces to the puzzle, like cultural barriers to improve access to land,” Anand said. “And if you don’t have any data, what information are you going to put into your analytics?” she said.

Technology does not have to be complex or out of reach for most people to be effective, Anand added.

“Sometimes we get lost in the fancy things, but basic tech can deliver the results,” she explained, citing communities using phones to map land and forests.

Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit