Land is a topic that is debated in many languages, across different (academic) disciplines and in all parts of the world. Furthering our collective agenda, sharing and learning from knowledge and perspectives from other contexts, or transitioning technological innovations from one country to the other is complicated by - among many other aspects - language and terminology barriers. Many attempts have been made in the past to find common definitions and terminologies for issues related to land, but a wide consensus or adoption has never been reached. Understandably so: one can only imagine the heated and controversial discussion to reach agreement on what we mean exactly when we use the word ‘property’. It simply does not have the same meaning in each country or context. It is a daunting and arguably impossible task to reach this global consensus.
At the Land Portal, we like to think of ourselves as a player that operates at the intersection of two communities: the land community and the ‘open data’-community. In this latter community, we gain inspiration from how, for example, semantic web technologies have overcome knowledge-sharing challenges in the agriculture sector. We have seen how a controlled vocabulary such as AGROVOC, has helped no less than 10 million users a year in overcoming the language barriers we just described. Through AGROVOC’s technical infrastructure, computers can read concepts beyond 0s and 1s and understand how ‘maize’ as a concept is the same as ‘Maïs’ in French or ‘ذرة صفراء’ in Arabic. Translations, synonyms and relationships of this one concept are captured in one unique code, a ‘Uniform Resource Identifier’ (URI), that computers, including search engines, can read and understand. AGROVOC is used by 1.8 million users per month to classify agriculture data and bibliographic resources, increasing visibility and discoverability of agriculture data and information to an immeasurable scale.
From this example, we saw both an amazing opportunity as well as a challenge to develop something similar for land. This is how the idea for LandVoc came about. There is no doubt that the land community experiences the same struggles in language-differences as they do in agriculture -- however, arguably, these are much more nuanced and complex. With a topic such as land, classifications are controversial and immediately become political. Furthermore, in a sector where multiple tenure systems coexist within one country (all with their own associated terminologies) and that harbors immense power imbalances between global and local, between government, private sector and local communities -- uttering the phrase ‘standardizing’ is often considered either naive or some sort of utopia we will never reach. In such discussions, we hear that land experts feel that acknowledging the differences in the way we choose to name or describe the issues we face, however evident or subtle these differences may be, has to be more important than increasing discoverability of information.
During the “Land Governance Lost in Translation”-workshop at this month’s LANDac conference, such were the arguments brought forth by a group of government, academia and NGO-representatives. Enriching the land concepts in AGROVOC to try and capture the nuances of land governance in the LandVoc vocabulary goes beyond technical features, they argued, but is something more fundamental: it is scientific, psychological and political in nature. We could not agree more. As a team whose everyday business involves managing an information technology platform, we cannot help but see the technological benefits of such a tool. But we also see that in global thesauri, English remains the dominant language and the starting point that other languages build on, rather than entering from their own perspective. We see that, when it comes to definitions or preferred terms to use, Western perspectives and interpretations of concepts are much more dominant than those of stakeholders in the global South.
In facilitating a standard vocabulary for land, our intention is not to counteract such differences or ‘impose’ a standard for a particular concept -- but rather, to build a tool that embraces and highlights our differences. Thus, providing a basis to gain a deeper understanding of the issues we deal with and how they vary from stakeholder to stakeholder and context to context. We are aware of the fact that we will never be able to capture all languages, nuances and differences, but, in our opinion, this isn’t a reason to not begin trying! We would argue it is actually quite important to realize and acknowledge that when a researcher that has a PhD with regards to a certain topic uses a certain term, it means something different than when a practitioner working at intergovernmental organization uses the same term. Currently, there is no way for a layman to realize this, other than by speaking to such stakeholders individually.
We have a choice: we can carry on conversations with those select few that understand and acknowledge our particular conceptualization of land governance and limit the outreach and impact of our work, or we can choose to be more inclusive and decide to embrace and convey these important differences to a wider public. If tools such as a Google search engine are used by millions of people already, LandVoc can help to ensure that others can also begin to gain an understanding of the rich complexity and controversy of a topic such a land governance.
It is important to highlight that LandVoc does not attempt to be a glossary of universally accepted concepts related to land governance that will never change: language lives and evolves, therefore so should vocabularies and thesauri. While the Land Portal facilitates the enrichments technically, we do not ‘own’ LandVoc nor are we the ones that decide whether a concept is warranted or a definition is inaccurate or not. LandVoc is, in the end, an unbranded product by and for the land governance community!
If you feel that this is something you would like to contribute to, please do get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would like to thank all participants of the ‘Land Governance Lost in Translation’-workshop on July 4th, 2019, in Utrecht for a lively discussion and invaluable input!