Visible or invisible? That's the question for land data | Land Portal | Securing Land Rights Through Open Data

NEW DELHI - A push to formalise land claims, map settlements and digitise records is not always in the best interests of vulnerable communities, and may even lead to greater rights abuses, analysts warned on Friday.

From Peru to the Philippines, governments are curtailing the rights of indigenous communities and forcibly resettling people in slums, land campaigners say, while mapping lands and digitising land records with the aim of increasing efficiency.

But despite the benefits to formality, there is also the risk of further marginalising vulnerable communities, said Chamundeeswari Kuppuswamy, a professor at Britain's Hertfordshire Law School.

"With formality comes greater certainty and predictability, and more efficient transactions. But you have to be careful that it's not done by force or in a rush," she said on the sidelines of a land conference in New Delhi.

"There are limits to how much formality you can have. But if the ideology is that technology makes everything formal and foolproof, then you may impinge on the rights of the vulnerable," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Indigenous and local communities own more than half of all land under customary rights, yet have secure legal rights to just 10 percent, according to advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative.

But making their claims formal and their land visible - through mapping and open data - may not always be a good idea, said Christine Richter, an assistant professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

"With indigenous communities, the importance of keeping a place sacred is keeping it secret," she said.

In the case of informal land use, while making visible to a wider audience where people live can legitimise and support their land claims, it can also be used to justify that they need to be moved because they are on a floodplain, she said.

"So you have to ask: what role does visibility and invisibility through data and through mapping play, in protecting or not protecting the place and the people? And who decides who remains visible or invisible?"

About a fourth of the world's urban population lives in informal settlements, according to UN-Habitat, the United Nations' human settlements programme.

By making their claims public, these communities may be at greater risk of eviction or exposed to criminal elements, said Frank Pichel, chief programmes officer at Cadasta Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit that develops digital tools to document and analyse land data.

While collecting data and opening up access to it can lead to greater efficiency in land administration, increased prosperity, and greater accountability, communities must also be able to assess the potential risks, he said.

"Community feedback - and consent - is essential to determining what data on land should be open," he said.

"It ends up being a long conversation about national and international standards and assessing the risks. But it's a necessary conversation."

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