Land rights and geographic information science

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Fundamental Challenges of Humanity – An Essay

In September 2000 an unrivalled gathering of world leaders adopted the UN Millennium declaration, otherwise known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), at the “Millennium Summit of the United Nations”. The fundamental idea was to eradicate extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education, empower women and promote gender equality, improve medical care, combat widespread diseases, ensure environmental sustainability and most of all, create global partnerships for development by the year 2015 (United Nations, 2015a). Over the past 15 years the MDGs have provided a solid foundation to tackle these fundamental challenges of humanity. Due to the positive progress, impact and popularity of the MDGs, a new agenda was adopted in September 2015, to “finish the job and leave no one behind” (United Nations, 2015b). The so called “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) are an extension of the “Millennium Development Goals” with a targeted deadline in the year 2030. When addressing fundamental challenges of humanity such as SDGs, available methods, frameworks and technologies must also be discussed to better grasp the complexity of these challenges and to work out possible solutions. In this essay I will focus on the aspect of geographic information science and its influence on the land rights discourse.

Land rights and the accessibility of land and ecosystem services provided by the land, are crucial in the sustainable development discussion. Secure property rights have a vast impact on the livelihood of a person or groups potentially ensuring sustainable agricultural activity and security, encouraging investment and market integration, empowering women and reducing ethnic and gender specific discrimination and limiting conflicts to ensure local and regional stability (Davy, 2009; Galiani & Schargrodsky, 2011; Rao & Rana, 1997; McCall, 2003). This also highlights the multidimensionality of land and land rights and it is argued that land rights should be of upmost importance in achieving several of the MDGs or SDGs (Enemark, McLaren, & Molen, 2009; USAID, 2015). The discourse of the right to land has been shifting from a rather marginal to a highly important topic in the discourse of sustainable global development, partly due to the exponential increase in large scale land acquisitions (Giger, Messerli, & Eckert, 2014), also referred to as “land grabbing”, and the eagerness of environmental experts to research this phenomenon. The technological advances in mobile connectivity and the sheer explosion of virtual communication and collaboration platforms, along with the improvement of affordable computing power and the development of powerful user-friendly geographic information systems also plays a considerable role in this shift of focus, empowering individuals to generate data and to visualise different aspects and impacts of land rights.

Out of a geographic information system specialist’s perspective, land rights, land governance and land tenure are extremely complex topics. All clearly have some form of spatial extent or impact and can thus be analysed using geographic information systems, but the potential for inaccurate, misleading or wrong results due to inconsistent or inaccurate data or subjective influence is significant. It seems evident, that extreme caution needs to be exercised whilst communicating spatial knowledge (Monmonier, 1996; Muehlenhaus, 2012), especially in the context of decision and policy making. Providing access to land and ecosystem services can be seen as a fundamental challenge of humanity, whilst dealing with spatial data concerning land rights is strongly intertwined with fundamental challenges in geographic information science. These challenges include questions about, how and by whom data is created, analysed and shared, how to deal with differing land uses for similar land types and how to deal with different resolutions and scales in models and results, which was also mentioned by Peter Verburg in and after his colloquium talk at the University of Zürich (20.10.2015).

Keeping these fundamental challenges in mind, geographic information science has a large and as yet unexhausted potential to generate knowledge and help empower local populations through easily accessible information. One major example of how volunteered geographic information (Goodchild, 2007) and geographic information science has had an impact on the land rights discussion is the land matrix database, a global and independent land monitoring initiative partly hosted by the “Centre for Development and Environment” of the “University of Bern”. Its goal is to provide a platform to promote transparency and accountability in regard to decisions made over land. This initiative has grown and is now the single largest inventory of large-scale land acquisitions, providing raw data to be analysed using various methods of geographic information science. (Giger, Messerli, & Eckert, 2014; Land Matrix, 2015)

In conclusion I would like to highlight the importance of making land rights a central point of discussion in the sustainable development discourse, especially in the subsections of poverty reduction and empowerment of marginalised persons or groups. Geographic information scientists can have a major impact on decision making processes and should undoubtedly be consulted in questions of land rights and impacts thereof, but should also be cautious when analysing data or presenting results. I also argue that geographic information scientists must have an interdisciplinary background to be able to make solid contributions to the sustainable development discussion and would thus highly recommend the “GIS&T Body of Knowledge” further discuss interdisciplinarity in future editions.


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Galiani, S., & Schargrodsky, E. (2011). Land Property Rights and Resource Allocation. Journal of Law and Economics, pp. 329-345.

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