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Mobile phones bring land ownership to indigenous farmers

April 11, 2013

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  • Indigenous farmers are using mobile phones for the first time to send and receive SMS messages that speed up the land boundary negotiation process despite remote distances. Photo: Jennifer Dillan/Mercy Corps
  • GPS coordinates are uploaded directly to a digital platform that maps the parcels for submission to the government titling process. Photo: Jennifer Dillan/Mercy Corps

[Adapted from an article originally published on Global Envision, Mercy Corps' blog exploring market-driven solutions to poverty.]

Land ownership is one of the most empowering ways to combat poverty. Yet in many parts of Latin America, rural communities have long been disenfranchised and cut out of the official land titling process, creating and sustaining inequality.

That’s why Mercy Corps has pioneered land mediation in in the region since 2003. And now, in Bolivia, we’re seizing a new opportunity: using mobile phone technology to secure plots for farmers.

By the numbers, Bolivia is one of the worst places to be a poor, rural farmer. It has the highest population of indigenous people in Latin America: 65 percent. A huge proportion of its rural populace lives below the poverty line: 83 percent. And due to centuries of inequality, the wealthy elite hold the majority of the arable land: 60 to 70 percent. Since landlessness is one of the best predictors of poverty, Bolivian farmers seem to be trapped.

“For generations, indigenous farming communities have occupied the mountainous lands near the capital, La Paz, but they have had limited legal means to prove the land they work or possess is rightfully theirs,” said Matthew Alexander, head of Mercy Corps’ Red Tierras program and Bolivia country representative. “Property titles will prevent their land from being taken in disputes and give landowners the ability to pass the land to their children, sell it or use it as collateral. This, in effect, creates economic opportunities, stability, and a better quality of life.”

We originally launched our Red Tierras, or “Land Network,” program in 2009 in Guatemala and Colombia to mediate sometimes violent land disputes. In 2011, the program was named an Ashoka Changemaker for our effective and creative approach to land tenure. And when we looked to expand to Bolivia the next year, it was time to take it a step further and address a different need in that country: the demand for greater efficiency.

In 1996, the Bolivian government ratified the Law of Agrarian Reform to correct corruption and previous policy failures. It was progress, but during its first 10 years, title regulation failed to fully take off, with only a meager 6.6 percent of land undergoing the title formalization process. Despite various efforts from the Bolivian government, most farmers still don't have formal titles to the land they live and work on.

One of the main constraints is huge inefficiencies on both the government and community sides of the process. Communities are required to come together and define land boundaries and parcels by consensus before formalizing it with the government. Yet long distances and a lack of digital communication make traveling to in-person gatherings incredibly time-consuming. The average land title takes 450 days to finalize.

Seeking to simplify and speed up the process, we began working with Fundación Tierra, a long-established local land rights non-profit, to reduce the hassle and cost associated with issuing land titles to rural people. We’re providing the hardware and software to pilot a digital platform in seven target communities.

To ensure the system is user-friendly, we teamed up with Thomson Reuters to tailor its OpenTitle software, a cadaster and land registry software program, and Thoughtworks, a global product design and information technology services firm, with funding from The Omidyar Network.

Our goal: reduce the time to conduct the land titling process by 40 percent, or about 202 days; and reduce the cost of the process by 39 percent, or $23,344 per community.

Using basic cell phones, the SMS technology allows communities to send GPS points (which have previously been recording on GPS units) to map land boundaries, stay informed about the status of land agreements, and produce the reports required by the government's titling agency. Using Frontline SMS, open-source software, our system allows for large scale one- and two-way communication to broadcast key information to land users and to spur discussions between them.

Once GPS mapping information is recorded, community members gather to view the map on a large screen and talk through the boundaries. By employing both innovative technological strategies and traditional means of land boundary mediation, Red Tierras helps improve transparency, efficiency and inclusiveness in the land tenure process.

We’ve seen great success so far, yet there is still work to be done. Challenges arise due to differing levels of computer literacy and spotty cell service. In addition, because the indigenous language is often spoken, not written, SMS text messages have been a one-way road thus far. To combat this issue, we established a toll-free line to provide a user-friendly free support line. The hotline allows community members to talk with support staff from Fundacion Tierra directly.

As our Red Tierras program continues to expand its reach and speed up land tenure processes, land distribution in the Altiplano region of Bolivia will hopefully begin to stabilize, providing a workable model for other regions.