Unjust land holdings in developing countries create and sustain inequality, but new mobile phone technology is simplifying the land titling process and securing 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, founder of Red Tierras and Bolivia country representative for Mercy Corps. “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.”
In 1996, corruption and previous agrarian policy failures led the Bolivian government to ratify the Law of Agrarian Reform. During the 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 don't have formal titles to the land they live and work on. As of 2009, approximately 37 percent of Bolivian land had been officially formally titled, but there's room for significant improvement. One of the main constraints is the huge inefficiencies on both the government and community sides of the process.
Seeking to speed up the land titling process, which typically takes an average of 450 days, Mercy Corps added a technology component to its land mediation program, called Red Tierras or "Land Network". Though Mercy Corps originally introduced Red Tierras in 2009 in Guatemala and Colombia to mediate sometimes violent land disputes, the team saw a different need in Bolivia, the demand for greater efficiency. In 2011, Red Tierras was named an Ashoka Changemaker for its effective and creative approach to land tenure.
A year later, Red Tierras 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 by piloting a digital platform in seven target communities. To ensure the system is user-friendly, Mercy Corps, with funding from The Omidyar Network, has 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.
Their 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 upload GPS points 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, the 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.
Thus far the program has been fairly successful, yet there is still work to be done. Challenges arise due to differing levels of computer literacy. Communities with lower levels of technical know-how require much more training. Although the SMS feature has increased attendance at community land tenure meetings, SMS has also caused some confusion. For example, one community member received a message informing her of a meeting time, but she didn't receive the follow-up message about a reschedule because of spotty cell service. In addition, because the indigenous language is often spoken, not written, SMS has been a one-way road thus far. To combat this issue, a toll-free line was established to provide a user-friendly free support line. The hotline allows community members to have a human interaction in a more culturally appropriate manner, though the 15 to 20 minute current average call time may reveal higher-touch needs than expected.
As Red Tierras 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.