As corporate giants discuss “Tech for Good” at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, recent findings show that *digitalization may increase existing inequalities. A study published by FIAN International ‘Disruption or Déjà Vu? Digitalization, Land and Human Rights’ reveals how digital technologies have become new tools for land grabs and sources of profits. Based on research conducted in Brazil, Indonesia, Georgia, India and Rwanda, the study shows that the use of digital tools in land governance exacerbates existing forms of exclusion.
Some of the key findings include:
- Corporations, wealthy individuals as well as local elites are using new digital tools to appropriate lands, resulting in the displacement of families and entire communities. A case in point is Mirador State Park in Brazil, where agribusiness companies have illegally encroached into a 700,000-hectare conservation area using digital land registries, dispossessing hundreds of families from lands where they have been living for generations.
- In the absence of regulation for the public interest and human rights, main beneficiaries of the digitalization of the land sector are digital and agro-food companies to the detriment of disadvantaged groups. Governments increasingly rely on corporate actors to provide the infrastructure for digital land administration, thus undermining public control over essential services and goods.
- Although land is recognized as a human right and is essential for the lives of rural people, digitalization projects are implemented with no human rights safeguards.
- Despite its shortcomings for the public interest, international donors are spending millions of dollars to ramp up the use of digital technologies in the land sector around the world. The World Bank alone funds projects with more than USD 1 billion, targeting mainly Sub Saharan Africa as well as South and Southeast Asia.
- Initiatives using blockchain technology – the technology underlying cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin – exist in more than 20 countries. Whereas blockchain is being promoted as a cutting-edge technology that is able to solve land management problems, available information indicates that the technology has proven to be ineffective and most activities have stalled.
“What we are seeing is that the current use of digital technologies in the context of land deepens inequalities. This is not ‘Tech for Good’ but for profit,” explains Philip Seufert, one of the authors of the study. “The question is not whether digital technologies are good or bad. But when their application is not embedded in human rights, the outcomes benefit a small group of powerful corporations and individuals. For rural communities this means losing their land and livelihoods,” he adds.
Land is an indicator of existing social inequalities and dispossession of local communities has increased since the financial crisis of 2008, which has triggered a global rush for land by all kinds of investors. Lack of secure and stable access to land is also a key factor causing poverty and hunger. Addressing these requires tackling structural issues such as highly unequal distribution of land and a lack of legal protection of community’s land rights. Digital tools, such as digitized cadasters, have been put forward as a short cut to solve pressing land problems. But evidence from the five countries analyzed in the study shows that land-related digitalization processes are primarily designed to make land attractive for financial investments.
“It is unacceptable that governments and development agencies are scaling up the use of digital technologies in the land sector without taking into account internationally accepted human rights standards,” says Mathias Pfeifer, a co-author of the study. “Pretending that technical fixes can replace policies addressing structural discrimination is irresponsible and dangerous. The generalized lack of participation by those affected only makes things worse.”
The analyzed data shows that digitalization entails a transfer of state powers to private actors. In Georgia for example, a Netherlands-based company runs the blockchain infrastructure that is supposed to serve as the basis of the country’s land management system, including automated land transactions. This and other public-private partnership arrangements raise serious concerns about public control over essential goods and governance functions.
In 2020, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) announced the establishment of an international platform that aims to provide guidance to the application of digital technologies in the context of food and agriculture. The findings of the study underline the need to uphold and implement internationally agreed human rights standards in the context of digitalization, including the FAO’s own Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Land, Fisheries and Forests.
*What is digitalization?
It is the integration of digital technologies into all aspects of society and the economy, based on the process of converting information into a digital format that can be processed by a computer (“digitization”). Digitalization entails new forms of production, distribution and consumption.
*How is land concerned by digitalization?
Digital technologies and tools are increasingly used for land governance and management. For instance, lands are mapped and demarcated using GPS devices and drones. Information related to land ownership and use are also stored in digital registries and cadasters. Lastly, digital tools and platforms serve to carry out land transactions and to define policies. Digitalization in the context of land has major implications for the access to, use of and control over this critical resource.