CAN TECHNOLOGY HEAL NEARLY 20 YEARS OF WAR WOUNDS AND HELP THE TROUBLED NATION RESOLVE ITS LAND CRISIS?
By Nigel Edmead
In September 2012, Liberia’s Centre for National Documents and Records Agency (CNDRA) opened the doors to its new Customer Service Center in Monrovia. A line had already formed in the street. One-by-one, Liberian citizens peacefully walked into the office. Many clutched scraps of paper, often frayed and torn and yellowed by age. They were deeds, records showing ownership of land plots. For their holders, the slips represented lives, families, generations. These citizens had come to the Monrovia office to transform those tattered deeds into modern digital records.
The scene would have been all but unimaginable just a few years earlier. Liberia has been wracked by nearly 20 years of civil war, fueled in large part by conflicts over land rights. The fighting destroyed much of the nation’s infrastructure and left 250,000 dead. Millions fled their homes. In recent years, about two million refugees who were scattered across the sub-region are returning to the land they once occupied — only to find that someone else had been living on it, sometimes for a decade. Across the nation, families, farms and businesses have been lost, while others have been built on disputed land. And the deeds — the tightly held scraps of paper that have signaled lives and homes — can be virtually useless in the face of a Liberia’s shattered institutional framework.
Today, the nation is struggling to rebuild its badly damaged infrastructure and establish a secure foundation of law and order. But after years of conflict, Liberia’s land management is in a state of disarray. Land records are missing, difficult to search for or at risk of deteriorating. Indeed, land management is in such dire straits that a World Bank report recently named Liberia as one of the world’s most difficult countries for property registration — ranking 176 out 183 nations. Worst of all, experts widely recognize land tenure as a potential catalyst for further violence and civil upheaval. As many as 63% of violent conflicts in Liberia have their root in land rights issues.
But little by little, Liberia has taken its first steps toward emerging from its land crisis. With the opening of the Customer Service Center and the embracing of digital technology, the nation’s citizen have begun to take control of their land rights. In 2011, Liberia Land Policy and Institutional Support (LPIS) project, a program spearheaded by the Liberian government and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), began the process of restoring Liberia’s land records and ensuring that land transactions were transparent and secure. The program recognized the need to establish an affordable, rapidly deployed digital land registry system — and educate Liberians on how to use it.
In summer 2011, LPIS chose OpenTitle software from Thomson Reuters to secure Liberia’s land records in a digital format. Liberia needed a way to manage scanning records into a secure digital database that could be easily indexed for rapid searches. In one sense, that’s exactly what the OpenTitle software system provides: a digital record system that is quick to implement, appropriate, easy to use, mobile, spatially enabled, flexible, scalable and cost effective. Since early 2012, CNDRA staff members have used OpenTitle to digitize and index close to 6,000 deeds, representing almost 15,000 individual pages.
But the OpenTitle system is more than just the first step in building a database of digital information. Most importantly, OpenTitle’s faster to field approach, securing records quickly without deploying complex systems, allows institutions to build on lessons learnt from the project’s best practices and plan for longer term interventions. Coupled with this OpenTitle gives the public an opportunity to ensure their land ownership is legally recorded, verified and safe. In short, it’s the kind of technology that can help restore a degree of land security to a battered nation in a relatively short period of time.
A Functioning Land Market
Liberia has far to go before it can claim a secure and well functioning land market. Post-conflict, the nation’s land policy is nearly starting from scratch, with a lack of capacity, lack of finances and a lack of confidence in its land registry. Like other developing nations, Liberia’s land rights have been trampled by a host of hardships: the cost and confusion of land registry; damaged and poorly preserved deeds; expensive and inaccessible recording services for the vast majority. In 2010, just over 700 deeds were registered among Liberia’s 3.8 million people. But if we accept that 70% of land rights in developing counties are not registered, we have to ask just how secure from fraud and abuse are the other 30%?
OpenTitle can’t change a nation’s land legacy. But it is a technology solution to many vital land issues. OpenTitle’s geographic information systems (GIS) software and integrated document management system allow it to capture land and property information through documents and videos. Since the system is spatially enabled, it ties land records to actual geographic information. It links spatial units to documentary evidence on the owner/occupier and their rights.
OpenTitle is affordable. The technology isn’t extraordinarily complex. It can be installed and put to use quickly, a vital component in Liberia where human capacity is a challenge. On average, it takes just one day to train CNDRA staff on integrating paper records, indexing them and storing them in the database. The more complex geo-referencing tasks, like importing geographic data and linking property records to a point or parcel, require about a week. OpenTitle also sits within an evolving continuum of solutions providing the foundation enterprise solutions more appropriate as Liberia’s land market matures and equally applicable in customary/informal tenure areas across Africa.
Land rights in Liberia are still in dispute. The country’s war wounds are far from healed. Still, the nation’s leader believe they are their way to easing their land conflicts. At the opening of the Customer Service Center, Liberian officials watched their countrymen take control of their land rights, as they used OpenTitle tools to turn their old paper deeds into modern digital records. Some called it their proudest moment. I call it the first steps toward a new beginning, a new land legacy for Liberia.
Nigel Edmead is a land administration technology training specialist with over 20 years of experience in Land and Geographic Information Systems (LIS/GIS), holding a MSc in Land Resource Management. He travels globally to support product implementations through training and technical support.