Washington — The potential for conflicts related to large-scale land acquisitions could be cut down significantly if seven key pieces of information are included in every property transaction, land professionals say.
The International Land Measurement Standards (ILMS) are the first global benchmark for classifying, defining, measuring and reporting land information with the goal to improve tenure security and enable fair compensation.
Large-scale land acquisitions can spark conflict because of their potential to drive local people from their land and homes, with research published last year showing displacement of local people was the most significant driver of investment disputes in Africa.
The new standards could help by establishing the value of land for such projects, said James Kavanagh, director of the Land Group at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), one of almost 40 such organisations that developed the ILMS.
"Many countries in Africa and the developing world are undergoing lots of investment in infrastructure, and one of the biggest forms of conflict is around land disputes," Kavanagh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The ILMS are the result of more than a year of debate as the groups worked to pare down ideas to basics that could be implemented globally.
Organizers announced at the World Bank's annual land conference the end of an initial consultation period, with the full standards expected to be released later this year.
As they currently stand, the ILMS stipulate that any land transaction include a description of the physical boundaries and total area of the piece of land in question, a description of how it is used, and any associated buildings or services.
In addition, the standards mandate information on two especially complicated issues: ownership and type of tenure, and an estimate of the value of the land, including clarity on how that estimate was ascertained.
Other global standards touch on some of these issues, but none bring them all together at the point of a transaction.
Land transactions happen "in a world of largely incomplete, unreliable and asymmetrically available information," said Jolyne Sanjak of advocacy organisation Landesa.
This creates risk on both sides: for communities that may access land through types of tenure that are not easily documented, and for outside investors who might end up with conflicts or financial losses.
If widely adopted, the standards could prompt better preparations ahead of any land transfer, Sanjak said, making information more transparent and providing more data for determining compensation.
"That could be win-win for those with undocumented tenure rights and for those who are engaged in formal market or government-mediated land transfers," she said.
The standards also stipulate that tenure be identified not just for the owner but for others who claim or use the land, and specifying that there can be individual, joint or other types of holding rights. But while this allows for tenure issues to be recorded for both men and women, "the standards make no mention of gender inequality and the gap in recognition of women's land rights," Sanjak said.
The issue of estimating value, meanwhile, is it at the heart of much land conflict, says RICS's Kavanagh.
Across the globe, land is consistently undervalued, particularly in the context of large projects, he said, and their cost is generally not well understood by multinationals.
But large mining, agricultural or infrastructure investors are becoming more aware of the potential for conflict in their acquisitions, said Kavanagh.
Institutional investors, legal notaries and others have reacted positively to the ILMS and suggested "anything that can improve land and property transparency, availability of data and remove risk is to be applauded," said Kavanagh.
Still, some expressed caution about how such an initiative defines fair value.
"Market value does not appropriately take into consideration the value of the land and natural resources to the community itself," Rachael Knight, a senior adviser with Namati, a legal advocacy group, said from Mozambique.
International valuation standards must also take into consideration non-economic values related to social and spiritual land use, she said.
Experts said the ILMS could help pave the way to improve how investors deal with local people.
"The existing land systems are broken. As the world is getting more complicated, seeing more population growth and more urbanization, the need to understand who has what rights has never been greater," said Michael Graglia, director of the Property Rights Initiative at the New America Foundation.
"Having a global standard will set us up to start building a better solution," he added.
A study released this week looks at how suitable the ILMS framework would be in three scenarios - informal, commercial and infrastructure activities - in Mozambique, Peru and the United Kingdom.
"Across all three countries, the most applicable probably would be for infrastructure - for new roads, new ports - because these will be very expensive, very complicated, and if the governments were to say they would use ILMS, that would work," said the study's co-author, C. Kat Grimsley of George Mason University.
Grimsley said complexities in implementing the full ILMS in a country such as Mozambique, where low literacy and corruption are issues, could complicate matters.
She also noted the difficulty in getting participants in an informal land transfer to know such a standard exists, much less use it.
Landesa's Sanjak emphasized the standards do not equal legal change.
"This is not the same as recognizing these rights in law, formally documenting them or resolving overlapping claims and disputes," she said.
(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert )