Land, property, technology: interrogating an infrastructural promise

Land has served as a central means of sustenance, but also as a nexus of wealth and power for people throughout the ages. The World Bank has estimated that more than seventy percent of the world’s population lack access to legally registered land titles. Existing land registries are centralized databases, vulnerable to corruption and destruction. There is an increasing turn towards emerging technologies such as blockchain for recording the relationships between people and land, coordinating and synchronizing that data for efficient governance, and making the information publicly available.

This essay explores the abstraction of blockchain as employed for formalizing land rights in emerging economies. Behind the seemingly neutral façade of the technology, diverse aspirational claims and narratives guide its implementation in different societies, shaped by particular histories and socio-political contexts. This highlights the need to explore blockchain-based land registries as distributed knowledge infrastructures, uncovering their broader embeddedness in older, non-digital modalities, and the “peopled infrastructures” of informal networks with their histories and cultural repertoires. As digital technologies can facilitate an illusion of enhanced visibility of some elements while obscuring others, I argue that more attention is needed to the role of broader colonial legacies and enduring North-South inequalities that frequently remain backgrounded in the adoption of such technologies.

An increasing number of governments are investigating the prospects of transferring their land registries to blockchain (Graglia and Mellon 2018). Blockchain applications are explored as enabling the formalization of property rights in the countries of the Global South, as well as providing more efficient coordination of real property markets in the Global North. Blockchain registries have several advantages as compared to centralized digital or paper-based databases. Records on blockchain are distributed and verified by a multitude of nodes in a peer-to-peer digital network, affording them more transparency and resilience. As new additions to the chain of blocks are cryptographically time-stamped, this makes tampering or accidental data loss less likely. Auto-executing “smart contracts” that transform legal agreements into code could mediate contracts (De Filippi and Wright, 2018).

Legacies of dispossession

Blockchain technology, the design of which was originally seen as facilitating an egalitarian, peer-to-peer sharing economy, is not necessarily neutral and apolitical. Digital ledgers are part of the new digital modes of record-keeping that have emerged alongside increasing financialization of real property markets. Enabling aggregation and appropriation of large amounts of commercial data, such technologies can serve as a globalizing and economizing medium and reinforce “economic-like accountability” in human exchange (Herian 2019). As Garrod (2019) suggests, there is a need for more empirical insights into the ways how blockchain-based property relations create new territories of accumulation and resistance, and intersect with existing legal and political systems.

Recent critical accounts of the infrastructures of the internet have called our attention at the ongoing production of layered invisibilities that are intrinsically embedded in colonial and imperial legacies. The fiber-optic cables enabling global internet connections were often laid over the routes of earlier telegraph and railroad lines (Furlong 2020). Marked by violence towards indigenous populations and racial labor regimes, infrastructures such as colonial rail networks in North America served as a “vehicle of domination” (Cowen 2020). The layering of digital networks amidst imperial legacies is also visible in the rapidly expanding digital data storage centers—often located in colder parts of the world to cut energy costs. Johnson (2019) has shown how the data centers in Iceland render local communities marginalized “infrastructural in-betweens.” Such connective nodes are not “neutral relays” in the flows of global connectivity, but reproduce territories of fragmented power and uneven participation. To bring more visibility to these processes, Amoore (2018) highlights the need to study how data is mobilized for control and surveillance by new technologies such as cloud-computing, which through its correlative calculus, is rendering political uncertainty seemingly tractable and actionable.

I suggest that blockchain-based digitalization of land records should be viewed within a broader framework of land tenure formalization in the Global South, where land titling has been advocated as enabling economic development by turning land into tradable asset and a source of credit. Contrary to the expectations of the proponents of neoliberal land reforms, recent land titling initiatives in Africa and Latin America have fueled speculative investment and land concentration. Many communities in the Global South follow local, alternative rules of property, where land is held under customary tenure and managed as part of a complex system of obligations and debts within a broader kin or territorial group. Reforms that introduce exclusive land rights may exacerbate political conflicts especially in unstable and transitional settings (Meinert and Rodima-Taylor 2017). Instead of viewing the mobility of assets in the economy as a function of the degree of abstraction as assumed by proponents of private land titles, more attention should be on the techniques that are used to manage these at a distance, which often favor the more powerful, suggests Mitchell (2007).

“Recombinant” infrastructures

The growing dislocation of land from the social and temporal embeddedness of its everyday uses has been part of the historical evolvement of land title qualification procedures (see Bouckaert 2010). The abstraction of human-land relationship has become even more pronounced with the rise of digital land registries. High-tech title registries render more visible the gap between registry records and lived experience, and transfers from paper-based ledgers to digital ones often highlight the need for human mediators with local knowledge (Harvey 2009). Even after the transfer, intermediaries are likely to remain an important part of the new infrastructures. Blockchain-based land recordation has been explored in Ghana—a country that could become illustrative of such dynamic. Much of the rural land in Ghana is unrecorded and many city dwellers live in informal settlements. Title registration is slow and costly, hampered by the lack of written title documents to solve overlapping ownership claims. Existing documentation about landholdings remains fractured and uneven, with many holdings governed by oral agreements. The processes of land allocation in many areas of the country remain governed by local authorities—chiefs—whose role has only grown through intricate partnerships with the formal administrative sector. Despite the decentralization reforms of the 1980s, “modern” and “traditional” forms of governance continue to intermingle, with land serving as a source for political power for local administrators (Berry 2013). Ghanaian chiefs provided inspiration for the World Bank in the revival movement of the “traditional authorities” in Africa’s governance during the structural adjustment era of the 1980s-90s. Through pursuing a dual agenda of promoting economic development and strengthening traditional authority, the chiefs blurred the boundaries between private entrepreneurs, customary office holders, and representatives of the state.

Digital registry platforms could deepen inequalities by introducing new layers of intermediation and creating parallel institutions. The new digital infrastructures in Ghana would incorporate elements from other infrastructural modalities and temporalities—defined by the histories and regional variety of the country’s land tenure institutions and colonial as well as neoliberal policy initiatives. This highlights the importance of viewing blockchain registries as part of a broader infrastructural configuration that brings into contact the electronic and digital with paper deed registries, oral use claims and narratives about land ownership, and the “peopled infrastructures” of customary authorities overseeing land allocation.

Another case of transitioning to blockchain registry is post-socialist Georgia, where a somewhat different picture emerges. Blockchain-based registry can be there, as well, viewed as part of longer-standing land governance reforms. In this former Soviet republic, large-scale collective and state-owned farms prevailed during the socialist period. Land privatization took place in the 1990s, with a digital registry established with support from the World Bank and other development actors. To enhance transparency and resilience of the database, Georgia’s government turned to the blockchain technology, developing the first national blockchain-based land titling initiative globally. The “blockchain layer” was thus added to an already existing IT infrastructure of the database (Weiss and Corsi 2018). Strong popular sentiments about the need to address the post-socialist environments of normative confusion may have contributed to the demand for novel technological solutions. Georgia’s centuries-long history of foreign invasions had undermined public trust in government institutions, and deepened external security concerns.

In these two cases, blockchain narratives convey different aspirational promises. In Ghana, the main goals of the planned blockchain registry are eliminating the pervasive informality of land rights and improving the functioning of land markets under growing land scarcity and rural commercialization. This would also entail the conversion of customary rights—frequently unrecorded and with important group-based entitlements—into formal, private land rights. It is not clear, however, that this promise of land tenure formalization through blockchain technology would resonate with most of the population, as it would entail transformations in existing patterns of property access. Blockchain land registry in Georgia aims to empower a new post-socialist collectivity and restore public trust in the government after a regime transition that has upended existing property rights and land use patterns. Land restitution and distribution reforms have fueled normative ambiguities in the countryside. The promise of blockchain is focused on restoring public trust after transition-era upheavals and external security concerns.

In Ghana as well as post-socialist Georgia, the new technologies operate in an environment where land access has been shaped by the legacies of colonial extraction. In such settings, landholdings may feature as “recombinant property” that is defined and accessed by more than one set of standards and combines elements of public and private property (Verdery, 2003; Dorondel, Rodima-Taylor and Rusu, forthcoming). Blockchain-based land management in such contexts can be guided by a formalistic and top-down view of land tenure, without enough attention to the actual complexities of formalizing and digitalizing land rights. Blockchain is an emerging technology that can create an illusion of enhanced participation and transparency, while also potentially leading to a growing convergence of plural ownership and use rights, and centralized management of land in conditions where statutory law does not adequately represent many of the land users.

Ambiguous futurities

While the role of the government remains central in these initiatives, novel synergies emerge with the private sector. Drawing on platform intermediation, the developing oligopolies in the emerging technology space can intensify concerns around data privacy and ownership, and reinforce exclusions and divides (see Langley and Leyshon 2020). New digital technologies operate in complex infrastructural environments where they interact with diverse human, material and normative elements (Rodima-Taylor and Grimes, 2019). Particularly in the Global South, gaps in physical infrastructures are often bridged by the peopled element of social networks and a variety of local gatekeepers. Many of such intermediaries, as well as much of the rural population in countries like Ghana, may lack access to the technology or steady electricity supply to be able to meaningfully participate in such systems – further expanding the digital divide.

Illuminating the intermingling of the human and the material, political and aesthetic, infrastructures present a promising site for empirical research of contemporary capitalisms, contend Anand, Gupta and Appel (2018). Infrastructures have originally emerged as a technology of the developmental state, and the modernist depolitization has heightened their role in fostering social exclusion and subjugation. Infrastructures can be simultaneously embedded in different temporalities, however, defined by local histories and the heterogeneous rhythms of contemporary global capital (Ibid.). Blockchain databases are laid on top of existing knowledge and material networks, involving newer and older record-keeping devices and stakeholders from formal and informal sectors. The abstraction of blockchain as advanced in its promissory narratives may obscure the deeply complex layering of formal and informal, institutionalized and grassroots texture of property rights. As the country cases indicated, instead of serving as a panacea for fuzzy title registries, blockchain links into existing dilemmas of property rights and tensions between their individual and collective dimensions.

Reminding us that technologies are metaphors as well as technical objects, Larkin (2018) calls attention to the ways that the aesthetics of infrastructures bring forth a political force and enable people to contest authority. Infrastructures can evoke and make visible ideas that are of central ethical concern at a particular moment—such as the transparency and immutability of blockchain registries in the environments of normative plurality, confusion and insecurity. The aesthetic form of the blockchain registry may signify a desire to “lock away” debates and contestations over property claims through the production of a “trustless” transparency—while at the same time, paradoxically, rendering the infrastructures available to broader political debate around their incomplete or unrealizable materializations.

Daivi Rodima-Taylor is a social anthropologist, and researcher and lecturer at the African Studies Center of Boston University. Her research interests include financial inclusion, human economies, infrastructures, and land.  You can read more on these topics in her recent article “Digitalizing Land Administration” that was published in Geoforum. She tweets at @DaiviRTaylor.

Photo: Farm plot in Tanzania, East Africa. By Daivi Rodima-Taylor.

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