Belize: Land tenure clarification using GPS

Ann Myles

Ann Myles gives insight into the complex process of creating a computerized land registration system to establish a parcel-based title registration system

In Belize, as in many developing countries, the lack of clarity about land tenure is a major obstacle to the efficient use of agricultural land. In 2003 the government of Belize launched the Land Management Programme (LMP) in order to improve the conditions for agricultural development through enhanced land security. Few small landholders in Belize have formal rights to the land they farm, and squatters are common. Several factors have contributed to this situation, including complicated procedures for obtaining leases or ownership of land, and a costly mandatory land survey.

Under the LMP, a team of experts has begun surveying three districts of Belize on a parcel by parcel basis, and clarifying the occupants’ tenure rights in each case. The aim is to establish a parcel-based title registration system, based on adjudicated rights to parcels in accordance with a new Land Adjudication Act. Each parcel is surveyed using GPS equipment, and the data is used to create digital maps using GIS tools. The team is expected to survey and map a total of 15,000 land parcels in the north of Belize by August 2006.

The tenure clarification process

Data from the surveyed parcels is recorded in the current coordinate system to produce accurate index maps and a GIS map database using ArcCadastre, a software tool for creating digital cadastral maps. ArcCadastre includes a number of special features such as a ‘snapping’ function, which is used to connect adjacent old survey plans. Control points are georeferenced using differential GPS, which involves the use of a stationary receiver and a mobile receiver, to take position measurements accurate to within 0.3 m.

Each claim a landholder makes to a parcel and the relevant tenure information are recorded in an Access database and, once the whole process is completed, each parcel is given an identification number. This ID is entered into both the GIS map database and the Access database, so that textual information can be linked to the parcels on maps. Such maps, including the names of approved claimants, are presented to the community at public displays, where even untrained map readers can find their parcel and confirm the accuracy of the information.

Mixed responses

Reactions to the project have been mainly positive. Landholders have turned out in large numbers to claim their rights to the land they occupy. Those occupying previously unsurveyed land have welcomed the free cadastral surveys offered by the LMP. Squatters have shown most interest in the process, as they see it as an opportunity to obtain a lease without having to deal with bureaucratic procedures.

Surveyors have had to get used to the maps resulting from the GPS surveys based on actual occupation. While the use of GPS makes surveying easy, the cadastral map now looks very disorderly, with parcels of all shapes and sizes. Most surveyors have welcomed the change to digital mapping, although there is a shortage of skilled map technicians.

Some local politicians are not entirely happy with the programme, however. Under the current system they are able to infl uence who gets land, and where. Now, the survey team is able to deal directly with landholders. If politicians object to a claimant being allocated a particular parcel, they are simply requested to make a formal complaint at the public display, just like everyone else.

An outsider’s observations

If the number of squatters is to decrease in the future, as the government wishes, the process of land distribution should be simplified, and less infl uenced by party politics. Otherwise, land insecurity will continue to hinder the efficient management of land resources. Funds are also needed to train a new generation of surveyors who will embrace new technologies.

In Belize the process of tenure data collection started before a computerized system for land registration was set up and institutional reforms were made. To prepare adjudication records, the team is storing the information in temporary databases, and the documents produced are processed manually by the Land Registry. What is missing is a computerized land register that could record adjudicated rights and produce certificates automatically as soon as the data is downloaded. Instead, an enormous amount of information is building up waiting to be recaptured. System development was delayed for various reasons, but plans for inhouse developments are now taking shape.

Concerning the implementation of the land management programme in general, a new (or rather old) strategy is needed - investigate the problems with the present system, set the objectives for a better one, decide on the information and the system demands, design and construct the system, and then start the data collection!

Ann K. Myles ( ) is project manager at Swedesurvey, a partner in the international consortium implementing one component of the LMP.

10 October 2005

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