One of the most frequently discussed use cases in the blockchain space is the distributed land registry. If implemented properly, this technology could prevent people and companies from grabbing land that does not belong to them and make the process of proving land ownership much easier than it is today.
Several companies are already trying to introduce this solution in different parts of the world. While the idea appears to be a promising one, challenges will likely arise when tech firms and governments try to put the concept into practice.
Klaus Deininger, the lead economist with the World Bank's Development Research Group, recently argued that while emerging technologies, including blockchain, offer important new ways to record land ownership, they should not be viewed as a cure-all to land rights woes in jurisdictions with weak institutions.
"While technology can help," Deininger said, "it will not solve every problem if used in isolation. Land rights are complex, so you have to look at issues such as governance and how to build a country's capacity to deal with the issue." He warned that "peddling [technology] as a silver bullet when in the end the issues are systemic ... is not that helpful."
The economist's statements appear to touch on the problem of enforcement: land rights may be recognized in practice, but without the political will and capacity to enforce them, they mean nothing more on a blockchain than they do on a piece of paper. In spite of his reservations, however, he noted that technological progress is "making it possible to comprehensively secure land rights in participatory and cost-effective ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago."
Though Deininger did not refer to them at the time that he made those comments, there are other potential obstacles that might further complicate efforts to implement a blockchain-mediated land registry.
One of those issues: In locales where land ownership has never been recorded, powerful voices could drown out more marginalized ones in the shuffle to establish an official registry, and legitimate claims by marginalized individuals and communities could be overlooked or ignored. In other words, the process of recording land ownership onto a blockchain could cause people to be dispossessed of land that they have historically inhabited or "owned."
Another possible challenge is the problem of parallel systems of governance in a single jurisdiction. For instance, in Ghana, where several blockchain platforms are vying to become the legitimate repository of land ownership records, there exists a government that is mandated to carry out the will of its people, much like there is in any other contemporary democracy. Alongside this government, however, is a "traditional" power structure, as it is referred to colloquially, made up of kingdoms and chiefdoms.
Especially in rural areas, and even more so in places known as "traditional areas," chiefs, kings, and queens often have the authority to make decisions on matters that in other countries would be the domain of state power. In some cases, a chief's duties may involve adjudicating questions of land ownership. If forced to choose between abiding by a chief's word on the one hand and the contents of a digital ledger on the other, it seems feasible that some people living in these communities would opt to follow the chief.
Even in chiefdoms with rulers who have not weighed in on issues of land use, a digital registry would have a much better chance of being accepted as legitimate by the local population if their chief recognized its validity first.
So far, Ghana's government has not announced a partnership with any of the blockchain firms that have taken aim at its land records challenges. However, several other countries, including the Republic of Georgia, are pursuing a blockchain-based land registry.