Public Policy

May 25, 2017

How are digital technologies helping to end the longest-running conflict in the Western hemisphere?


As Colombia’s 50-year old internal conflict nears an end, a smartphone app is expected to make land redistribution cheaper and faster, thereby helping to solve one of the most controversial issues in the peace accord recently signed with the left-wing guerrilla FARC.

Latin America remains one of the most unequal regions in the world: only 1% of the farms and estates control more than half of the region’s productive land. Colombia fares the worst, with two thirds of agricultural land concentrated in just 0.4% of farmland holdings. Unequal land distribution was a key reason why the FARC took up arms back in 1964 as a Marxist-inspired agrarian movement that fought to defend the rights of landless peasants. Since then, almost a quarter million lives have been lost and 5.7 million people have been forcibly displaced, most of them small farmers and agricultural workers.Under the accord signed, landless and displaced farmers, particularly women, will be entitled to credit and farmland through a land bank that aims to redistribute 3 million hectares of land. However, as the great majority of land in Colombia has not been officially recorded in the national land register, redistribution is a complex matter. Especially considering that the land surface to be redistributed is equivalent to the United Kingdom’s.

Colombia’s difficult geography, combined with a deficit in specialists, makes mapping of land plots an even more complicated undertaking. The system currently used is often inaccurate, and expensive, as it often involves time-consuming surveys among the local population.As part of the aid provided by the European Union to support the peace process, a smartphone app will make land redistribution cheaper and faster. Peasants will be able to mark the boundaries of their land by using their smartphones. With the help of an app, these marks are displayed on a digital map. If farmers agree on the map they have created, it can be formalised. Farmers will then receive land titles, which means legal certainty, but also a collateral with which they can get credit to sustainably increase their production.

The app, which was developed by the Dutch University of Twente and has been introduced by the Netherlands’ Cadastre, Land Registry and Mapping Agency, is expected to drastically reduce the current costs of mapping land in Colombia. It furthermore constitutes an example of how digital technologies can help resolve conflicts around the world and the role the European Union can play in this process. It can also be used as an example within the European Union itself, where bureaucracy and political interference have been major obstacles to establish a computerised register of land ownership and usage in Greece. Greek property documents often date back two centuries and define property limits referring to non-existing landmarks, or using imprecise phrases such as “500 paces from the olive tree” or “five stone throws in this direction”.

Mobile apps do not only provide public administrations with simple and affordable solutions to century-old problems, it also empowers ordinary people to find amicable solutions to conflicts at the tap of a button.