Continuum of continuums in land management

Land and its management are very critical elements in the prosperity of nations. In some respects this presents as a curse and a blessing. I clarify here that in this context land constitutes the very definition of all that is on the surface, below the surface and in the airspace above. This means that all the minerals held in the crust of the earth and deeper constitutes too that definition of land. In many countries, and especially the developing ones, the exploitation of land, read minerals has been a curse to the peoples of these lands.

Minerals, while being very valuable, leave the people on whose lands these minerals are extracted from, very destitute. This arises largely from poor management of the resources, the process and the proceeds (profits) from the successful exploitation of the resources. To a large extent the greed of the consortia and the leaders of these peoples feed this, which inspires widespread disenfranchisement of the people who should have been the principal beneficiaries. We have read stories and seen the pain as wars, disputes and conflicts proliferate in all the places ravaging and wasting the precious land resources, all feeding the selfish interests of those in power.

On the other hand, there are economies that have realized great wealth through the proper exploitation of their land-based natural resources. This is realized through of course good leadership and selfless and people focused governance, backed up by effective land management. Proper land management by its very nature helps safeguard and ensure sustainable utilization of these resources. Now, some of the confusion that has often times followed practitioners in the fields touching on land management, is fueled by the failure to understand the continuum of continuums concept. A continuum can be viewed as the integration of all possibilities within a domain, if we are to borrow some ideas from calculus. In my career in land management I have come to find out that there are several continuums that present: rights, user rights claimants, spatial units, sources, expertise, access, spatial data capture technology and systems. Let me carry you along as I proceed to discuss these continuums.

The continuums

  1. Continuum of land rights

The realization that the long held notion that title registration offers the only sure security of tenure has been challenged lately and has been shown to be ineffective in assuring secure tenure. In its place the notion of land rights as a continuum has gained prominence largely through the Global Land Tool Network (GLTN) ( efforts at developing tools that recognize other rights. These rights span the entire spectrum from completely informal rights all the way to the completely formal rights. This is captured in the figure 1 below (

Figure 1 Continuum of Land Rights
  1. Continuum of user rights claimants

Various parties can use the land resource. A party in this context can be persons, or groups of persons, or non-natural persons, that is composed of a single identifiable entity. A non-natural person may be a tribe, a family, a village, a company, a municipality, the state, a farmer’s community/co-operation, a slum dwellers group/organization or even a religious community. Of course this list can be extended and adapted to local situations, based on community needs.

In this continuum, a person can hold a share in a right, e.g. in case of marriage, or groups of persons holding rights. This continuum is especially relevant in recognition of women, youths and disadvantaged groups’ access to land. Their rights can be organized by registration or recording of shares in rights.

  1. Continuum of spatial units

Spatial units are areas of land where rights and tenure relationships apply. The representation of a broad range of spatial units, with a clear quality indication, should be possible. This continuum is based on how the spatial units can be represented. They can be represented as a text e.g. “from this tree to that river”, as a sketch, as a single point, as a set of unstructured lines, as a surface, or as a 3D volume.

  1. Continuum of sources

Sources in land management constitute the tools through which ownership, value and use of land can be verified. In formal systems, these sources constitute legal evidence. However, in informal systems other sources prevail such as verbal descriptions that may be optionally recorded as audio and video recordings. Other sources include sketches, scaled drawings (maps and plans), and databases in systems. The collection of these sources thus constitutes the continuum.

  1. Continuum of expertise

Local people and the older generations have wealth of knowledge touching on that may not be captured formally. Such include elders, social workers, political leaders and other professionals dealing with people directly. The public itself also as a body can give nuances that the land professional may not be alive to. This realization, has informed current practices that require public participation in some of the processes in land management. Traditional experts in land management such as surveyors, valuers, land administrators and planners still retain a valuable role in assuring and providing accurate representation of land. This continuum of expertise, when harnessed, allows the speedy resolution of disputes and early adoption of mega investment projects.

  1. Continuum of secure access to land

A new focus in land management is handling groups whose distance from land markets, preference for communal rather than commercial values, and hope for self determination requires innovative responses by governments and agencies that seek to help. In this continuum, ease of possession is the starting point developing a scaling up chain as shown in figure 2. The lowest level with the lowest access security is that initiated through political statements allowing access to land mainly through labor. The scaling up chain transits from this weak access to very strong access through occupation for agricultural use, communally managed agricultural use, demarcation through “general boundary” method, formalism for individualized parcels “qualified as to boundary” and formally registered “qualified as to title”.

Figure 2 Continuum of secure access
  1. Continuum of spatial data collection technology

Surveying is the main method in which spatial data is collected. In this context, surveys are concerned with the identification of spatial units on a photograph, an image or a topographic map. These surveys can be conventional land surveys giving the highest assurance of spatial position fidelity or based on hand-held GPS, which gives indicative positioning. This continuum also recognizes, sketch maps that may be drawn up locally. Depending on the local situation, different registrations or recordings of land rights are possible. In rural areas there can be spatial units covering customary areas. Those spatial units can be recorded as ‘text based’ spatial units, where boundaries are described in words, or as ‘line based’ spatial units, drawn on low accurate satellite images. On the other extreme, formal property based spatial units concerned with formally registered ownership with a related owner and with identified boundaries by accurate field surveys. Important in this continuum is the fact that the representation of ‘legal’ reality should be distinct from the ‘physical’ reality.

  1. Continuum of systems

While a fully web-based solution for land information management is seen as the ultimate solution, it is important to recognize that this may be relevant in this current dispensation, just as earlier systems also had their day when they carried the day. Given the fact that penetration of computers and electricity has not been 100% even in the most developed of economies, it is important to realize that alternative means of documenting land information need to be embraced as part of the complete picture of the land information landscape. Different societies are at definitely different levels of computerization and this reality should inform the quest to having an effective land information management system (LIMS). The LIMS thus comprises the collection of indigenous knowledge, paper based systems, and desktop based systems, file-based systems and ultimately enterprise systems.

Closing thoughts

Effective land management is transformative in unlocking the inherent potential of land and land-based resources. Recognition of the need to incorporate this continuum of continuums in land management is key to having in place systems and solutions that are responsive to the prevailing needs, while being cognizant of the challenges that exist and taking advantage of opportunities that are there.

David Kuria
About David Kuria 4 Articles
I'm passionate about GIS and related spatial technologies and their application in unraveling some of society's problems that have a spatial dimension.