Land and corruption - a global concern

In November 2011 the world’s population passed the 7 billion mark, a milestone greeted with understandable trepidation. Where are all these people going to live and what will they eat at a time when climate change is threatening the planet’s scarce resources? The pressure on land has never been greater, which is why it is so important that land is transparently and accountably managed, free from corruption and other abuses of power.

Whether it is the corrupt official who takes kickbacks for authorising development in the rainforest or a clerk who asks for a bribe to register a small plot, corruption can endanger livelihoods, promote inequality and distort markets. Where land corruption was identified as a problem by our 2009 Global Corruption Barometer, countries were likely to have weaker economies, lower levels of development, poorer crop yields and less foreign investment.

Corruption in land management strikes when local officials demand bribes for basic administrative steps, but also when high-level political decisions are unduly influenced, leaving ordinary citizens to pay the price.

Putting a price tag on the right to land: administrative corruption

Administrative corruption involves bribes and illegal payments made to register land, acquire official documents and approve building permits. Around the world more than one out of 10 people reported paying bribes when dealing with ordinary land issues.

Citizens taking their corruption problems to Transparency International’s anti-corruption legal advice centres often raise land and property problems.

In Pakistan, one man found his land suddenly occupied by a gangster, and local authorities refused to take up the case. In Azerbaijan, a shop owner who had tried in vain to secure planning permission from local authorities had to watch as they bulldozed his store.

In Kenya, where a 2010 raid uncovered thousands of land files locked in filing cabinets of public officials hoping to collect bribes, it was six in ten. A study in India estimates that US$700 million worth of bribes are paid annually by users of the country’s land administration services.

If ordinary people’s grip on their property can be won, or lost, by the exchange of a cash-filled envelope or in return for a favour, what happens when people with more money to offer take an interest in large scale land purchases?

Whose land is it anyway? Political corruption

Political corruption involves the distorted conduct and control over a country’s resources. Several business sectors that have an interest in how land is used and managed are perceived to resort to bribery to influence policy makers: construction, real estate and public works all ranked bottom of the 2011 Bribe Payers Index out of 19 sectors surveyed.

Land may be ceded to shopping malls, housing developments and green industries. Spain’s housing boom has provided several suspicious cases. In one, it was discovered that 30,000 homes had been illegally built in the town without ever being approved and registered. Police arrested local officials and politicians and seized more than US$3 billion in assets and froze 1,000 bank accounts.

Re-zoning of forest lands for other purposes such as roads, agriculture or homes is driving people from their land and exacerbating deforestation estimated to be responsible for 15 percent of global warming pollution.

A green resource curse?

Our Global Corruption Report: Climate Change warned that big land buyers might be targeting countries where land rights are less likely to be recognised or enforced by officials and courts. For example, a land deal with a biofuel company in Sierra Leone worth US $400 million led to reports of displaced communities from dozens of villages, despite assurances that only ‘marginal’ lands would be used.

In Colombia the cultivation of palm oil has expanded rapidly, but there have been reports of land being illegitimately acquired, and marginalised communities forced from their land by paramilitaries hired by private interests.

Protecting rights to land and livelihood

New pressures on land use will create new challenges in ensuring the basic human right to land tenure is respected – especially for indigenous populations and rural communities.

Some national governments are taking steps to build transparent, effective and accountable land management systems, especially certification and registration of ownership. In countries with the technological know-how, the public can track land transactions and ownership on the internet. Lithuania, for example, has adopted land reforms, including e-governance, that publish land activities on the web. Information can also be posted on community billboards or shared at local meetings discussing changes to land registration procedures.

The problem of improving land governance should be on the agenda when governments meet at the Durban Climate Change from 28 November 2011 to talk climate change. With hundreds of millions of dollars expected to flow to climate change projects and the value of land soaring, the right to land cannot depend on the ability to grease the palms of public officials.


Corruption in the Land Sector, Transparency International/FAO Working Paper

More on forestry and climate change on the Transparency International blog

FAO paper: Voluntary Guidelines on Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests

FAO paper: Towards Improved Land Governance

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