Bitcoins, Blockchains, Hash and the Registration of Land Interests Among Vulnerable Communities

I am reliably informed that hash is the name given to resin collected from the flowers of the cannabis plant. I put ‘hash’ in the title to peak your interest but you are now being tracked by GCHQ and the NSA – hey ho! The title is meant to read: Bitcoins, Blockchains, Geohash and Registration of Land Interests Among Vulnerable Communities. When I write ‘Bitcoin’ you think ‘dark web’, I imagine you have not heard of blockchains, but everyone knows about the challenges faced by displaced communities and the desire to create a register of land ownership in developing countries, that we might create order from chaos, et cetera et cetera.

There are complex debates around the notion of developed and developing countries (I think Brettton Woods), around ideas of vulnerable communities (read Tanya Murray Li), and the necessity of the alientation of land (away from customary rights) as a start point to various aid initiatives and incentivisation schemes (particularly in the context of REDD). But in a single sentence I step deftly over such matters.

What do I think the problem is:

Many countries do not have a registry of land ownership. There are various cultural, political and logistical reasons for this. But in the absence of such legal frameworks that define interests and ownership over land, we are increasingly seeing people being forcibly evicted – the land ‘purchased’ in the name of large carbon investment programmes. Where a centralised Land Registry does exist, there is the risk that government officials can corruptly lay claim to land that is apparently ‘unsettled’ (reminds me of the ‘finders keepers’ argument of ‘Terra Nullius’ applied by the British when they colonised Australia).

What do I think the solution is:

Could we not equip such vulnerable communities with the power to record their own interests in the land? Could we not use the ‘spatial’ wisdom of the masses to verify such occupancy? Could we store such information in a way that prevents its corruption and fabrication? Can we do it in a way that is simple and does not require a Masters Degree in GIS from The University of Edinburgh? Which brings me nicely onto bitcoins, blockchains and (geo)hash.

What is a bitcoin?

A bitcoin is a form of digital currency, created and held electronically. Interestingly, no one individual controls it. It facilitates online transactions. A bitcoin can be divided into as many pieces as you like. It can be used to buy anything (including hash).

What is a blockchain?

A blockchain is an encrypted digital ledger. Every bitcoin has a blockchain. It contains the record of every transaction that that bitcoin has been involved in (which is why it is encrypted!). An analogue would be to take a coin from your pocket and have a way of knowing every transaction that that coin had been involved in. The encryption is shared among many machines around the world such that it is impossible to decrypt.

What is geohash?

Geohash is a public domain service by which latitude and longitude can be recorded as a simple alphanumeric sequence. Invented by Gustavo Niemeyer, the length of the character string is proportional to a point’s locational precision (ie analogous to the postcode, the first part being coarse, and the second part affording finer resolution). In that sense it is much more sophisticated and logical than what3words.

Landcoin

So, for bitcoin, read ‘landcoin’ – stored in the cloud. Each landcoin has a blockchain that records the provenance of the property (its sale, partioning, or disbursement). The transactions are encrypted and not alterable by any single institution or individual. Lets use geohashing to create an alphanumeric encoding of a property boundary (perhaps the four corner points of a property for example).

Coming to a cinema near you

Let us remember that technology is inherently undemocratic. For this to work, people need to know about such a service, a person needs the technical know-how, and access to a machine that can record a series of geohash locations, access to the internet, and a proforma that enables current (and future transactions) to be recorded in the blockchain, and a mechanism of informing adjoining properties of any changes so that the crowd can verify its veracity. This is truly a big ask!

But I thought it was intriguing to take the idea of bitcoin and apply it in the context of a global land registry rather than just the purchase of hash! One day these pieces will fall together.

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