In my work, I explore the ways in which blockchain technology has been utilized for formalizing land rights in emerging economies. Currently, in these economies, there is a turn towards using digital technologies for recording the relationships between people and land and coordinating and displaying those data for efficient governance. On the one hand, blockchain registries could reduce manipulation of land records and reduce the number of intermediaries: as records on blockchain are distributed and verified by a multitude of nodes in a digital network and as additions to the chain of blocks are cryptographically time-stamped, tampering or accidental data loss are less likely as compared to centralized databases. At the same time, my research suggests that such technology applications should be also studied as infrastructural assemblages that are embedded in older, non-digital modalities and the peopled infrastructures of historically and culturally specific informal networks. These structures behave in more complex ways that are frequently led by the development industry and technology companies investing in technology-mediated financial inclusion initiatives. These areas of research present an exciting frontier for the anthropology of technoscience.
The legacies of dispossession
As an anthropologist studying the intersection of the human economy and emerging technologies, my focus has been on informal work and savings groups that mediate money, labor, and mutual help in East Africa, as well as their interfacing with mobile money and online platforms. More recently, digital ledger technologies are increasingly utilized for large-scale initiatives to formalize land rights across Africa. Although digital technologies have become an inseparable part of everyday lives of people all over the world, some of the most innovative but also challenging applications of the technology frequently occur in emerging economies. As many people readily adopt digital technologies upon a backdrop of unreliable or lacking pre-existing infrastructures, these remain critical sites and some of the most complicated regions for entry and application, as technology unfolds with and against continuities of imperial infrastructures.
Neither informal and customary, nor newer, formalized, and statutory systems are static and unchanging. Customary systems for land and labor management in East Africa have often developed in interaction with extractive colonial policies of cash-cropping and labor appropriation for the profit of the Global North. Formal financial inclusion initiatives frequently reinforce present-day economic informality. Digital technologies may amplify these bureaucratic pursuits to standardize and make legible local economies and livelihoods, for a more efficient governing at a distance.
Behind the seemingly neutral façade of the technology, diverse aspirational claims and narratives guide its implementation in different societies, shaped by particular histories and socio-political contexts. Blockchain technology, originally seen as facilitating egalitarian, peer-to-peer exchange, is not neutral and apolitical. Rather, digital technologies can facilitate an illusion of enhanced visibility of some elements while obscuring others. My work suggests that more attention is needed to the role of broader colonial legacies and present-day inequalities that frequently remain backgrounded in the application of such technologies.
Emerging critical accounts of the digital infrastructures call our attention to the ongoing production of layered invisibilities that are embedded in colonial and imperial legacies. The fiber-optic cables enabling global internet connections, for example, have been laid over the routes of the earlier telegraph and railroad lines in many cases. Infrastructures such as colonial rail networks serve as ongoing “vehicles of domination” towards indigenous populations when they carry away nature along enduring extractivist pathways from inland to the sea (Stein and Kalina 2019). Such pathways in the flows of global connectivity reproduce territories of fragmented power and uneven participation.
Blockchain-based digitalization of land records
Blockchain-based digitalization of land records should be viewed within a broader framework of land tenure formalization in East Africa. Land titling has frequently been advocated as fostering economic development by turning land into a tradable asset, while it has also fueled speculative investment and land concentration. Many communities follow local, alternative rules of property, where land is held under customary tenure and managed as part of a complex system of obligations and debts within a broader kin or territorial group.
Neoliberal decentralization in Africa has returned the allure of “traditional ways” of belonging that focus on local forms of organization and authority—while ignoring the fact that local communities are products of colonial and post-colonial interventions (Geschiere 2009). Despite the proliferating titling reforms, there is little evidence of a linear development of land tenure towards state-sanctioned private property (Benjaminsen and Lund 2002). Local forms of tenure institutionalization continue in parallel with those of the state and may form hybrid partnerships with government bureaucracies. Both statutory and customary systems can produce exclusion: informal processes around land are often co-opted by local, “traditional” authorities to solidify their power (Berry 2017).
Recombinant property: blockchain as an ambiguous solution
The evolution of digital land registries entails an increasing dislocation of land from the social and temporal embeddedness of its everyday uses. As high-tech title registries render more visible the gap between registry records and lived experience, transfers from paper-based to digital ledgers often highlight the need for human mediators with local knowledge. Even after the transfer, intermediaries are likely to remain an important part of the new infrastructures.
These dynamics are already evident in additional regions of Africa, such as Ghana where blockchain-based land record-making is unfolding rapidly. Much of the rural land in Ghana is unrecorded and many city dwellers live in informal settlements. Title registration is slow and costly. Many holdings are governed by oral agreements. Land allocation in many parts of the country is overseen by local chiefs whose power has only grown through partnerships with the formal administrative sector. “Modern” and “traditional” forms of governance intermingle, with land serving as a source of political power for local authorities. Ghanaian chiefs provided inspiration for the World Bank in the revival movement of the “traditional authorities” in Africa’s governance in the 1980s-90s (see Berry 2013). Pursuing a plural agenda of promoting economic development and strengthening traditional authority, the chiefs blurred the boundaries between entrepreneurs, customary officeholders, and representatives of the state.
The new digital infrastructures in Ghana thus incorporate elements from multiple infrastructural modalities and temporalities—defined by the histories and regional variety of the country’s land tenure institutions and colonial as well as neoliberal policy initiatives (see Rodima-Taylor 2021). This highlights the importance of viewing blockchain registries as part of a broader infrastructural configuration that brings into contact the electronic and digital with paper deed registries, oral use claims and narratives about land ownership, and the “peopled infrastructures” of customary authorities overseeing land allocation.
In Eastern Europe – a region that I know as part of my own biography and continue to observe – postsocialist Georgia presents a somewhat different case of blockchain-based registry application, raising similarities but also important contrasts with my work in East and West Africa. Registry there, as well, can be viewed as part of longer-standing land governance reforms. In Georgia’s case, large-scale collective farms predominated the countryside during the socialist period. Land privatization took place in the 1990s, with a digital registry established with support from the World Bank and other development actors. To enhance transparency and resilience of the database, Georgia’s government turned to blockchain technology, developing the first national blockchain-based land registry globally in 2018. Yet, the “blockchain layer” was added to an already existing IT infrastructure. Strong popular sentiments about the need to address the postsocialist territorial confusion, among other loss of norms, may have contributed to the demand for novel technological solutions. Importantly, it seems that a centuries-long history of territorial invasions and conflicts had undermined public trust in government-led registration in enduring ways.
We begin to see that blockchain carries both shared and different promises in these two regions. In Ghana, the stated goal of the planned blockchain registry is to eliminate the pervasive informality of land rights and to improve the functioning of land markets under growing land scarcity and rural commercialization. It follows that this would entail the necessary conversion of customary rights to land into formal, private land rights. It is not clear, however, if this promise of land tenure formalization through blockchain technology resonates with most of the population. Digital registries could introduce new layers of intermediation and deepen inequalities. Meanwhile, the blockchain land registry in Georgia has a stated goal to empower a new postsocialist collectivity and restore public trust in the government after regime transition through bringing transparency and accounting to upended land-use patterns. Yet it is not clear to what extent the population accepts this technology of land restitution reform in the countryside.
The cases of both Ghana and Georgia involve significant efforts to institute blockchain-based systems that are still a very novel solution in the land administration space. In both countries, blockchain technologies operate in environments where land access has been shaped by the legacies of colonial extraction. Landholdings in such settings may feature as “recombinant property” that is defined and accessed by more than one set of standards and combines elements of public and private property (Verdery 2003; Dorondel, Rodima-Taylor, and Rusu, forthcoming). Blockchain-based land management could be guided by a formalistic and top-down view of land tenure, without enough attention to the actual complexities of grounded land rights. Blockchain technology can create an illusion of enhanced participation and transparency, while also leading to a growing convergence of plural ownership and use rights and centralized management of land in conditions where statutory law does not adequately represent all land users.
Private partnerships and uncertain futures
While the role of the government remains central in these initiatives, novel synergies emerge with private companies. Drawing on platform intermediation, the developing oligopolies in the emerging technology space fuel concerns around data privacy and ownership, and may reinforce exclusions and divides (see Langley and Leyshon 2020). Gaps in physical infrastructures are often bridged by the peopled element of social networks and local gatekeepers. Majority of such intermediaries and rural population in countries like Ghana may lack access to the technology or steady electricity supply to be able to meaningfully participate in such systems—further expanding the digital divide.
Illuminating the intermingling of the human and the material, political and aesthetic, infrastructures constitute a promising site for empirical investigation of contemporary capitalisms, argue Anand, Gupta, and Appel (2018), among others. Infrastructures emerged as a technology of the developmental state, while depoliticization obscures their role in creating and intensifying exclusions and subjugation. They can be embedded simultaneously in different temporalities, while still defined by local histories and the rhythms of contemporary global capital. Blockchain currently operates via promissory narratives that obscure the complex layering of formal and informal, institutionalized and grassroots texture of property rights. Companies moving into Africa and partnership with states may want it to serve as a cure-all for local land tenure and use, but it may intensify existing tensions among individuals, collectives, and state control.
Reminding us that technologies are symbolic as well as technical objects, Larkin (2018) calls attention to the ways that the aesthetics of infrastructures bring forth a political force and allow people to contest authority. Infrastructures can evoke and make visible ideas that are of central ethical concern at a particular moment—such as the promised transparency of blockchain registries in environments of plurality and uncertainty. The blockchain registry may signify a desire to “lock away” debates and contestations over land. Paradoxically, it renders historical patterns of power visible and makes infrastructures available to broader political debates around the incomplete or unrealizable fruition of promises made.
My thanks to Serena Stein and Yakup Deniz Kahraman for very thoughtful comments and suggestions.
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