Security of land tenure in post disaster Nepal

worker standing next to a drone on a field

Surveying can look very different depending on where you are in the world. My interest in global land tenure issues was sparked with an international land tenure course in my final year at university. This course highlighted the disparities that exist in our land administration systems globally.

In July this year, the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) launched their brand-new volunteer program for young surveyors and called for expressions of interest. The program is a joint initiative between the International Federation of Surveyors – Young Surveyors Network (FIG YSN) and the Global Land Tool Network (GLTN). The goal of the program is to enable young surveyors to volunteer their time and skills to assist in international land administration type projects.

In 2016 I attended the FIG Working Week in Christchurch which was themed ‘Recovery from Disaster’. There I participated in a joint GLTN/UN-Habitat awareness event on the Social Tenure Domain Model (STDM). I learnt that the Social Tenure Domain Model is one of GLTN’s recently developed land tools used to assist in pro-poor, gender responsive and fit for purpose land administration. More specifically, STDM is a plugin for QGIS, which is open source software meaning it is free and available to the public. During this workshop we were shown how the software works and what it can achieve. Having done the training, I was prepared for the basic use of the tool in the field. I applied for the VCSP program and in September was notified that I had been selected.

The project I was selected for was a pilot for STDM in Nepal. The context of the project was post-disaster recovery with a focus on security of tenure and ‘building back better’ after the heavily destructive earthquakes of April and May 2015. The project was less focussed on upgrading the legal cadastre and more focussed on influencing land policy for more effective recovery in the wake of the earthquake. Three major areas of concern were identified as being problematic for the recovery effort, and these informed which sites were chosen for the project. The first concern was, to receive the government grant for reconstruction, a household needed a title to their land. In the case of Phulapa, a rural area with around 700 households, almost all of the residents are ‘sharecroppers’. This means they farm the land and share the produce with the owners of their land who live elsewhere. Most of these people have no title documents for the land they occupy.

The other two concerns related to the safe relocation of existing settlements to new sites, and the need for integrated settlements with infrastructure planning in the future. Most of the housing in the rural areas is scattered without any planning, and many of the areas around the villages are prone to landslides and in need of geotechnical assessment. Also, obtaining a building permit without title documents poses difficulties. With support from local authorities, the village of Jilu is receiving two small settlements with an integrated planning approach through a land pooling and readjustment project that was underway during my visit.

A Local NGO called HURADEC was engaged to undertake and manage the field work and data collection for this project. When I arrived, this was well underway. The data was collected using household questionnaires and handheld GPS devices. Once this was completed, field surveyors organised a time to meet with the community. Using a participatory process of ‘visual boundary marking’ the location and ownership of the land parcels were marked on A0 satellite images. This was deemed ‘fit for purpose’ as it was practical, relatively fast and achieved the intended purpose.

My role as a volunteer in this project was primarily; validation of the collected data, geo-referencing the satellite images and digitization of the farm boundaries. Data validation involved using queries in the GIS to interrogate the data and check its validity. Geo-referencing involved taking high-resolution photographs of the satellite images and aligning them with the underlying satellite imagery in the GIS. Digitisation was then easily carried out by drawing polygons over the geo-referenced images and assigning the parcels unique identifiers. A relationship could then be defined between the household data collected and the land.

As a volunteer on this project, I learnt good problem solving and project management skills in a foreign environment where resources were limited, and communication could be difficult! I worked independently for a lot of the project and used this time to learn the GIS software. There were other opportunities too. For example, I took part in research on automatic feature extraction using remote sensing for cadastral mapping.

As well as the professional development I gained, this program was an exceptional experience of another culture and work environment. I would highly recommend this experience to other young surveyors who would be interested in volunteering their time and skills in overseas projects. Volunteers will assist in project tasks but also gain fantastic professional and cultural experiences while working abroad.

Jordan Friis – Surveyor