November 17, 2015 Print

Guillermo Peña Panting, Barun Mitra, Eustace Davie, and Joe Lehman (moderator).

Property rights are fundamental to free and prosperous societies, so Atlas Network’s 2015 Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner devoted a “Big Ideas” session to “Property Rights in Action.” There, attendees were able to hear from three leaders of Atlas Network partner organizations currently working to secure property rights, especially for land ownership, in South Africa, India, and Honduras.

Eustace Davie of the Free Market Foundation (FMF) (South Africa), Barun Mitra of the Liberty Institute (India), and Guillermo Peña Panting of Fundación Eléutera (Honduras) provided insight into how the concept of property rights has evolved from thousands of years ago into modern times, and explored how those rights can be secured in innovative new ways through modern technology.

Davie introduced FMF’s Khaya Lam Land Reform Project. Khaya Lam means “my house,” and the project is aimed at gaining home ownership rights for black South Africans who had long been denied those rights under the country’s long-lasting apartheid regime. The 1913 Land Act had taken away black people’s rights to own land in “white areas,” which covered most of South Africa, and the government appropriated their land and houses. Although the Land Act was repealed in 1991, the government still owns most apartheid-era houses. Many households cannot afford to pay titling fees, and most people are so used to rental housing that they do not even think about owning property.

Maria Mothupi, 99, at last owns her home in South Africa. The freehold title deed to the house where she has lived as a tenant since 1982 was presented to her on Thursday, May 7, 2015.

FMF’s project pilot is taking place in the Ngwathe municipality, a low-income area with 43 percent unemployment and 66 percent poverty. Through sponsorship from the First National Bank, individuals, businesses, and farmers, FMF provides funding for freehold tradable titles and facilitates land transfers. It estimates that 20,000 homes will be converted to freehold title through the project. One thousand deeds have already been handed over, or are currently in progress. Davie highlighted the essential nature of property rights by quoting Atlas Network founder Sir John Templeton, who said, “Property rights are essential for human rights.” It is fitting that Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner devotes a session to the defense of property rights, Davie said.

Barun Mitra reflected on the battle for property rights in India dating back to epic tales from earlier generations, “from the Mahabharata to modern times.” He discussed the content of the documentary film India Awakes, produced by Atlas Network partner Free to Choose Network, which tells the story of how an understanding of the importance of property rights has grown during the past two decades in India, leading to newfound prosperity for many of the country’s former underclass.

Mitra’s organization, the Liberty Institute, has worked to bring official titling to land that has been farmed and lived on by tribal villages for generations. The institute has helped process land claims for 25,000 families on its project website,, which contains satellite maps of villages and claimant reports, helping to resolve disputes locally.

“Virtually every corner of India has experienced abuse over eminent domain,” Mitra said. “But just like in Ancient Greece, today in India the people have begun to realize their political capacity, the power of their vote — and that has manifested in a campaign that recognizes rights of marginalized communities to their land and local resources which they need for community survival.”

Representing the importance and modernization of property rights today and in the future, Guillermo Peña Panting spoke about how Fundación Eléutera has used the blockchain technology that underlies bitcoin digital currency to create encrypted, peer-to-peer land registries as a way to demarcate and enforce property rights in Honduras. His organization has partnered with Factom, a U.S.-based open source organization, in order to present a new alternative to the authorities at Honduras’s Institute of Property, which operates the country’s centralized land title system.

Guillermo Peña Panting, Barun Mitra, Eustace Davie, and Joe Lehman (moderator).

The blockchain backbone developed by Fundación Eléutera creates a more stable, decentralized recognition of land titles. Panting pointed out that although the average person may not know how it works, their practical experience with the technology has shown them that it does work. Reuters recognized Panting and Fundación Eléutera’s implementation of blockchain technology for property rights in May, and the Economist also wrote about their efforts in October.

“For the first time in years, Honduras is being mentioned for something not related to corruption, death, violence, narco-trafficking, etc.,” Panting said. “Blockchain technology is solving real-world problems for a very low cost, and can be replicated anywhere around the world.”