From South Africa to the Amazon rainforest, battles over land and who owns it are unleashing unprecedented conflict and labyrinthine legal cases as governments and companies seek to exploit ever more of the world's natural resources, from trees to minerals to rubber.
With an estimated 70 percent of the world unmapped, more than 5 billion people lack proof of ownership, according to the Lima-based Institute for Liberty and Democracy. It would take all the land surveyors we have 200-300 years to map the world's undocumented land.
South Africa enshrines security of tenure in its constitution but the government rides roughshod over locals by promoting controversial mining deals, said Aninka Claassens, director of the University of Cape Town's Land and Accountability Research Centre.
More than two decades after the end of apartheid, whites still own most of the land in resource-rich South Africa and ownership remains a highly emotive subject ahead of next year's national election.
"Our constitution means nothing unless people affected can prove their land rights, that's why recorded rights are so important," she said. "Mining is destroying livelihoods and land." For Claassens, land rights should be mapped and recorded in accordance with who uses land as well as who actually owns it. "Who uses the land? Most often, it's women," she said, adding that women were often excluded from property records.
Rampant deforestation means communities should rush to document their own land rather than wait for governments to act, said Nonette Royo, executive director of the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility, which helps indigenous people.
"In the world, forest area the size of Belgium disappears every year," she said.