Latin American Cadastres

Successes and Remaining Problems
Diego Alfonso Erba, Abril 1, 2004

Latin America is a region of sharp contrasts in land use: the expansive Amazon forest and growing areas of deforestation; large uninhabited regions and enormous urban concentrations; the coexistence of wealth and poverty in the same neighborhoods. Many of these contrasts derive from land policies established by powerful land interests that are perpetuated because of outdated or distorted data. This heritage is a part of the region’s colonization process that has been characterized by the exploitation and occupation of land at any price.

The first land information system for registering parcels in Latin America was established in 1824 by the Topographic Commission in the Province of Buenos Aires in the Republic of Argentina. Territorial cadastre offices throughout the region now manage public land information systems that register maps and data about the parcels on which taxes are levied and rights are granted to the owners or occupants of the land.

What Is a Cadastre?

A modern cadastre is an integrated database system that holds information on land registration and ownership, physical characteristics, econometric modeling for property valuation, zoning, geographic information systems, transportation, and environmental, socioeconomic and demographic data. Such cadastres represent a holistic planning tool that can be used at the local, regional and national levels to address issues such as economic development, sprawl, poverty eradication, land policy and sustainable community development.

The earliest recorded accounts of property surveys in ancient Egypt used the science of geometry to measure distances. European cadastres later followed this ancient model until advancements led to more fully integrated systems that could be used for fiscal purposes, such as valuation, taxation and legal conveyance, as well as land management and planning. The United States does not have a national cadastral system, but similar municipal processes reflect both the policy and protocol of international cadastre programs.

The International Federation of Surveyors was founded in Paris in 1878 as the Fédération Internationale des Géomètres and is known by its acronym, FIG. This nongovernmental organization represents more than 100 countries and supports international collaboration on surveying through the collection of data on surface and near-surface features of the earth and their representation as a map, plan or digital model. FIG’s work is conducted by 10 commissions that specialize in different aspects of surveying. Commission 7, Cadastre and Land Management, focuses on issues in cadastral reform and multipurpose cadastres; parcel-based land information systems; cadastral surveying and mapping; and land titling, land tenure, land law and registration. For more information, see

Multipurpose Cadastres

In recent years, the vision of the cadastre as a multipurpose information system has begun to evolve, bringing with it great advances in the quality of land information systems, as well as some problems. The origin of these concerns can be found in the very concept of multipurpose cadastre systems and in the administrative decisions needed for their implementation. A common assumption holds that to implement a multipurpose cadastre it is necessary to expand the alphanumeric databases—including social and environmental data as well as the usual physical (location and shape), economic and legal aspects of the parcel—and to connect this information with a parcel map in a geographical information system (GIS). While this is very important, it is not enough.

Implementation of a multipurpose cadastre implies a change of paradigm for its administration and demands a new land use framework law and new relationships between the public and private sectors. In 1996 Brazil established a biannual National Multipurpose Cadastral Congress that examines its own state-level cadastre programs and those in neighboring countries. Despite the attention devoted to cadastres and the many papers published on the topic since then, there is no evidence of any municipality in which the multipurpose cadastral system is actually working as well as hoped.

According to the literature, the way to make a cadastre truly multipurpose is to integrate all the public and private institutions that are working at the parcel level using a unique identifier, and to define standards for the alphanumeric and cartographic databases. Chile is one of the countries where all the parcels have a common identifier designated by the implementation of the National Territorial Information System, although the system does not yet integrate the alphanumeric cadastral data with maps at the parcel level (Hyman et al. 2003).

Centralization versus Decentralization

The hegemony of the unitary system of government that characterizes most Latin American countries has caused a predominance of centralized cadastres, although this phenomenon also occurs in countries with a federal government. Brazil, for example, recently restructured its National System of Rural Cadastre, which, in spite of the technical advances proposed by Law 10.267/2001, will continue to be administered by an institution of the national government.

In contrast, the decentralization movement in the region aspires to modernize state governments by transferring powers to municipal jurisdictions, including the institutions responsible for land administration. For example, more than half of the states in Mexico still have centralized cadastral data, although some have begun to decentralize by creating municipal systems that are compatible with the state cadastre. A similar situation is occurring in Argentina, where some provincial institutions are beginning to transfer systems and data to the municipalities. Local administrators have an added incentive for assuming responsibility for organizing and maintaining cadastral systems because of the opportunities to collect property taxes and sell maps or databases registered in the local cadastral system to utility companies and other entities in the private sector.

All these good intentions, however, frequently run up against the chronic problem of the scarcity of capable personnel and infrastructure. In some cases decentralization may constitute a problem rather than a solution and it could jeopardize the maintenance and validation of data. For example, the adoption of the decentralized model may lead to the coexistence of extremely detailed and precise cadastres in some locations with practically nonexistent cadastres in other locations. Such discrepancies between adjacent municipalities may create inconsistent land information when it is aggregated at the regional and national levels.

A centralized model, on the other hand, can facilitate the unified design and structuring of the cadastre and guarantee the integration of geodetic and cartographic systems with the identification of parcels. The difficulties in accessing and distributing information for local needs might be solved by using the Internet to organize land data and maps through the central cadastre. Some countries, such as Jamaica, Chile and Uruguay, are beginning to structure their eCadastres in this way. (This term is derived from the eGovernment concept introduced by the World Bank.)

When considering the varying development stages of Latin American cadastres, we can conclude that each jurisdiction must analyze which type of system is most appropriate for its own circumstances. It is worth considering the Common Principles on the Cadastre in the European Union, a document that affirms that “there are no intentions to unify the cadastral systems of the member states; however, there is interest in standardizing products” (Permanent Committee 2003). If it is possible to work with different cadastral systems across Europe, it must be possible to do so within a single country.

Public versus Private Cadastres

After the publication of Cadastre 2014 by the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG), one of the new visions that provoked much discussion was the proposal that the cadastre should be “highly privatized; public and private sectors are working closely together, reducing the control and supervision by the public sector” (Kaufmann and Steudler 1998). For example, in Japan private companies have almost total control of the cadastral base of some cities, whereas in the member states of the European Union the cadastre resides within the government sphere.

In Latin America, cadastres remain primarily in the hands of public institutions; the private sector normally participates in the processes of implementing cartographic updates and information systems, but not in the administration itself. The Mexican municipality of Guadalajara, for example, did a comparative study of costs, concluding that managing the cadastre with its own public employees and equipment would yield a savings of 50 percent in investments, which was confirmed after one year of implementation.

In spite of the positive results obtained from such projects developed entirely within public administrations, the private sector cannot be ignored, particularly in the context of the privatization wave that has hit Latin America in recent years. For example, telephone, water and electric companies need up-to-date land information in the same way as the public institutions. Their common interest in maintaining databases is leading the cadastre offices and the utility companies to work together and share investments, as well as to look for ways to standardize data and define common identifiers for the parcels.


The majority of Latin American cadastral systems are still registering three kinds of data following the traditional economic-physical-legal model: the economic value, the location and shape of the parcel, and the legal relationship between the property and the owner or occupant. However, there is increased interest in utilizing multipurpose information systems. In this transition process, some administrators have decided to implement new cadastral applications based only on technology; evidently, this has not been as successful as they imagined. This incorporation of new technologies must be accompanied by necessary changes in procedures and legislation and by professional training of public employees.

In recent years international institutions such as the World Bank, the Lincoln Institute and many European and American universities have been collaborating to help improve Latin American cadastres. They support educational programs, academic events and concrete projects for implementing reliable and updated land information systems. As the transition to multipurpose cadastres continues, changes will be implemented through a careful revision of relevant legislation, more accessible forms of customer service, stronger collaboration between private and public institutions that generate and use cadastral data, and the application of contemporary international standards. Territorial cadastres in Latin America will become even more efficient and valuable if they generate information that allows the development of projects oriented to fundamental social concerns such as land regularization and identification of vacant land.

Diego Alfonso Erba is professor of advanced GIS applications and digital cartography at UNISINOS (Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos) in São Leopoldo-RS, Brazil, and a visiting fellow of the Lincoln Institute.


Hyman, G., C. Perea, D. Rey, and K. Lance. 2003. Encuesta sobre el desarrollo de las infraestructuras nacionales de datos espaciales en América Latina y el Caribe. Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT). (Survey on the development of national infrastructures of spatial data in Latin America and the Caribbean. International Center for Tropical Agriculture.)

Kaufmann, Jürg, and Daniel Steudler. 1998. Cadastre 2014: A vision for a future cadastral system. Frederiksberg, Denmark: International Federation of Surveyors (FIG). Available at

Permanent Committee on Cadastre in the European Union. 2003. Common principles on the cadastre in the European Union. Rome. December 3. Available at