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Updated on 23 march 2023

Land governance is a sector particularly vulnerable to corruption due to the economic and
social value given to land. For the same reason, corruption in land governance has high social costs affecting food security, social justice, environmental protection, women empowerment, cultural diversity, human rights, and the safety and sustainability of cities and communities. According to Transparency International, across the globe, one in every five people has paid a bribe to access land services.[1] In developing countries, the impact of land corruption is especially significant because of the large number of small-scale landholders whose

livelihoods depend on their access to land. In urban settings of both developed and developing countries, speculation and the investment of illicit funds in real estate is an additional difficulty in a sector where the scarcity of land, housing and infrastructures creates, according to the GIZ, leverages for extortion and motivates corruption behaviour.[2] Several studies document corruption risks in land governance, but also look at potential reforms and measures that can reduce these risks. 

Land Degradation & Tenure. Photo by Farouq Taj. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The impact of land corruption

Corruption in land governance has significant social costs. It can increase levels of poverty and hunger because it reduces access to land and damages the livelihoods of small producers, landless rural populations, and the urban poor.[3] Furthermore, studies show that the poor are more vulnerable to bribery. In Africa, for instance, poor people are around three times as likely to pay bribes due, in part, to their dependency on government services.[4] This exposure to bribery, besides reducing an already poor household’s income, could discourage poor people from regulating their own land, which might compromise their future land entitlement and livelihood. At the same time, no regulating land or undervaluating land for tax purposes makes the government to lose revenue, which would otherwise enable it to provide social services.

The rise of rural poverty, coupled with land inequality and unemployment, has led to large migration to urban areas, expanding the growth of slums. According to UN Habitat, a lack of human and financial capacity continues to strain sustainable urbanization while creating conditions for corruption.[5]

Corruption in urban planning can have serious negative consequences for the provision of public services and social and economic outcomes for millions of people,[6] as well as for safety issues regarding the quality of the constructions. 60% of city government survey respondents in Africa and Latin America considered risks of corruption as ‘relevant’ to ‘highly relevant’ as an urban governance challenge.[7]

Another consequence of corruption in land governance is the generation of land conflicts. Some conflicts facilitated by corruption are caused by the double allocation of the same land parcel by the land registration office due to the acceptance of fake titles.[8] Access to natural resources facilitated by corruption is also a key source of conflict. Land conflict can be particularly contentious – conflicts related to land and natural resources are twice as likely to reoccur in the first five years compared with other types of conflict.[9]

Two groups in society are particularly vulnerable to corruption in land governance: women and indigenous peoples. [b]Land corruption impedes women’s access to land ownership and affects their use and control over land, which in turn exacerbates gender inequality and prevents women from benefiting from the economic opportunities provided by land tenure. A Transparency International study illustrates how land corruption tends to reinforce social norms and local practices that exclude women from land ownership and can jeopardize legal efforts to achieve gender equality.[10] The transformation of customary land to commercial land through large-scale land investments in Africa, a process which is often facilitated by corruption, negatively impacts women since commercialisation of the property concentrates land in those who have ownership, usually male household heads.[11] In addition, women are particularly vulnerable to bribes and they may face sexual harassment, violence and extortion. 

Indigenous peoples often suffer from land evictions, displacements, forced relocations and violence related to the extraction of natural resources or infrastructure works in their communal land. That not only affects their livelihood and has a negative impact on the environment, but can affect their sense of identify and undermine a spiritual or cultural relationship with their ancestral land. Corruption largely explains the lack of enforcement of rights to prior consultation, participation and consent recognised in the International Labour Organization’s 169 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention and in national legislations to protect indigenous people’s collective rights to land, reducing the value of those mechanisms. 


Land corruption risks

Some of the areas most vulnerable to corruption in land governance are:

Land administration services
In many places corruption is a common practice in everyday land administrative services. Examples of land services include physical planning, mapping, adjudication, surveying, valuation, taxation and registration. They also include the enactment of supportive laws and policies for regulation, dispute resolution, access to public information, land use planning and execution of land sector reforms.[12] Each of those services can further broken into several sub-sets like land searches, land transfers, lodging caveats, etc.  It is generally conceptualized that land administration ought to be accountable, responsive, people-centred, and transparent to ensure delivery of quality land services.[13] However, this is far from the reality in many parts of the world. In Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, land services is the third sector most prone to bribery.[14] In Mexico, land services are among the administrative sectors with the higher levels of bribery,[15] and in Bangladesh land services is among the three institutions with both the worst rates of bribery as well as the highest costs of bribes.[16] 

Land registries are considered highly vulnerable to both petty and grand corruption due to their role in regularizing land ownership, effecting transfers, assessing value to land, and ascertaining claims, among other functions.  This corruption might be facilitated by administrative challenges including complex procedures, limited resources and training, difficulty sharing information and coordinating with other relevant agencies, and staff resistance to change.[17] 

Examples of corruption in land administration include bribery, sexual extortion, fraud and patronage. Influencing trading and bribes are used to secure favour for potential buyers in land sales, to speed = the negotiation of prices or land transfers, secure land or circumvent slow, inefficient and unwanted regulations, negotiate higher compensation rates in land deals; and undervalue or overvalue land.[18] Women may be vulnerable to demands for sexual favours in place of bribes (sextortion).[19] Fraud may manifest as the forging of land-related documents, fake measurements by surveyors and land administrators, or landowners moving property markers.[20] Land can also be used by elites to secure political support or maintain patron-client relations.[21]

Large-scale land deals 
High levels of corruption and poor governance are characteristic of countries that attract land investors.[22] Oxfam shows that over three-quarters of the 56 countries where land deals were agreed between 2000 and 2011 scored below average on governance indicators such as voice and accountability, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption.[23] Studies show a statistically significant correlation between levels of perceived corruption and the likelihood of large-scale land deals.[24] For example, the top five countries for large agricultural deals according to a 2016 Land Matrix report - Indonesia, Ukraine, Russia, Papua New Guinea and Brazil[25] - scored low - 37, 29, 29, 28 and 40 respectively - on the 2016 Corruption Perception Index (0 considered highly corrupt and 100 very clean).[26] Both weak governance and corruption facilitate quick and cheap deals, maximising profit and minimizing red tape. 

Land deals can be vulnerable to corruption at various stages of their implementation. Global Witness highlights six phases where corruption can play a major role in these kind of deals: 1) the demarcation of land and the rolling out of titling schemes; 2) the design of land use schemes and the identification of land as ‘underutilized’ or ‘vacant’; 3) the use of ‘public purpose’ or ‘eminent domain’ provisions to justify expropriation of land; 4) the selling or leasing out of land to investors by the government or by community leaders; 5) the exercise of remedies (like land returned or fair compensation) in land-related complaints; and 6) the monitoring of investor obligations during the post-project period.[27] 

Another way in which corruption may be linked to land acquisition is through the flow of dirty money and the use of tax havens to hide the origin of funds used to obtain land. In its 2021 assessment of the Global Land Rush,[28] Land Matrix found that many investors operate through investment hubs, many of them tax havens, obscuring their real origin.[29] This explains why the top-10 investor origins include countries like Cyprus, Singapore, the British Virgin Islands and Hong Kong.[30] Control over land can be increasingly difficult to identify as complex corporate and financial structures as well as shareholdings obscure the ultimate beneficiaries and major investors in many land deals. This presents a challenge to pursuing investor accountability.[31] 

Legal limitations
Laws governing land administration can be complex and unclear, which increases opportunities of abuse by corrupt officials acting in their own interests.[32] For example, in Ecuador, the 2008 Constitution provides a complex picture of the diversity of identity groups in the country (indigenous communities, peoples and nationalities; afro-Ecuadorian people; montubio people; and the communes), but there are differences in the recognition of each of these groups’ rights over land. Whereas the recognition of collective land rights for indigenous communities, peoples and nationalities is explicit, the law is ambiguous regarding the collective rights over land for montubio and afro-Ecuadorian peoples. The differences in the recognition of collective land rights depending on the identity facilitates different interpretations of the law, which creates a risk of corruption to defend the interpretation most convenient to fulfil private agendas.   
In Bangladesh, land legislation includes different laws, some of them originated in the British colonial and the Pakistan periods, including the Registration Act 1908, the Codes of Civil Procedure 1908, the State Acquisition and Tenancy Act 1950, and the Agriculture Khas Land Management and Distribution Policy 1997. This has created an inefficient system without provision for oversight, giving monopoly on land acquisition deals to the government and discretionary power to officials, thus increasing the chances for corruption.[33]

Another challenge is the coexistence of different, often contradictory, regulations as well as overlapping mandates among different institutions. In the Cayambe municipality of Ecuador, the legislation on indigenous rights clashed with local government regulations regarding land taxes. While the national legislation exempts collective indigenous land from paying taxes, the Cayambe municipality was not clear on what constitutes private and communal property when it comes to charge taxes, creating opportunities for a different application of the law.[34] This is also true in most of sub-Saharan Africa where customary land is predominant yet can be inconsistent with national laws.

Zambia had several laws regulating land rights and management including the 1995 Lands Act, the Land and Deeds Registry Act and the Housing (Statutory and Improvement Areas) Act. This exposes citizens to a high number of duty bearers and can make land administration processes difficult to navigate. The lack of clarity can also facilitate opportunities for corruption.[35] However, the Land Policy launched in 2021 is an important legislative milestone that seeks to provide clear guidelines on land administration. 


Opportunities for reform

The opportunities to prevent and combat corruption in the land sector are context dependent and will vary depending on the specific needs in each case. However, it is worth reviewing some areas of reform that had some success in reducing land corruption. It’s important to note that effective reforms require simultaneous intervention at different levels.

Legal and policy framework reform: this can be targeted specifically at addressing corruption, or more generally as a way of strengthening land rights and good governance in the land sector. Reinforcing laws on the recognition of land rights, enforcement of those rights, and clarity of institutional mandates could reduce the space for discretionary power.[36] For example, to define clearly and in detail the scope of land rights and the responsibilities of land governance institutions could prevent interpretations that favour personal agendas.

Institutional and land agencies reform: one of the key areas of reform addresses the need for independent, largely autonomous and self-sustaining land agencies. One way to achieve this is by allowing the land agency to generate its own revenue streams from service provision. Here it is important to set reasonable fees, that can support the agencies operation but are also affordable for those with lower incomes. In Rwanda, the registry, renamed as the Rwanda Land Use and Management Authority, became wholly autonomous in 2017 after introducing several reforms.[37] Some of those reforms aimed to improve accessibility and public awareness by establishing a team of land managers at the sub-district level, creating Land Days to help process transactions quickly, and building a new land management software to improve efficiency and security, including a tool for mobile phones.[38]  Reforms should also consider concentrating the major functions of land administration into a single agency. This was the main task of the National Land Agency in Jamaica which was created in 2001 to merge the four separate departments handling different aspects of land administration.[39] That reform not only sped up processes, but improved their quality. 

Effective land management and administration procedures: one way of achieving this is to promote transparency in the registry of land as well as in other related procedures by disclosing publicly the steps, fees and timelines. This can be through publishing the relevant information in brochures, websites, notice boards, etc. that are publicly accessible. That transparency would close the space for ambiguity and negotiation and, hence, make the procedures less vulnerable to corruption. Another way to gain efficiency is by digitalizing the procedures for titling and registration. This would have the added benefit of reducing contact with public servants, limiting opportunities for corruption too. The use of technology to automate processes not only reduces discretion in decision-making, but it also improves the accuracy and reliability of records.[40] For example, the use of satellite technology can be very helpful to accurately mapping land titles and can help with solving disputes related to boundaries and conflicting titling claims. E-government measures can assist with title applications, registration, payment of registry fees, tracking applications, and legal searches, among others. Nevertheless, the specialized literature recommends caution when applying technological solutions because they require resources and optimal conditions to function properly. The International Federation of Surveyors and World Bank advocate, instead, for a reform approach based on flexibility, affordability and reliability adapted to each case.[41]   

Staff integrity: building staff integrity is gaining increasingly strength as an anti-corruption strategy. Effective promotion of integrity in public institutions implies going beyond the compliance of codes of conduct and creating working cultures run by ethical principles and values. Positive incentives and disciplinary penalties can help to channel behaviour towards corruption-free land management in institutions. 

Whistleblowing protection and grievance mechanisms: without the possibility for citizens to safely report allegations of corruption, the potential for success of the previous reforms is diminished. Whistleblowing reform can be integrated into existing state institutions such as the ombudsman or the judicial system, or by creating the specific mechanisms within land administration institutions, depending on the institutional capacities in each case.[42] 

Responsible investment practices in the corporate sector: appropriate due diligence, transparency around investments and penalties for non-compliance can be measures that encourage responsible investment.[43] The Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems, adopted by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in 2014, offer guidance in this regard and contain ten core principles related to land tenure and outline the responsibilities of various stakeholders involved in agricultural investments.[44] 

International standards on land governance and anti-corruption:  The Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) includes several direct references on preventing corruption through accountability, transparency and participation.[45] Special emphasis is made in article 6.9, according to which states and non-states actors should endeavour to prevent corruption with regard to tenure rights through consultation and participation, rule of law, transparency and accountability. States should also adopt and enforce anti-corruption measures including applying checks and balances, limiting the arbitrary use of power, addressing conflicts of interest, and adopting clear rules and regulations. Staff should be held accountable for their actions, should have the means to conduct their duties effectively, and should be protected against interference in their duties and from retaliation for reporting acts of corruption. 

Gender sensitive reforms: gender sensitive reforms to prevent land corruption should occur at two levels.[46] The first level is diagnosis of the problem and  better understanding how land corruption affects women. One way of doing this would be to collect gender disaggregated data on access to land or on how  land corruption affects men and women.[47] The other level is the inclusion of gender-sensitive measures in the design and implementation of policies, laws, assistance and procedures regarding land. To support this effort, the Global Land Tool Network (GLTN) has developed ‘gender evaluation criteria’ to assess the extent to which land tools (such as laws, policies, guidelines, operational manuals, training modules, databases, monitoring and evaluation instruments, among others) are sensitive to gender, with criteria related to participation, capacity building, legal and institutional considerations and economic impact, among others.[48] 

Data and land corruption

When it comes to data and land corruption it is important to distinguish between data on land corruption per se and data as an anti-corruption tool to curb land corruption. 

Land corruption data can provide information on the prominence of corruption in land governance, its characteristics and how it impacts the population. This type of data is scarce and mainly drawn from broader databases on corruption. One of these databases is the Afrobarometer, a non-partisan survey research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, the economy and society in 39 countries in Africa. Round 7 (2016/2018) of the Afrobarometer included a question on paying bribes to register land, although it was not included in the last round (Round 8) of the survey questionnaire. Transparency International´s Global Corruption Barometer (GCB), the world´s largest survey tracking public opinion and experiences with corruption, included questions on paying bribes for land services in its editions from 2009 to 2011 and again in 2013. However, only the 2009 edition distinguished between petty corruption for land services and grand or political corruption in land matters. The Global Land Governance Index (LANDex), an index that puts people at the centre of land data and creates a data ecosystem to capture the experience of land governance from diverse perspectives includes an indicator on corruption in the land sector (indicator 8C) and indicators on transparency including ‘national information on public land deals are made publicly available’ (8B) and ‘the legal and institutional framework in place at national level calls for timely, reliable and accessible data on land and land-related issues’ (8A). 

The lack of specific data on land corruption leads sometimes to look for correlations between land indexes and corruption indexes. This is the case of the International Property Rights Index (IPRI), which have found a strong correlation between their global survey on tenure security, and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI). This correlation is suggestive of a relationship between corruption and land rights.[49]

There is a general agreement on the importance of data and transparency to curb corruption in land governance. As mentioned in the Open Government Partnership report Broken Links, lack of land ownership or tenure transparency has serious negative consequences including driving up land prices, undermining the ability of journalists and institutions  to investigate financial crimes, and facilitating criminal activity like money laundering.[50] 

Nevertheless, based on the study The Role of Open Data in Fighting Land Corruption. Evidences, Opportunities and Challenges, published in 2021, experts have different perspectives on the use of open data and land information systems to achieve transparency and anti-corruption goals.[51] There is an overall consensus on the lack of complete, accessible and reliable land data in terms of temporal and geographical coverage, as well as limited information on the impact of open data initiatives on tackling corruption in the land sector. There is also agreement on the gap between the potential of open data and land information systems and the actual impact of concrete initiatives. Finally, experts tend to agree that the success of data initiatives depends not only on how well they are designed and implemented, but also on technical and institutional enabling conditions and preconditions including political will. 

However, the report also highlights various trade-offs that decision makers need to weigh when considering the benefits and pitfalls of digital technologies in addressing land corruption, for example between different competing factors like transparency versus privacy or availability versus accessibility.  Other challenges mentioned in the report are the disconnect between the global and local dimensions of land data, land tenure and land corruption – while concrete data is very localized, cross-border forms of land corruption, for example, require global coordination and concerted action to be effective, as well as global land and anti-corruption databases following internationally harmonised sector-specific standards. A final challenge is the dualism between official and unofficial sources of data, which can be overcome by ensuring multi-stakeholder participation in the whole data life cycle.

Other research on the impact of digitalization in land governance has highlighted the risks of new technologies, particularly when they are implemented with a top-down approach and without due consideration for human rights. Risks include inefficient implementation, the exclusion of rural people and communities, public data in the hands of private companies, and corruption risks. [52] For example, new tools to support the digitalization of land registries in Brazil have fuelled land speculation and facilitated land grabbing as self-declaring, automated systems cause confusion over legitimate land rights.[53]

To measure the impact of open data and transparency initiatives on corruption in the land sector is still a challenge. Nevertheless, open data and transparency are necessary but not sufficient conditions to curb corruption in land governance. The achievement of their anticorruption potential depends on the convergence of other factors such as political commitment and a coordinated participation of diverse stakeholders including government, civil society, donors, private sector, among other factors. 


By Nieves Zúñiga, peer-reviewed by Alice Stevens from Transparency International


[1] Transparency International. Land corruption.

[2] GIZ. (2020). Trends in urban corruption… and how they shape urban spaces.

[3] Zúñiga, N. (2018). Land Corruption Topic Guide. Anti-Corruption Helpdesk. Transparency International.

[4] Justesen, M. K. and Bjørnskov, Ch. (2012). Exploiting the Poor: Bureaucratic Corruption and Poverty in Africa. Afrobarometer Working Paper No. 139. 

[5] UN Habitat. (2022). World Cities Report 2022. Envisaging the Future of Cities.


[7] Ibidem.

[8] Zúñiga, N. (2018). Land Corruption Topic Guide. Anti-Corruption Helpdesk. Transparency International.

[9] Anseeuw, W. and Baldinelli, G. B. (2020). Uneven ground: land inequality at the heart of unequal societies. Oxfam.

[10] Ibidem. 

[11] Ibidem.

[12] MoLHUD, ‘Land Sector Strategy Plan II 2013 -2023’

[13] Akther, R. (2020). ‘Challenges of Land Services Delivery and Effectiveness of E-Mutation in Bangladesh: A Study on Land Mutation at Maheshpur Upazila Jhenaidah’. Brac University.

[14] Transparency International Kenya. Transparency International Rwanda. Transparency International Uganda (2017). The East African Bribery Index 2017.

[15] Transparencia Mexicana. (2011). Índice Nacional de Corrupción y Buen Gobierno 2010. 

[16] Transparency International Bangladesh. (2010). Corruption in the Service Sectors: National Household Survey 2010 Bangladesh.

[17] Innovations for Successful Societies. (2018). Innovations in Land Registry Management. 

[18] Wheatland, B. (2016). Corruption risks and mitigation measures in land administration. U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center, Transparency International.

[19] Transparency International (2020). Breaking the Silence around Sextortion: The Links between Power, Sex and Corruption.

[20] Transparency International (2019). Understanding Land Corruption as a Basis for Prevention: Findings from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Zambia.

[21] Ibidem.

[22] Arezki, R., Deininger, K. and Selod, H. (2012). The Global Land Rush. Finance & Development.

[23] Oxfam. (2013). Poor Governance, Good Business: How land investors target countries with weak governance. 

[24] De Schutter, O. (2016). Tainted Lands. Corruption in Large-Scale Land Deals. Global Witness. 

[25] Nolte, K., Chamberlain, W. and Giger, M. (2016). International Land Deals for Agriculture. Fresh insights from the Land Matrix. Land Matrix. 

[26] Transparency International. 2016 Corruption Perception Index. 

[27] De Schutter, O. (2016). Tainted Lands. Corruption in Large-Scale Land Deals. Global Witness. 

[28] The term Global Land Rush describes the rush of cross-border land acquisitions by sovereign wealth funds, private equity funds, agricultural producers and other key players in the food and agribusiness industry triggered by the increase in international food prices during 2007 and 2008. Arezki, R. et al. (2012). ‘The Global Land Rush’. International Monetary Fund.  

[29] Land Matrix. (2021). Taking stock of the global land rush. Few development benefits, many human and environmental risks. 

[30] Ibidem. 

[31]  Anseeuw, W. and Baldinelli, G. B. (2020). Uneven ground: land inequality at the heart of unequal societies. Oxfam.

[32] Wheatland, B. (2016). Corruption risks and mitigation measures in land administration. U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center, Transparency International.

[33] Transparency International Bangladesh. (2015). Land Management and Services in Bangladesh: Governance Challenges and Way-forward. 

[34] Monitoreo de la Problemática sobre Tierras y Territorios en Ecuador. (2017). Boletín Especial No. 4. Tierra, Territorio y Comunidades. Nicaragua, Colombia, Perú, Ecuador. Juntos por la autodeterminación de los pueblos. Sipae, Fepp, Ecolex. 

[35] Transparency International (2019). Understanding Land Corruption as a Basis for Prevention: Findings from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Zambia.

[36] Deininger, K., Selod, H. and Burns, A. (2012). The Land Governance Assessment Framework. Identifying and Monitoring Good Practice in the Land Sector. The World Bank.

[37] Schreiber, L. (2017). Securing Land Rights: Making Land Titling Work in Rwanda, 2012-2017. Innovations for Successful Societies.

[38] Innovations for Successful Societies. (2018). Innovations in Land Registry Management.

[39] Ibidem. 

[40] Shipley, T. (2021). Curbing Corruption in Land: Sector reform experience and strategies. Curbing Corruption. 

[41] Enemark, S. et al. (2014). Fit-For-Purpose Land Administration. International Federation of Surveyors (FIG), World Bank. 

[42] Shipley, T. (2021). Curbing Corruption in Land: Sector reform experience and strategies. Curbing Corruption. 

[43] Ibidem. 

[44] CFS. (2014). Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems. 

[45] FAO, CFS. (2022). Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security.

[46] Zúñiga, N. (2018). Land Corruption Topic Guide. Anti-Corruption Helpdesk. Transparency International.

[47] Transparency International. (2017). Gender-responsive work on land and corruption. A practical guide. 

[48] GLTN. (2011). Designing and evaluating land tools with a gender perspective. 


[50] Open Government Partnership. (2022). Broken Links.

[51] De Maria, M. and Howai, N. (2021). The Role of Open Data in Fighting Land Corruption. Evidence, Opportunities and Challenges. GIZ. 

[52] FIAN International (2021), Disruption or Déjà Vu? Digitalization, Land and Human Rights

[53] Ibidem. 



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