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Regressive land reform in Southeast Asia: reversing the agrarian reforms of the 1960s and 1970s (Ed. # 43)

Newsletter AGTER. October 30, 2018

Since the food price crisis of 2007, the scientific literature addressing questions of land and property in Southeast Asia has grown considerably. This said, most of this literature focuses on individual countries, and/or evaluates land-grabbing in a vacuum rather than examining current land reforms, and their historical roots, from a holistic perspective. The study that we conducted on behalf of the french Technical Committee on Land Tenure and Development addresses these issues by placing current dynamics within a broader historical and geographical context (see article below).

Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam have all witnessed an increase in land-related conflicts in recent years, some of which are highly violent and potentially destabilizing. This situation is fostering the development of a regional civil society and fomenting tension between governments that perpetrate and/or are affected by land grabbing in a context where regional institutions are not answerable since land is considered a sovereign policy at national level. It can be traced to a series of land reforms that share remarkably similar goals and methods, regardless of the political regimes that implemented them. Throughout the period that began with colonization and transitioned into socialism before returning to economic liberalism, land policy has followed a distinct pattern throughout the region:

  • Promotion of private property and concessions during the colonial period,

  • Nationalization and collectivism, then

  • Redistribution (sometimes egalitarian) during the post-socialist period,

  • Return to private property (or extensive usage rights) via land registration and

  • Awarding of concessions, since 2000

Recently, the different political paths chosen by the countries in the region led to distinct approaches to land reform. Cambodia and Burma, which became parliamentary democracies (in 2011 for Burma), encouraged classical property rights through the development of state registration systems, whereas the socialist governments of Vietnam and Laos provided peasant farmers with less and less restrictive “certificates of possession” (with increased duration, and right to buy and sell these certificates) that eventually functioned as de facto property titles, whether or not this was openly acknowledged. Starting in the beginning of the 2000s, however, these differences began to fade away as the four countries pursued similar economic policies: establish a neoliberal market economy, promote modernization by “turning land into capital,” and heavily subsidize industrial and export crops (rubber trees, oil palm, sugar cane, forest plantations) via massive (primarily foreign) investments.

In Vietnam, which launched an exhaustive land registration effort that included forest lands very early on, conflict revolves primarily around the expropriation of farmland in the context of urbanization and large infrastructure projects. As with European, Japanese, and Indian resistance movements, Vietnamese farmers have questioned whether or not such projects are truly in the public interest; above all, they are concerned with the level of compensation that they are receiving, based on agricultural land prices, whereas the land value gains ultimately contribute to state coffers but also reinforces corruption networks.

In Cambodia, Laos, and Burma, conflicts over urbanization are less prominent than conflicts related to the development of industrial forestry and agriculture. Land registration programs prioritized the rice-producing central plains where occupation rights are socially recognized, but ignored forests lands at higher altitudes, where ethnic minorities who practice rainfed slash and burn agriculture maintain a certain degree of autonomy from the central government. By limiting land registration efforts to specific farming communities, these governments sent a clear message that unrecorded lands were “vacant” and available for concessions or development projects that disregard the rights of local populations.

This situation greatly facilitated the awarding of concessions, which have multiplied over time. They are particularly extensive in Cambodia, covering almost 25% of the national territory in 2015; 486 contracts have placed 4.4 million hectares of mining (2,3) and forest (2,1) concessions under private control, while only 3 million hectares are owned by 1.9 million families and cultivated by roughly 1.4 million farming families. Although agroforestry concessions take up significantly less space (450,000 hectares in 2012) in Laos, they still occupy 5% of the national territory. In Burma, agroforestry concessions have expanded from 800,000 to 2.1 million hectares in only 3 years, between 2010 and 2013.

The amount of land that is being transferred from governments to private corporations, and the massive inequalities that these transfers create in a context where most of the population depends on agriculture and where the percentage of landless families is growing, constitutes what has been referred to “regressive land reform” or “land counter-reform” — the exact opposite of the agrarian reforms of socialist and social inspiration in the 1960s and 70s.

Translated from French to English by Jesse Rafert (AGTER member).

Marie Mellac is a geographer, researcher, and associate professor (UMR Passages, Université Bordeaux Montaigne and CNRS).

Christian Castellanet is an agronomist and ecologist. He is a part-time senior expert at the GRET and an associate expert with the association AGTER.

Marie Mellac and Christian Castellanet are both AGTER members.

Find here the full text AGTER newsletter of October 30, 2018