Author: Teresita Cruz-del Rosario
Massive land deals are happening all over Southeast Asia. These are countries that currently lack robust institutional mechanisms — independent legislative and judiciary systems, well-developed civil society organizations, and an independent media —- to serve as countervailing forces against aggressive moves by the state and corporations to acquire land.
The result is a “global race for arable land” which oftentimes lie at the center of public policy among wealthy countries to secure future energy and food needs, as speculative investments in anticipation of massive profits, or as a hedge against the risk of future potential food and fuel shortages.
In turn, developing countries pursue a development strategy premised on attracting foreign investment, the core feature of which is concessionary land deals to foreign investors involving huge tracts of land. In many instances, this results in a displacement of local populations, the further immiseration of the rural poor, and an overall socio-political framework in which basic rights to land, food, water, adequate housing, as well as the right to self-determination, freedom of assembly, and the right to fair exploitation of natural resources, are denied.
Why is this happening? Land grabs, according to Saturnino Borras and Jennifer Franco of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, form part of a comprehensive agro-“food-feed-fuel complex”, that signifies the relationships between states, corporations, multilateral institutions, and communities. At the apex of this relationship are states and corporations, who, in alliance with local capital and local political agents, promote global strategies to address food and energy insecurities through large-scale acquisition of land.
Land grabbing Southeast Asia, particularly in the Greater Mekong Subregion, is a pretty dire picture. In Laos alone, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese companies have secured concessions amounting to approximately 1.1 million hectares of land for commercial purposes. This constitutes roughly 5% of Laos’ total land area. This figure was according to a recent inventory of land concessions released by the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Yet, according to a report by the Land Issues Working Group, a partner of Oxfam, this figure “does not include mining areas, or the most recent concessions granted by the Government.”
Since mining constitutes the biggest source of revenues for the Lao government, its exclusion means that the Ministry’s figure is not reliable, and could probably be much higher than what has been reported. A separate report issued by the Land Management and Registration Project (LMRP) puts the figure at 5 million hectares, roughly 21% of Laos’ total land area. The report further indicates that the biggest concessions are in mining. In the three northern provinces of Luang Prabang, Phongsaly, and Houaphan, for example, 81% of a-100,000 hectare concession was granted for mining exploration and another 19% for agriculture, mostly for rubber production. The report confidently asserts that these figures “mirror(ing) the distribution of concessions at the national level.”
Relative peace and stability in Cambodia since the decade of the 1990s has created a favorable investment climate in the country especially with the passage of the Foreign Investment Law in 1995. Foreign investments in agriculture that directly involves land concessions have been most contentious, generating continuous social conflicts especially among directly affected communities and populations. During election campaigns, conflicts over land and particularly the resistance to big land concessions become hot issues.
At the center of land controversies is the awarding of economic land concessions (ELCs) which are defined as “mechanisms to grant state private land through a specific contract to a concessionaire for use in agricultural and industrial agricultural exploitation, namely the cultivation of food or industrial crops, livestock raising and aquaculture, construction of plants, factories or facilities for processing domestic agricultural raw materials, or a combination of some or all of these activities.”
ELCs proliferated over the past several years, and so have land claims. As of June 2012, a total of 117 land concessions covering a total of 1.18 million hectares in 16 provinces, representing 5.2% of Cambodia’s total land area and 14.5% of total arable land. Four Asian countries —- China, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam —- account for 35% of 335,915 hectares which is the total land concession under foreign investment, while the remaining 65% or 668,725 is under private domestic ownership. The biggest investor is China with 18% or 186,935 hectares out of the total, and one megaproject covering 60,200 hectares of land awarded in 1998 in Koh Kong province.
An investment surge is also occurring in Myanmar, as the country is experiencing the same process as did Laos and Cambodia in the 1990s when both countries liberalized their economies. The rush for land concessions in the primary sectors is evident, and the story of community displacement in the rural areas is by now a familiar one, barely four years into Myanmar’s economic reforms.
Early signs of trouble are already evident. In early 2014, more than 6,000 land-grab complaints were filed with the parliamentary land investigation committee, even while the Deputy Minister of Agriculture downplayed the number to less than 800. The Agriculture and Farmers Federation of Myanmar (AFFM) held their first congress on 29-30 April 2014, to denounce the threat to farmers and their livelihoods due to land grabs by corporations in collusion with the government and the military.
Emerging Trends and the Possible Future of the GMS
The diffuse phenomenon of land grabs is a manifestation of several trends already evident in the GMS as also in other parts of Asia. First, the “logic of the global industrial agro-food-feed-fuel complex” serves as the motor for large-scale land acquisition which results in the dispossession of land by those who have been living and working on those lands for generations.
Second, changes in crop use that entails a shift from food and feed products to biofuels exacerbates food and water insecurity. The tension between food and fuels puts further pressures on countries who allocate land concessions to award investor countries with large tracts of land in order to satisfy the needs of investor countries for both their food and biofuel requirements.
Third, these trends suggest, among others, that the future of the region is possibly going to be re-drawn according to commodity and transportation lines, i.e. pipelines and railways, and large-scale plantations dedicated to monoculture production. The old political-administrative lines drawn by the previous colonials may give way to these boundary divisions of the future and will constitute as the “real borders” of the Global South.
In the future, we will possibly refer to the Yunnan-Cambodia railway, the Thai-Myanmar pipeline, the Dubai-Qatar rice agglomerate, the Korea biomass plant, the Vietnam-Lao rubber plantation and so forth. Countries will be known for their ports, economic zones, their plantations and mining concessions. The next generation will live in a world where land has been “transnationalized” while local populations and communities have disappeared.
Finally, alongside this new trend is the emergence of the Asian colonial company, one that possibly resembles the old trading companies of previous colonials. Awash in cash but pressured by domestic concerns regarding food, water, and energy insecurities, these companies are the pioneers of creating a new pattern of hegemony in Asia by Asians. The Financial Times carried an article in 2008 that refers to a new “food neocolonialism.” The article reports a warning from Mr. Jacques Diouf, Secretary-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization who talks about the creation of a neo-colonial system based on unequal power relations and “short-term mercantilist agriculture.”
If the continuing economic and social dynamism in the Greater Mekong Subregion is to be preserved and continued, the issue of land grabs should be a central part of the regional agenda. Thoroughgoing efforts to ensure an equally-shared prosperity enjoyed by all its citizens must take seriously the issue of land concessions in the most affected countries, i.e., Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. However, all stakeholders beyond these countries must be involved in finding long-lasting solutions because undoubtedly, land grabs is a transregional and not just a national issue.
(Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. Her background is in Sociology, Social Anthropology and Public Policy from Boston College, Harvard University and New York University. Her research interests are in development, migration, and Inter-Asian connections).
 The legal framework of state land leases and concessions in the Lao PDR. February 2012.
 Sain Hang Chan, et.al. Ibid., p.20.
Gov’t not recognizing scale of land-grabs in Burma: lawmakers. 22 January 2014. http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/23065-govt-not-recognizing-scale-of-land-grabs-in-burma-lawmakers (accessed 3 August 2014)
 Javier Blas, 19 August 2008. “UN warns of ‘food neocolonialism’”. The Financial Times. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/3d3ede92-6e02-11dd-b5df-0000779fd18c.html#axzz39Ljyo88a (accessed 4 August 2014)