The Great Southeast Asian Land Grab
Image Credit: REUTERS/Samrang Pring

The Great Southeast Asian Land Grab

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Conflict over land tenure in Southeast Asia’s rural areas has emerged as a key issue for the region. To achieve goals such as economic development and poverty reduction in rural areas, governments in the region have pursued policies to attract investment from large corporate entities both domestically and internationally, to undertake projects on “vacant” and “unused” land that promise to bolster the economy and create jobs.

Normally these projects involve large-scale plantations for the cultivation and processing of key agricultural commodities for export abroad, but they also include mines, hydroelectric dams, special economic zones, tourist resorts and other projects. Conflict emerges when the “vacant” and “unused” land is in reality informally occupied by smallholder subsistence farmers who must be relocated so that the land can be improved for large-scale commercial use. Often the process of relocation is violent as the farmers resist relocation and are forcibly removed by agents for the investors.

Although the specific context varies from country to country and perhaps even case-by-case, the common features throughout the region are an inadequate legal framework within each country dealing with land ownership and occupancy, the dilemma between customary land occupancy and formal land ownership, and market forces driving policies in support of large agribusiness and other major development projects on these lands.

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Nowhere is the conflict between farmers and corporate interests over land in Southeast Asia more visible than in Cambodia, where one NGO estimates that since 2003 up to 400,000 rural people have been affected by the acquisition of land, mostly for agribusiness.

Many trace this back to the abolition of private ownership under the Khmer Rouge, but in fact Cambodia has never had a strong tradition of land ownership in rural areas. Instead it has a very long tradition of informal or “customary ownership,” where farmers subsist off of small plots of land with no proof of legal ownership. This arrangement is common even today, although it is being challenged by the proliferation of formally recognized economic land concessions.

Conflict occurs when farmers who depend on the land to make a living are deprived of it because they have no proof of ownership to challenge the claim of investors who have been tacitly sanctioned by the government. The legal system does not protect the farmers because it is self-contradictory and unevenly enforced. On the one hand, farmers who have occupied their plots for five or more years have the right to apply for legal ownership of it; but on the other hand if they occupy (as most do) what is categorized as “State private land” they are squatters and can be legally removed. None of this matters, however, since the judiciary in Cambodia has consistently ruled in favor of investors or has taken no action at all.

One very visible example is a land dispute between local farmers and large corporate investors that has been ongoing since 2006, in which nearly 20,000 hectares was acquired by investors to establish two sugar cane plantations sitting side by side in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province. In this case, more than 200 families had the land they subsist on taken away, in many cases by force, to be enclosed within the plantations. No mechanism in Koh Kong province was in place to grant private ownership for smallholder farmers, the affected communities were never aware their land was in danger of being seized by the investors before the actual seizure took place, and to make matters worse the investors did not follow the prescribed legal process for acquiring the land.

Unfortunately, the legal system has been completely ineffective and until recently the government was evasive when dealing with such issues. Around the time of the 2012 commune elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a halt on any additional land concessions and followed it up with an ad hoc land titling scheme aimed at pleasing rural constituents by giving them legal tenureship of their land, presumably in exchange for political support.

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