Land Grabs : The Impact of Rubber Plantations in Laos

This is an appropriation of an essay I wrote for my Masters in Development Studies course. Fully cited and referenced version available upon request, republishing by permission only.

We were asked to write an essay on the  impact of ‘land grabs’ on poor communities, limiting our analysis to one or two chosen regions. ‘Land grabs’ is a rather sensationalist term that refers to large-scale land deals, usually between governments and private investors (often foreign). Calling these deals ‘land grabs’, while rather emotional, is unfortunately accurate, as they tend to alienate local communities from vital land and resources. For more general information on land grabs, see my Oxfam post (also reblogged here).

I chose to focus my analysis on large-scale rubber plantations in southern Laos, pretty classic examples of ‘land grabs.’ Laos is rich in natural resources, and ‘development’ has become synonymous with private investments in these resources. The result is the transformation of agricultural land into cash crop plantations, mining projects and hydroelectric dams.

Vietnamese rubber companies’ investments in Laos constitute some of the biggest land deals in the Asia-Pacific region. Across Champasak and Attapeu provinces in southern Laos, over 30,000 hectares of land have been granted to Vietnamese rubber companies.[1] While these large-scale land deals promise Laotian communities employment, income and infrastructure, the reality on the ground is often meagre job prospects, lost access to vital resources, and less recognition of land rights.

1. Land access

The most common way ‘land grabs’ impact poor communities is by denying access to land that is vital for subsistence agriculture. By 2006, the 33 villages in Champasak affected by the Viet-Lao Rubber Company plantations had lost 83% of their agricultural land. 18 of those villages had 10% or less of their agricultural land, and four had none at all.

With this loss, villagers are transformed from skilled, largely self-sufficient food-producers to low-skilled wage labour, forced to buy food from the market. Where food supply is abundant, increased cash income can bring food security, but where the market is volatile and supply is irregular, food security decreases. In a global environment where food prices are on the rise, lost self-sufficiency perpetuates poverty rather than alleviates it.

This lost land not only includes individually-owned agricultural plots, but common areas for villages and communities. Common land is critical for the collection of non-timber forest products which make up on average 50% of cash income among rural Laotian villagers. Common lands are also important for local livestock populations, and naturally less land means less livestock. This then also means less village savings and safety nets for farmers, as selling livestock was a reliable source of emergency income.

The impact of reduced land is not simply a reduction in the potential to produce food. It has flow on effects that expose rural villages to greater economic risk, requiring them to engage in markets that can be volatile as food prices rise globally. With little opportunity for subsistence farming, the extremely poor lack the economic buffers that insure them against these market risks.

2. Labour markets

This can also be seen in changing labour patterns in Champasak and Attapeu. Foreign investors promise that plantations will bring regular employment and increased income. But the government of Laos does not have the means or infrastructure to ensure these promises are fulfilled, and increased exposure to the labour market without appropriate governance and regulation can make villagers extremely vulnerable.

Village leaders in Attapeu were convinced that the Vietnamese rubber company in their region was intentionally overworking Laotian employees, hoping that they would burn out and give the company an excuse to hire Vietnamese labour, even if they needed to skirt Lao labour laws to do so. More commonly, workers complained of highly fluctuating wages for little reason, and low wages for demanding work.

The situation in Champasak was no better: Dak Lok Rubber Company only employed villagers between the ages of 18 and 35; Viet-Lao Rubber Company only employed those between 18 and 45. Farmers younger and older than this that were locally considered of working age were now excluded both from their traditional income-generating activities and the newer forms of wage labour. In February 2008, 64% of the working age were not employed.

These changes in labour patterns have also had profound social implications for villages in Champasak and Attapeu. Alcohol consumption has risen as villagers experience more idleness and have greater access to cash.

3. Changing land rights

The priority placed by the government on foreign investments also affects expectations around land titles and rights. In Attapeu province, land conceded to rubber plantations was land that had previously been granted to villages for agriculture and grazing under the Lao Land and Forest Allocation scheme (LFA). But the state’s ability to enforce domain over the land in provinces and manage the competing interests of rural communities, private investors and provincial governments is limited. As a result, land-deals render poor communities voiceless, rights-less and excluded from traditional systems of land tenure.

Furthermore, land in Champasak has been granted to rubber companies on paper, without identifying which specific land is to be developed on the ground. Local officials were then left to find ‘available’ land for development and implement the concession. This has implications for local and village leaders’ powers, and the lack of local participation can lead to conflict between plantation owners and local communities.

Laos: a 21st century ‘resource frontier?’

Land deals have thus transformed customary land tenure into a ‘contested resource frontier.’ The geographical metaphor of a 21st century ‘resource frontier’ is used describe agricultural transition zones: sites characterised by social inequity, environmental degradation and conflict. Laos has been constructed as underutilized or empty by its government, development banks and the private sector, and portrayed as a ‘new frontier’ for resources and commercial interests. The reality, as we have seen above, is very different.

This is arguably the greatest impact of Laos’ ‘land grabs’ on poor communities: the creation of a resource frontier that local villages themselves are forced out of. While the most visible impacts of these ‘land grabs’ might be loss of agricultural/communal land and forced entry into the labour market, these are in many ways just symptoms. The core impact is the transition to a neoliberal paradigm in which these vulnerable communities bear economic and social stresses while being denied the benefits of land investments. Indeed, until the government is able to better regulate land deals, it is difficult to see how this ‘resource frontier’ can ensure that local communities benefit from plantation development.

 

[1] The ethnographic studies used in this essay are: Miles Kenney-Lazar. “Plantation rubber, land grabbing and social-property transformation in southern Laos,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 39, no. 3-4 (2012): 1017-1037; and Ian G. Baird. “Land, Rubber and People: Rapid Agrarian Changes and Responses in Southern Laos,” The Journal of Lao Studies 1, no. 1 (2010): 1-47.

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