Expert cautions on ‘land grab’ model

Government figures show that Myanmar has already granted significant agricultural concessions to private companies, particularly in Tanintharyi Region and Kachin State.
Myanmar Times | February 27 - March 4, 2012

Expert cautions on ‘land grab’ model

By Thomas Kean

A VISITING land expert has warned against falling for the “dominant model” of land grabbing, which sees small-scale farmers replaced by agri-businesses that are in many cases less productive.

Mr Robin Palmer, who has worked on land issues for more than 35 years as both an academic and for British NGO Oxfam, said last week that population pressures and the increasing consumption of meat and dairy products in developing countries were often used to justify plantation farming, with peasant farmers and traditional pastoralists dismissed as “romantic nonsense”.

“In the context of global land grabbing … this is the dominant model,” he told The Myanmar Times in Yangon on February 21. “It’s curious because land has been a source of conflict in many places yet despite that governments are giving it away.”

Aside from the social consequences, Mr Palmer, who has worked in Africa, Asia and Latin America, said there was also little evidence that plantation farms were more efficient or productive than smallholdings. This was reinforced at the International Conference on Global Land Grabbing at the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies in April 2011, which featured more than 100 papers on land issues.

“One of the points that came up was that none of the research papers that were presented at this conference produced evidence that this large-scale model is actually delivering jobs, technological transfer – the promises that were offered in return for land grabs, long term land leases or whatever you want to call them. It just wasn’t coming through,” he said. “You could say that it’s too soon but there’s just very little evidence for the success of this model in the current context but ideologically [support for] it is very strong.

“For many people in governments in Africa, it’s ‘We are urban, intelligent, educated; those people out there are backward, stupid and ignorant, they need to be told what to do, they don’t know how to farm.’ It’s a kind of arrogance and ignorance together, which helps explain why they’re doling out land all over the place yet we all know that the potential long-term implications of this are pretty serious in terms of poverty, food security and more.

“What you find in many parts, including Cambodia, is deals being done behind closed doors, communities have no idea that their land is leased rather than sold and often for very long periods, 99 years in some cases.”

In Myanmar, the issue of land-grabbing has been raised by land rights groups urging changes to two land laws currently before parliament: the Farmland Bill and Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Bill.

As The Myanmar Times reported last week, both Myanmar and foreign experts have called on parliamentarians to delay approval of the laws in order to conduct further consultations. Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz warned recently that passing the wrong land law “could really be very, very troublesome”.

Other sources say the laws have “major gaps” that could be exploited for land grabs by large agricultural firms, particularly in the case of land used for shifting cultivation, or taungya.

Government figures show that Myanmar has already granted significant agricultural concessions to private companies, particularly in Tanintharyi Region and Kachin State. In January 2010, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation’s Department of Agriculture Planning reported that farmland concessions totalling 1.75 million acres had been granted to 216 Myanmar companies, some of which were operating with foreign partners.

But a report released last week by the Transnational Institute – Financing Dispossession: China’s Opium Substitution Program in Northern Burma – quoted a former director of an agriculture department as saying only about 20 percent of the total concession area was being planted.

Mr Palmer said he found land grabbing “a truly scary phenomenon”, and said it was a “huge” issue in Cambodia and Laos.

“You’ve had your own experiences here and may have more in the future, if things go badly.”

However, there are examples of countries where land grabbing has been avoided through strong land tenure security.

Much of Mr Palmer’s work with Oxfam was “set in the context of post-Cold War pressure for privatisation of land from the World Bank and others and the impact being the demand for new land laws and policies to reflect that”.

Oxfam and other groups responded by engaging in advocacy work trying to support dialogue between civil society and governments, helping to set up national land alliances in countries like Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, which Mr Palmer said was “on the whole fairly successful”.

“Part of my work involved trying to get government and civil society people to talk to each other seriously – but I found that there was often a huge cultural divide between the two.”

He said that while he would “question the wisdom” of slowing down the process of introducing land reform a key issue was, “do you trust the legal system enough to implement a law?”

“In principle, the more dialogue, the more buy-in you achieve when drafting a law the better. The more you listen to different points of view and perspectives rather than rush through something the better.”
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