The draft land use policy: putting big business first

‘The current draft fails to deal in any way with the question of past injustices where people were driven off their land or were dispossessed’ - Dr Jennifer Franco
Mizzima | 9 December 2014

The draft land use policy: putting big business first

Written by Dr Jennifer Franco

The draft National Land Use Policy has created widespread discontent in Myanmar. The policy is positive for those who may seek to acquire land for business purposes and have security in their investments. The policy views all the country's land resources as a state-owned commodity. It relies mainly on high tech, top-down approaches for determining, (re)zoning and administering land and legal land rights. It is mainly oriented toward addressing the problem of how to facilitate large-scale transfers of rights from many existing (small) occupants and users to large-scale users through land concessions and leases.

There are some big problems with the current draft of the policy and they stem mainly from its failure to recognise that land has more than an economic function. Many holders of small plots have more than just an economic attachment to their land. The draft also fails to recognise that for any land policy to have political legitimacy and succeed, it must necessarily – as one of its central purposes – confront the twin issues of correcting past social injustices and promoting social justice.

The policy must strive to also engage explicitly with existing realities, including the serious land-related problems that have arisen in Myanmar and contribute towards preventing it from transitioning toward real democracy and peace.

This includes undoubtedly the thorny issues of a historical nature that have resulted in many places where, through land grabbing, land has already become concentrated in the hands of a relative few, and in other places where this is on the verge of happening. The social and environmental consequences have been accumulating for everyone to see.

The draft of the policy almost completely fails to take these realities past and present into account. Admittedly, the policy makes some effort to put in place some measures that could loosely be called protection and safeguards for the ordinary occupants and users of small land holdings. But compared to international standards, such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s tenure guidelines, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the UN Guidelines on Development Related Evictions and Displacement, these measures as currently drafted are too few, too weak, and only apply to current users, whom the policy anticipates will be relocated in the future to make way for large-scale agribusiness concessions.

In addition, the current draft fails to deal in any way with the question of past injustices where people were driven off their land or were dispossessed of it because of armed conflict, natural disasters or other emergencies. There are no explicit provisions, for example, for redistribution of land in situations where land concentration co-exists with high degrees of poverty and hunger, or for recognition or restitution of land in cases where people lost possession of it due to forced evictions, armed conflict or natural disasters. 

These are key social justice provisions and are in one way or another supported by the FAO tenure guidelines. In the absence of these measures the draft policy's emphasis on instituting land tenure security risks legally securing the land use of current big landlords and big land grabbers and whoever has the money and muscle to ensure their own inclusion in the new land registry – whether they are the legitimate users or not.

The FAO tenure guidelines show how far the current draft of the NLUP falls short of international standards. The draft NLUP risks pushing the country into serious backsliding.

(Dr Jennifer Franco is a research associate at the Transnational Institute (TNI) and Adjunct Professor, College of Humanities and Development Studies, China Agricultural University, Beijing. The views expressed are her own.)
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