Diana Suhardiman/IWMI.

Farmers’ strategies to cope with land loss

Laos has conceded a significant amount of land to foreign investors, with estimates placing 15% of the country’s land under foreign control. Such land concessions, or the granting of rights to land, are positioned by the government as critical to economic growth and poverty reduction.

But what is the impact of land concessions on farmers? Many scholars argue that while land concessions can technically promote economic growth, when concession processes do not take into account customary land tenure rights, they often result in land dispossession, and thus deprive farmers of livelihoods and increase the probability of rural impoverishment.

A case study conducted by researchers at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) aimed to understand the long-term and gradual impacts of land dispossession by focusing on how farming households in a village in Laos coped with the risk of loss and actual loss of land. The resulting paper, published in Land Use Policy, has been granted 30 days of promotional access and is available for download until April 28, 2016.

NOTE: For research ethics purposes, names and locations of villages and other actors involved in this study have been removed or changed.

In 2009, almost all farmers in Nadee village lost some or all of their land to a rubber company concession. How did farmers sustain their livelihoods in the face of land dispossession?

The farmers of Nadee village responded with different coping strategies. While some of these strategies did minimize the overall negative impacts of land loss to various farming households, they neither improved farming households’ food security nor increased their household income.

In general, researchers found that farmers:

  • effectively protected their remaining land by mimicking the company’s concession-induced land use pattern of cultivating rubber plantations;
  • accessed new land (through purchase or rent) for cassava production and upland rice cultivation as, respectively, an alternative source of income and to support subsistence; or
  • found off-farm activities either to supplement their remaining farm income or as a complete alternative to farming – the latter in cases where they had lost all of their land and lacked any saving mechanisms to continue farming activities.
Local shops provided rural households with an alternative source of income and became part of farmers’ coping strategy to sustain their livelihoods in the aftermath of land dispossession.
Local shops provided rural households with an alternative source of income and became part of farmers’ coping strategy to sustain their livelihoods in the aftermath of land dispossession.
Diana Suhardiman/IWMI.

The choice of strategy was not random but rather related at least in part to socio-economic and political status. For example, large farmers’ strategy to use rubber plantations was related not only to their access to land to grow rubber trees, but also to their close relationship with district government staff who would not allow the company to take away the plantation without compensation.

While all land loss has costs for farmers, those with higher status levels were able to better protect their assets and take advantage of new income opportunities. Those of lower status struggled to acquire basic food supplies or left farming altogether.

Rubber plantation`
Rubber plantations increased household income and, in some cases, were used as a way to stop the company from taking land. When farmers mimicked the type of land use applied by the rubber company, the company then felt obligated to compensate for the land and the existing rubber investments. The district government would also prevent land concessions because farmers’ rubber plantations are a source of land tax.
Diana Suhardiman/IWMI.

Implications and Recommendations

Positioning land as capital and conceding land to investors has the objective of promoting economic growth and reducing poverty. But in practice, at least in Nadee village, the government’s land concession policy has instead strongly disadvantaged farmers in general and poor farmers in particular.

A farmer interviewed in Nadee expressed, “We support the government's policy to develop the country, but we cannot just sit still when our land is taken away. It is part of our identity, and it is so much more than just an economic asset”.

At what cost and under what conditions will the government of Lao PDR continue to grant land to foreign investors? This study highlights the need to develop a robust, transparent and accountable system to monitor and evaluate concession granting and associated land dispossession through wide collaboration between government agencies, national universities, civil society groups and farmers. Such monitoring and evaluation systems should look at how companies use the granted land, towards what purpose, how this purpose affects customary land tenure rights, and how it benefits or otherwise impacts local communities’ livelihood options.

Officials in Laos must reconsider the current policy of turning land into capital, as manifested in the Constitution amendment process, with a particular need to revise Article 17 on land privatization. The livelihoods of farmers depend on it. Further, re-examining land concessions and the impacts of land loss on farmers offers the opportunity to link large-scale, investor-driven agricultural development that promotes economic growth to the development needs and aspirations of local communities.

This paper is freely available for download from March 30 until April 28, 2016:
Suhardiman, D., M. Giordano, O. Keovilignavong, T. Sotoukee. 2015. Revealing the hidden effects of land grabbing in Laos through better understanding of farmers' strategies in dealing with land loss. Land Use Policy 49: 195-202

Key findings from this research were presented at a policy advocacy meeting hosted by the Land Issue Working Group in Vientiane, on 13 November 2015. During the meeting, representatives from development and civil society organizations discussed potential ways forward to improve land governance in Laos. The discussion resulted in a proposed revision of Article 17 on land privatization, which was presented to a National Assembly member as part of a larger constitution amendment process. The process is ongoing.