Around five hundred people from civil society, academia, government, private industry, and development agencies will be gathering in a few weeks for the 2021 Mekong Regional Land Forum (#MRLF2021).
We're coming together as reform-minded actors within and beyond the region to engage in debate on issues that cut to the core of the most pressing challenge smallholder farmers in the Mekong face: securing their rights to land and forest resources. The conference will run over two days, with two sessions on each day. Here's a preview of all we're planning.
What to expect from Day 1 of #MRLF2021
The first day will focus on customary forest tenure rights. It’s important to baseline what we mean by customary tenure: The set of rules and norms that govern how communities allocate, manage, utilize, and benefit from their natural resources. In the Mekong, these communities are comprised of fisherfolk, farmers, and others who depend on lands and forests.
As in many other parts of the world, the gap between the area of land that is customarily held by communities in the Mekong Region and that which is actually recognized under statutory laws remains large. These areas are often subject to many different claims and interests, not only from the communities but also from state agencies and the private sector. This creates a vexing problem and numerous risks. It is clear that robust approaches for addressing this gap are both necessary and urgent. We will unpack the opportunities and challenges of addressing this gap and tackling these challenges through customary tenure recognition and formalization on the first day.
We've designed the conference to have a natural progression between sessions. Session 1 of the first day will set the stage for us to see what's happening on the ground in Cambodia, Laos PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam. We will look at the situation of customary tenure in each national context, and learn what different organizations and governments are doing to recognize these claims, especially in forest areas.
In Lao PDR and Vietnam, the revisions of the Land and Forest Laws open the door for the recognition of individual and collective forest rights. Activating official recognition in areas of customary tenure systems can lead to increased tenure security, an important factor in ensuring not only community benefits but also the long-term health of forest areas. In Cambodia, indigenous peoples' traditional rights to natural resources can be recognized through Community Land Titles. But there are strong barriers to access these titles and mechanisms for protecting the customary claims of the Khmer, the ethnic majority, are lacking. Further, recent shifts in government administration of forests have led to increased gazettement of protected areas where existing zonation procedures are often void of meaningful community participation.
Session 2 will zoom out to the regional level, connecting the national efforts we discuss in Session 1 to regional platforms like ASEAN and other regional initiatives for securing tenure. We will discuss how to leverage regional platforms to influence national recognition of customary tenure rights.
Throughout both sessions, discussions will draw on a wide range of evidence relevant for policy reform. We aim to show how improving customary tenure increases local livelihoods, stimulates local, national, and regional economies, and helps us to achieve sustainable and climate-resilient development goals.
What to expect from Day 2 of #MRLF2021
There has been a rapid expansion in agribusiness investments and commodity crops across the Mekong region over the past decades. While this has opened new opportunities for farmers, it has also exposed them to new risks relating to market conditions and uncertainties, impacts from the increased use of chemical inputs, and in many cases, exploitation by investors due to power disparities and weak regulation. Day 2 of #MRLF2021 focuses on how to manage and respond to investment patterns and practices in forest areas of the Mekong region. We will anchor these discussions around the principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) in Session 3 and the ASEAN Guidelines for Responsible Agricultural Investment in Food, Agriculture and Forestry (ASEAN-RAI) in Session 4.
The FPIC principles, under the United Nations Declaration of Right of Indigenous Peoples, provide internationally-recognised safeguards for community rights before initiating any project or measure affecting community-held resources. FPIC is sometimes perceived as challenging state authority as it positions local communities, rather than state agencies, at the center for decision-making. It has also been perceived as being expensive, time consuming, and a challenge for project planners. In Session 3, our panelists will examine the practicalities of FPIC, beginning with an introduction to its key concepts, and providing active examples from Lao PDR and Vietnam to demonstrate how FPIC works in practice, as well as the benefits to be gained from stronger FPIC processes.
Here again, the next session will take us from the national to the regional context. Adopted by ASEAN Member States in 2018, the RAI Framework provides a structured approach for addressing negative impacts of agribusiness, allowing us to move towards more sustainable and inclusive future investments. To maximize their ability to respond to diverse issues, the RAI guidelines are necessarily broad in scope, and so there is a need to shape implementation practices in each national context and ensure that RAI principles are mainstreamed throughout national legal frameworks and the practices of the public sector. The objectives of the forum’s last session are to strengthen our understanding of 1) what motivates the private sector to apply RAI principles, 2) what are the experiences of investors and challenges they face in doing so, and 3) how governments and civil society can support investors in the application of RAI principles to ensure positive, sustainable outcomes. The session will build our understanding of what it takes for all investments, large or small, short- or long-term, to take greater responsibility for the social and environmental costs of agribusiness.
Clearly, we will have a lot to discuss, debate, and learn together. Of course, the work will not be over in two days. Our hope is that the forum sharpens and refines future dialogue, and stimulates stakeholders to constructive, meaningful collaboration as we seek to build a better future for smallholder farmers of the Mekong Region. I am looking forward to meeting during the upcoming #MRLF2021!