Large-scale land acquisition are not new in the Mekong region but have been encouraged and have gathered momentum since the end of the 90s, particularly Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. These acquisitions are realized by national and foreign companies from the region, particularly China, Vietnam, and Thailand in a movement strongly associated with economic globalization and neo-liberal policies which promote free flow of capital at the regional and global level and the adaptation of national spaces to the requirement of liberal and global markets (Peemans, 2013). It is striking to see how Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, with different political regimes and histories, have shifted radically from a model based on land ownership by the State' with a relatively egalitarian land access by family farmers, to a model encouraging long term land leases that favor the emergence of large capitalist private and corporate owners and the abandon of land national sovereignty principles, sensu Borras and Franco (2012). In fact, the present policies favoring large scale concessions (largely at the expense of small holders and of indigenous peoples / ethnic minorities) can be considered as a "counter agrarian reform", the opposite of land reform policies promoted by both socialist countries and by the USA (Alliance for Peace) in the 60s, although with very different modalities and objectives. Although different factors can explain these policy shifts, in particular widespread corruption and patrimonial practices of the political elites, on the one hand and geo-strategy and political influence of regional powers on the other hand, this paper argues that this model of agricultural modernization through FDI and large scale land acquisition is being promoted through the convergence of actors such as the international agro-industrial complex, International Financial institutions (IFI), some bi-lateral donor or government state owned funds/enterprises. The claims of this model, largely shared by the region's middle class and intellectuals, can be outlined as follows: 1) an inflow of FDI – Foreign Direct Investment -is essential for economic development; 2) large-scale agriculture is more efficient than family farming in terms of economic development; 3) privatizing land facilitates investments and therefore increases land and labor productivity; 4) subsistence peasant and ethnic minority farmers are structurally incapable of agricultural development progress and would be better off if they become wage workers; and 5) the growing 'modern economy' will naturally absorb the work force coming out of agriculture and that of general population growth. All these assertions can be challenged to various degrees, both from a theoretical and empirical point of view. Available evidence indicates that economic benefits have not accrued at the level expected – either to family farmers or to the state treasuries – as cash benefits have been 'privatized' by domestic power elites hidden behind non-transparent one-party states, but also because many investments have produced disappointing results. The increase in number of landless farmers and rising number of land conflicts poses a serious challenge to the legitimacy and stability of the concerned states. However, although numerous case studies can be found, the aggregated information available on the impacts of large-scale agricultural investments is scarce. This paper will conclude by proposing as a strategy aiming to challenge the dominant 'paradigm' of agricultural modernization based on large scale agriculture and FDI, by research-based initiatives and policy dialogue at the regional level, as a way to improve land policies in favor of family farmers and ethnic minorities.
Authors and Publishers
The Rise of the BRICS
The International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague is part of the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR).
It is a graduate institute of policy-oriented critical social science, founded in 1952 and able to draw on sixty years of experience.
ISS is a highly diverse international community of scholars and students from the global south and the north, which brings together people, ideas and insights in a multi-disciplinary setting which nurtures, fosters and promotes critical thinking and conducts innovative research into fundamental social problems.
The Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI) is a network of the research programme of Political Economy of Resources, Environment and Population (PER) of the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Part of Erasmus University Rotterdam.
The aim of LDPI is for a broad framework encompassing the political economy, political ecology and political sociology of land deals.
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The Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD) was established in 1998 at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University, Thailand in response to the need for integration of social science and natural science knowledge in order to gain a better understanding of sustainable development issues in upper mainland Southeast Asia. RCSD has, since that time, striven to become a truly regional center for sustainable development issues, linking graduate training and research to development policy and practice.
The Transnational Institute (TNI) is an international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable world. For more than 40 years, TNI has served as a unique nexus between social movements, engaged scholars and policy makers.
The Transnational Institute (TNI) is an international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable world.
Founded in 1974 as a network of ‘activist scholars’, TNI continues to be a unique nexus between social movements, engaged scholars and policy makers.
The Mekong Land Research Forum seeks to bring research and policy a bit closer together. It does this in part by making the research more accessible and in part by helping to distill the key messages and points of debate so that information overload does not overwhelm policy makers and other advocates for progressive policy reform.