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Land grabbing in Southeast Asia – what can Africa learn?

Across Southeast Asia, a dramatic reconfiguring of land rights, livelihoods and economies is underway, with profound and disturbing implications for the future.

This was the main take-away message from a conference on Land grabbing Southeast Asia: agrarian-environmental transformations, held at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand on 5-6 June 2015. It was one a series of international academic conferences on land grabbing: Global Land Grabbing I in 2011 (University of Sussex, UK), Global Land Grabbing II in 2012 (Cornell University, USA), BRICS and agrarian transformations in 2014 (University of Brasilia, Brazil), BRICS and the Agrarian South in 2015 (University of Western Cape, South Africa), organised by the Land Deal Politics Initiative and the BRICS Initiative in Critical Agrarian Studies.

The Chiang Mai conference was impressive in scale, with 240 participants from 62 universities and 59 non-university organisations, and 81 papers presented.

Colonial and post-colonial plantations

The most significant trend in Southeast Asia appears to be the massive expansion of commercial tree plantations, particularly oil palm and rubber, in Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma).

The ironies are everywhere to be seen. These were the very commodities and production models that formed the basis of French and British colonial rule, and from which revolutions and wars of national liberation were to free the people of these countries. Now, decades on, governments – both democratic and military – are reinstating these models, often through outright coercion and forced eviction of their citizens.

As in Africa, the narrative of big farming being needed for ‘food security’ and ‘feeding the world’ overlays what are in reality big land deals for non-food production – energy crops and industrial commodities. Whereas many of the land deals in Africa were for jatropha – a relatively unknown biofuel feedstock – oil palm is well known and established in Southeast Asia and its revival and expansion builds on its long colonial and post-colonial history.

Alongside plantations, there has been a growth of big mining ventures – both of which are environmentally destructive – but also conservation initiatives to expand protected areas. These are the new ‘resource frontiers’ where the extraction of various natural resources has composite effects. While moving in different directions, all these commercial land deals subordinate local people’s land uses to ‘development’ and the ‘environment’, often at the cost of their land and livelihoods.

As several research papers showed, some people get jobs on the plantations, usually at low pay, and often this is incompatible with their own farming. But plantations also often favour migrants, or local people are unwilling to work for the ultra-low pay on offer. The effects of plantations are far worse when their labour is not needed, and people lose their land without any alternative means to survive.

Some of the figures are truly staggering. In Cambodia, 400,000 people have been dispossessed since 2003 as 22% of the countryside has been allocated in large concessions. And this is not exclusively a rural phenomenon either, with 10% of the population of the capital Phnom Penh evicted by the military regime in the midst of urban redevelopment.

In Indonesia’s state of West Kalimantan, of the total territory of 40 million hectares, 5 million is under oil palm, 1.5 million allocated for mining and 3.7 million for timber – making a total of 70% of the land licensed to just 529 companies. In addition, 3.7 million hectares are protected, leaving 0.7 million hectares for 4.3 million family farmers. This situation is what underpins the growing population of the rural landless.

The ‘infrastructural violence’ of plantations

What is happening in Southeast Asia requires looking beyond only the violation of people’s land rights, to how whole territories are being transformed – changes that, even if people are not directly dispossessed, reshape and constrain possibilities for future agrarian livelihoods.

As the Canadian geographer Tania Li said, look not only at what industrial-scale plantations take away, but also what they install – the production and labour regimes, and modes of extraction, that transform economies and landscapes, often in brutal ways. The violence she refers to includes the flattening of landscapes and destruction of all life forms except for the one desired crop. Li referred to oil palm expansion as ‘infrastructural violence’: a plantation is a built environment, like a city, but 100,000 hectares in scale. They redirect rivers and denude forests. Whoever is left in the midst of it is bereft of community, biodiversity, in fact any economy or life except for the plantation itself. This is a total institution that disciplines labour and triggers systemic violence and intractable conflicts. As she put it, ‘no life is possible in such a place other than enforced cheap labour.’

Those whose land is not taken have no option but to convert to oil palm as contracted outgrowers, selling their only produce to the plantation at prices they don’t control, and having to repay ‘land development’ costs over 10 years – something that sounds to me like it comes down to indentured labour. While the land is still theirs, they control nothing on it, and have to work off the debt to the company that does. This is intrinsic violence, an attack on people’s capacity to survive, says Li.

Staggering vistas of oil palm (visible from 37,000 feet in the air, on my flight over Indonesia) now dominate large parts of the landscape across Southeast Asia. As one informant that Li quoted had said: 'our land was big as the sea, now we are marooned in sea of palms'.

Winners and losers: gender & generation

Plantations may not immediately expel all people, but they do at least enclose the land around them. The true effects are likely to be felt with the next generation, as Tania Li notes in her explosive report (pdf) for the Center for International Forestry Research on the impacts of oil palm. Plantation companies offer no opportunity for the next generation to establish themselves, as there is no land on which to expand. As Li argues, the real effects are going to become apparent only with the next generation, who will have no choice but to become plantation workers or migrate to the cities, where jobs are in scarce supply. This is how the corporatization of agriculture, and industrial plantations, are fuelling deagrarianisation and unsustainable urbanization – and the production of a ‘surplus’ population – phenomena only too familiar in the settler colonies of Africa.

Patriarchy refers to the power of men over women but also of the old over the young – yet the literature on land grabs tends to ignore these generational dynamics. In Cambodia’s Ratnakiri region, as Clara Park of International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) showed (pdf), women were unwilling to work for the low wages on offer from new rubber plantations – the jobs were instead taken by young migrant men. At the same time, the enclosure of the land around them meant an end to women’s shifting cultivation practices, and increased women’s labour burdens, not only for cultivating crops but also for gathering water and firewood.

Big corporate land deals affect women and men in different ways, due to gender differences in who controls land, labour and incomes. Several papers pointed to ‘intimate exclusions’ when men take over women’s land as values rise, or shift to growing commercial crops on contract, displacing women’s production for household consumption and local markets – for an example, see Maria Lisa Alano’s paper (pdf). While there has been quite a bit of attention to the impacts of land grabs on women, there has been little on gender itself, and on the ways land deals alter gender relations. Research on land grabs in Cambodia (pdf) to make way for a rubber plantation found that rather than reinforcing traditional gender roles, masculinity was undermined as men were threatened with physical violence and women were at the forefront of public resistance.

This is a useful corrective to a tendency to equate gender with women. As Ben White aptly observed, ‘gender is to biological sex what generation is to biological age’. In both, it is the social category, and shifting social relations in a context of agrarian change, that is of importance. This is why, he argued, we need to ‘study social relations, not 'women' and 'youth'’.

What then is the future for small-scale and family farmers?

‘People who live only by farming are quite rare in the world today’, observed renowned agrarian scholar Henry Bernstein. This doesn’t mean that land and farming are unimportant to rural people, but rather people combine farming with other activities. It is simply too hard to survive entirely by farming. While few people (rich or poor) rely on farming alone, opportunities for poor people to combine farming with trading and other activities are curtailed – even closed off – when the land around them is enclosed in plantations.

As Henry Saragih of the global agrarian movement La Via Campesina argued, 21st century agrarian reforms need to be about much more than just redistributing the land. They need to address inequalities in landholdings and reverse the growing corporate and elite control of natural resources and of value chains. This means that an agrarian reform agenda needs to address sustainable natural resource use (agroecology, in his view) and food sovereignty. ‘Agrarian reforms redistributed land… now we want to retain power & control over territory & production’, he argued.

But this was a matter of debate. Bernstein questioned the ‘peasant way’ envisaged by La Via Campesina and other rural social movements. He argued that this vision of family farmers incorrectly depicts peasants as a homogenous group, with compatible interests, at one with nature – all caricatures that belie the brutal processes of accumulation and loss that characterise dynamic processes of social change. Such change includes accumulation by some, leading to dispossession of others – and not all dispossession is by governments or large corporations. Processes of social differentiation in contexts of commercialisation and commodification of land and other resources mean accumulation by some and dispossession of others. These processes raise questions as to the class interests of ‘peasants’ or ‘family’ or ‘small-scale’ farmers. This was a potent challenge to the agrarian movements claiming to speak on behalf of the millions of family farmers across the region.

‘I’m not against small farmers’, Bernstein clarified, ‘I just think that they’re not all the same.’ If not – and there is plenty of evidence that they are not – then what does this mean for social movements aiming to present a united front in the face of a state-supported corporate onslaught? This much was not fully addressed, but remains a poignant challenge.

State power, private capital and people’s rights

Lost in the claims of a ‘global land grab’ is the texture of vastly different processes underway in different regions of the world. While big land deals – for farming, mining, or speculative purposes – build on the loosening of constraints of global finance, they also depend on state support not only to make available the land (and water, and forests) but also subsidies and protection for capital.

How do these plantations come to be? Not through the liberalised free market, as some would argue, but quite the opposite – through state-protected monopolies reminiscent of the colonial period. The point applies equally in African countries where many countries, having nationalised land after independence, are now introducing direct and indirect subsidies for large-scale corporate agriculture, after structural adjustment and three decades of neglecting smallholders. As colleagues of mine recently asked, if Ethiopian and Nigerian farmers were given the same concessionary bank loans and (nearly) free land that their governments gave to foreign ‘investors’, would they out-compete them? See Rutten et al. (pdf)) The question is hypothetical, because governments are simply not investing in their own farmers to the degree to which they will concede to big capital.

And why do we talk of ‘land grabs’? And who is doing the grabbing? It is not investors, but rather states that are grabbing land – and then cutting deals with investors, as pointed out by John Bruce, former director of the Land Tenure Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is clearly a commonality between Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa: in both, the absence of enforceable property rights renders people susceptible to predatory states and opportunistic investors. This does not imply a need for private titles, but rather a recognition that customary occupation and use of land constitutes property. No amount of consultation can substitute for that: the right to say ‘no’ to any deal concerning one’s land.

I was struck by the enthusiasm among conference participants for community titling as a defence against land deals. If having unregistered customary rights is what renders people vulnerable to dispossession, then surely titling the land is the answer? There are experiments with community titling across several countries in Southern Africa and, while perhaps effective at least in the short-term as a defence against land deals, they raise further questions. If the ‘community’ is the owner of titled land, who can transact this?

More circumspect on this point was Ben White, now retired from the International Institute of Social Studies, who pointed out that both individual and community titling are part of the problem. Community titling makes people’s rights dependent on (mostly) unaccountable old male leaders. Titling doesn’t secure tenure, it leads to speculative acquisition for rent and rising values. What people most need today is protection from their own elites – both national and local, state and traditional. I found this a refreshing view, one that resonated with experiences in Southern Africa, but what exactly a land rights regime that is neither titled nor customary would look like, and what laws, policies and institutions can frame and realise it, requires much deeper discussion elsewhere.

Comparative thoughts: Southeast Asia and Africa

Several people working on land grabs in Africa and Latin America were part of this conference, presenting comparative views on land grabs and the roles played by BRICS countries in the corporatisation of the food system in the global South (which is why I was there). In the process, we were treated to a steep learning curve in discussions with Asian scholars, activists and development workers.

Like other regions, the past decade has seen a proliferation of big corporate land deals across Southeast Asia. The resonances with experiences in Africa are striking: foreign and domestic capital working together to annex land, water, forests and, with the law and might of governments, riding roughshod over the resource rights, territory and livelihoods of local people. So much might sound familiar to those following trends in Africa.

But there’s a great deal that differs too.

The big land deals in Southeast Asia are largely going ahead, gaining ground, producing, profiting and expanding (or at least the many cases presented suggest that this is the case). Though there is no basis for strict or quantitative comparison, this seems in contrast with the experience in Africa – often touted as the global epicentre of the ‘global land grab’ – where big deals have often not taken off. The attrition rate in Africa has been enormous, in my view not primarily due to resistance by local communities (despite the best attempts of some) but rather due to unforeseen logistical, agronomic and infrastructural constraints. But that is a debate for another time. The point is this: if land grabs are proceeding apace across Southeast Asia while faltering in Africa, do their outcomes there give a glimpse of a possible future were the next phase of land deals find traction in Africa? What trajectory are we on, and what will it mean for the future of millions of people? At the least, I believe those concerned with land and agricultural commercialisation in Africa should learn some lessons from elsewhere.

A final thought on the contrasts between these regions: while there are activists and leaders in both who are speaking out about corporate land deals and their effects on rural people, in Southeast Asia these seem to have greater reach and to have achieved more robust social mobilisation. A powerful panel of activists from Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam bore testimony to the struggles and personal sacrifices involved in resistance (some of which was too painful to tweet or blog about). Is Africa on the way to deagrarianisation or is there something to be learnt about the modes of organisations and mobilisation in Southeast Asia? I found the engagement of activists with research at this conference to be earnest and challenging – just the right mix where those who are trying to understand what is going on and those who are living the reality need to work together to make sense of what is going on and, from there, to change it.

So that’s a challenge to all of us who work on land rights and rural livelihoods in Africa: to foster these relationships and bridge the divides between activism and research.

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