Asia’s Quiet Land Transfers

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

January 2015: Indian farmers protest against displacement. Photo: National Alliance of Peoples Movements

The April 2015 issue of Against the Grain, the online bulletin of GRAIN, an international organization that supports small farmers in their struggle for social justice, features a report titled “Reform in Reverse: Laws taking Land Out of Small Farmers’ Hands.” The report details the changes in laws and land policies that in recent years have been gaining momentum in Asia, to the detriment of small-scale agriculture. Traditionally, Asia’s agricultural base has consisted of small farmers, who are among the most efficient and productive in the world, able to produce 44 % of the world’s cereals. This agricultural system, however, is being undermined from within by an agenda that puts the profit of large agribusiness corporations above the well-being of millions of small farmers and the populations they feed.

The changes in land policy discussed in the report testify to the tendency toward concentration in control over the global food system and its transference from the farmers who work the land to business conglomerates that seek profits rather than food security. According to the report, governments across the continent often collaborate in the schemes of dispossession, introducing changes to land laws that are displacing millions of peasants and undermine local food systems. Long-standing government promises to redistribute land more fairly have been broken. The article calls this “reform in reverse.” With scant regard for the people dependent on the land for their livelihoods, governments and corporations have been expropriating farmland for large-scale agribusiness projects as well as for dams, tourism, and mining. Highway construction and real estate developments also contribute to the process of dispossession.

The report contends that governments across Asia are approving legislative changes to remove the few protections that small farmers have traditionally enjoyed, exposing them to the takeover of their lands. The changes differ from country to country, but they are all designed to make it easier for companies to acquire large tracts currently possessed and worked by small farmers. The effect will be to displace millions of peasant families, undermine local food systems, and increase violent conflicts over land.

These legislative changes have already led to the transfer of at least 43.5 million hectares of farmland in Asia from small farmers to agribusiness concerns. The growing adoption of industrial farming systems and increasing corporate control of distribution of food —changes supported by the new land laws— have led to a reliance on expensive inputs, the degradation of land and biodiversity, and volatile price changes for produce. The impact on peasant farmers has been catastrophic, in some places triggering a wave of suicides among indebted farmers forced to give up their land.

The free trade agreements which Asian governments have signedhave accelerated this process, locking countries into policies that favor foreign investors and large-scale agribusiness over small-scale producers. Legislative provisions that prevent foreign and national companies from acquiring large areas of farmland are quietly being removed, to the dismay and destitution of local farmers. We see here still another example of the creeping concentration of power and wealth. In this case, corporate agendas pursued in high-rise office buildings, often on the other side of the world, trump the vital needs and often the very lives of ordinary people on the ground, who find themselves unexpectedly pitted against those driven by relentless greed and ambitions, and equipped with pernicious strategies.

The article distinguishes two types of changes that enable land to be transferred to corporate interests. One involves the enactment of laws or policies that permit governments to carve up large tracts of land into concessions and lease or sell them to companies—the trend in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Thailand. The other involves the creation of new schemes, through law or fiat, that consolidate small farms and transfer the lands to companies engaged in corporate farming. Since small farmers often do not possess deeds to the lands that they have worked for generations, it is relatively easy for those backed by political and economic power to challenge their tenancy and deprive them of their farms.

According to the report, the transfer of land in Asia represents a fundamental shift away from traditional agriculture and local food systems to a corporate food chain supplied by industrial agriculture. If these changes continue, they will have major impacts on everything from food safety to the environment, from local cultures to people’s livelihoods. In a struggle over the future of land and food, elected governments that should be defending the interests of their populations are yielding to the pressures exerted on them by large and powerful business interests.

Rural farmers have not been passively submitting to their fate, but have been launching David versus Goliath struggles to preserve their livelihoods. In unison with civil society organizations across the region, they are building coalitions to defend their interests against sinister trade agreements and national policies that facilitate the privatization and commodification of farmland. People across Asia are making it clear that they want farmland to remain with their farmers. They are demanding that their governments stop facilitating a corporate take-over of agriculture.

The report cites a number of cases that illustrate how such land transfers are taking place. The Government of Burma, in 2012, enacted the the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law – called “the land-grabbing law” by farmers – which aims to make lands the government considers “vacant” or “un-cultivated” available as concessions of up to 20,000 ha for companies.

In Cambodia, only 23% of the country’s 1.5 million small farmers have land. In 2001, the government passed a law that enables private companies to own concessions of 10,000 ha of land for up to 99 years. The law has allowed the transfer of 70% of the country arable land, equal to 2.1 million ha, to industrial agriculture firms and forced hundreds of thousands of farmers off their lands.

Under popular pressure, India adopted a law in 2013 that protected the interests of small agriculturists by requiring a social impact assessment and the consent of 80% of the people affected before land could be acquired for development projects. In December 2014, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a new ordinance that eliminates these requirements and eases land acquisition, including for development of mega-food projects that aim to integrate the entire food chain from farm to plate in the hands of single companies. Mass protests have since broken out, led by farmers and farm workers calling for what they describe as a pro-industry and anti-farmer act to be withdrawn.

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