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Convergence under pressure. Different routes to private ownership through land reforms in four Mekong countries (Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam)

Regards sur le foncier n°1, Comité technique « Foncier et développement »

Fuentes documentales

Mellac M., Castellanet. C., ‘Convergence under pressure. Different routes to private ownership through land reforms in four Mekong countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam)’, Regards sur le foncier n°1, ‘Land Tenure and Development’ Technical Committee, AFD, MAEDI, Paris, December 2015.


This paper aims to provide keys that will help us understand contemporary land dynamics in these four countries. In order to do so it highlights their similarities and differences, both in the long history that shaped today’s local land situations and in more recent reforms implemented in the context of greater economic openness.

  • The first part of the paper sets the cultural and historical context, with an overview of the diverse ways that the political authorities and different groups within the region have related to land.

  • After a brief review of the colonial and socialist chapters of their history, the second section looks at the different stages of reforms that have been implemented since the late 1980s.

  • Having set the scene, the third section then considers the current situation through the prism of four of today’s most sensitive land issues.





  • 1. ‘Megadiverse countries’

  • 2. The centralism that shaped the rice-producing kingdoms

  • 3. Mobility and horizontality among ‘forest farmers’


  • 1. Colonisation and the first steps towards simplification

  • 2. Between the ideal and reality of land collectivisation

  • 3. The individualisation and decollectivisation of land after socialism

    • 3.1 Legal formalisation

    • 3.2 Titling at different speeds


  • 1. The forgotten rights of ‘forest farmers’

  • 2. Pressure on remaining pioneer fronts from economic agro-forestry concessions

  • 3. Land conflicts, actors and civil society



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You will find below the conclusion of the document, an invitation to read the whole text.


« These last points bring us back to the question of securing land rights, and considering this as a political issue rather than a purely technical or legal matter. Why are some rights secured and others not? The nature of the regime (democratic/authoritarian), the type of rights that are recognised and the rapidity with which they are allocated are all contributing – but not determining – factors. After all, speed has not worked in Vietnam. Security of tenure – and more broadly still, fair tenure as an aspect of spatial justice – depends on the way that land is perceived at the centre of power and within power relations. It also depends on the way that land is used to serve a national vision that takes account of the reality, history, diversity and expectations of the country’s inhabitants, their different opinions of something that is so much more than a commercial commodity, and which shapes individual and collective relationships with territory, the environment and other people.

Countries in the Mekong sub-region share a number of common characteristics, most notably their journey from colonisation to independence, socialism and then economic liberalism, with corresponding stages in their land affairs: the appearance of private ownership and concessions during the colonial period, State control and collectivism, then land redistribution (sometimes egalitarian) in the post-socialist period and, since the 2000s, a return to private ownership via land registration and concessions. These parallels are all the more striking because the political systems are (officially) quite different, with market socialism in Vietnam and Laos, and multiparty democracy in Cambodia and more recently Myanmar, after very different phases under a Conservative military dictatorship in Myanmar and a Maoist dictatorship and civil war in Cambodia.

Another striking point is the fact that the considerable effort invested in registering agricultural land within a liberal paradigm (securing tenure to encourage agricultural investment) has done little to reduce insecurity of tenure in any of these countries. On the contrary, conflicts have multiplied and become a major political issue for all of them in recent years. While the first stages of their reforms and the relative availability of land served as adjustment variables in times of transition, these conflicts are often related to the modernisation policies in these countries, which are based on encouraging foreign investments, major infrastructure projects (especially hydro-electricity) and mining, developing industrial zones and granting huge land concessions for agro-industry and forest plantations. This paradox can be explained by the fact that their land registration campaigns have focused on rice-producing land in the central plains, where occupancy rights are socially recognised and there are fewer conflicts – avoiding the remote forest highlands where ethnic minorities that had remained relatively autonomous from the central authorities practice shifting rain-fed agriculture (with the notable exception of Vietnam, which systematically registered all land, including forests). None of the legislation has favoured these ‘forest farmers’, recognising neither their customary community rights nor their slash-and-burn practices. Registering recognised farmland in some parts of the country but not others underscores the fact that all the areas that were left unregistered can be considered ‘vacant’, meaning that they belong to the State and can be allocated for concessions or developments with no consideration for the rights of the people whose livelihoods depend on this land.

The ensuing wave of concessions in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar has caused serious conflicts with people who have been deprived of their rights, and a surge in land inequalities that is causing particular concern due to the rapid rise in the number of landless farmers. In this sense, these three countries have presided over an ‘agrarian counter-reform’ conducted in the name of modernisation and growth. The underlying ideology may be called neoliberal, but there is no hiding the fact that these practices generated revenues and kickbacks that fed the political and business elites in neo-patrimonial States.

Another type of conflict is developing in Vietnam, this time over the conditions in which farmland has been expropriated during peri-urban developments or the construction of major infrastructures. Like their counterparts in European, Japanese and Indian resistance movements, affected farmers are contesting the merits of some of these operations (the definition of public interest) and challenging the fact that the compensation they are paid is based on the agricultural value of the land, while the added land value feeds the State coffers and oils the wheels of corruption.

This situation highlights two of the issues that international cooperation agencies should address: the need to take account of the diversity of local land situations and avoid proposing models that do not fit local realities; and the need to stop being naive and consider whose interests are being served under the cover of apparently acceptable policies. The seismic effects of individual private ownership need to be assessed, particularly its capacity to trigger intense fragmentation at several levels, not only between titled and untitled land but also within titled spaces, as private ownership leads to the individualisation of strategies and practices. This fragmentation could be understood as one of the outcomes of the emergence of modern States whose new institutions are charged with developing the market economy and the individual private ownership that goes with it. The simultaneous advancement of agro-industrial concessions as a path to rapid development and poverty reduction, promoted by some international institutions in the name of a rather questionable economic logic (Deininger, 2010), takes no account of the real conditions in which rights are recognised or the functioning of the State concerned, and has the opposite of the intended effect. »

The paper is available on this page of the website « Foncier et Développement ».

Marie Mellac and Christian Castellanet are members of AGTER.