The Myanmar Times
The Myanmar Times

Fears over growth in land concessions

Activists have raised concerns about continued growth in large-scale land concessions to agribusinesses, warning that small-scale landholders are being left without a source of income.

A farmer sows paddy fields in Pathein township, Ayeyarwady Region. (Ko Taik/The Myanmar Times)A farmer sows paddy fields in Pathein township, Ayeyarwady Region. (Ko Taik/The Myanmar Times)

Figures from the Ministry of Agriculture’s Myanmar Agriculture in Brief 2012 publication show that land concessions rose 76 percent between January 31, 2011 and March 31, 2012, from a total of 1.94 million acres to 3.42 million acres. The figures include concessions awarded to both private companies and government bodies.

Tobias Jackson, a coordinator at the Land Core Group, a network of NGOs and civil society groups focused on land rights, said the sharp increase was a concern.

“A large increase in a 12-month period is a worrying trend. Many, if not all, of those grants will displace rural communities. ... If it continues, more people will be displaced, livelihoods will be destroyed and rural areas will be even more disrupted,” Mr Jackson said.

Ministry of Agriculture director general U Kyaw Win said he was unable to verify the figures but said industrial-scale farming had expanded significantly in recent years, largely because of his ministry’s policies.

“Large-scale farming increases crop yields and gives farmers easier access to markets. ... We need to develop the sector,” he told The Myanmar Times.

Land awarded in a concession is generally classified as vacant, although in practice it is often being used by communities and not properly registered with the Settlements and Land Records Department. Communities in mountainous or “upland” areas, mostly ethnic minorities, are particularly likely to be cultivating “vacant” land.

New farmland laws, particularly the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law, are designed to encourage investment in large-scale agriculture projects, including from foreign companies.

However, in a report released on May 20, the Transnational Institute wrote that the new legislation is that agricultural communities, particularly in “upland” areas, “have no legal land rights and land tenure security”.

“This immediately puts ethnic upland communities under the real threat of losing their lands, which are precisely the areas heavily targeted by resource extraction and industrial agricultural concessions,” the institute said in the report, “Access Denied: Land Rights and Ethnic conflict in Burma”.

Kachin State has the largest land concessions in terms of area, with 1.39 million acres, and also saw the largest increase in concessions between January 31, 2011 and March 31, 2012, with around 800,000 acres added. Tanintharyi Region has almost 1 million acres and saw an increase of more than 322,000 acres in the same period, while Sagaing Region also saw a significant increase, from around 100,000 acres to almost 260,000 acres.

One of the country’s most well-known land disputes involves a concession awarded to Yuzana Company in the Hukawng Valley in Kachin State. Among those who lost their land to the company was Daw Bawk Ja, a coordinator with the Kachin Women’s Peace Network.

“No one knew what was happening. [The construction crews] just came and started building,” she said, adding that residents in her village were unaware that their land could potentially be given away to a company.

Daw Bawk Ja said Yuzana promised higher yields when it began cultivating the land and improved livelihoods for residents in the area. However, the plantation only generated employment at the beginning, when residents were given jobs digging ditches on the construction site, she said.

She said many of the people in the region are now unemployed and survive on money sent by relatives working in Yangon and Mandalay. Yuzana did not respond to requests for comment

U Kyaw Win conceded that the system “is not perfect” but said he believes it is mostly positive for farmers, whom the ministry encourages to work on the industrial farms.

“There they can learn new skills and get better wages,” he said. “If [problems] are brought to my department, we will do our best to fix them.”

He said large-scale agriculture was being encouraged because traditional farming methods in rural communities are often wasteful. He said he had visited villages in the Ayeyarwady delta where communities were losing 20 to 40 percent of their yield to rot and animals because of outdated methods used for storage and harvesting.

But Mr Jackson said these inefficiencies are a direct result of government agriculture policy rather than smallholder farming. “There is definitely room for improving storage, efficiency, and harvesting ... but the main reason [farmers] are in that position is the lack of investment in small-holder farming,” he said. “It needs investment like any other sector; there needs to be some effort from the government.”

The next set of data on land concessions, from April 1, 2012 to March 31, is due to be released in the coming weeks, U Kyaw Win and Mr Jackson said.