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Burmese land ownership a work in progress

The agricultural land reform issue in Burma is rapidly shifting and changes in the wind indicate a pro-farmer shift might be occurring in both governmental and business policies.

A Burmese farmer with two bulls yoked to a hand-guided plow. Photo: MizzimaAn informative analysis of Burmese land ownership issues appeared on Wednesday on the Diplomat website, written by a Burma-based analyst.

The author, Kyaw Kyaw, a pseudonym, noted that last month about 200 farmers from three townships in rural Rangoon “did something that was until very recently impossible in Burma: they staged a legal protest, demanding that their land, confiscated by private firms and state bodies, be returned to them.”

The July 14 protest was the first to test the limits of the new Peaceful Protest Law, which requires protesters to seek permission from police and local officials at least five days before the planned date, the article said.

Demonstrations over land ownership, such as the one on July 14, have become increasingly common in other parts of Burma over the past year, said Kyaw Kyaw.

“Over the past 20 years, some 1.9 million acres have ended up in the hands of private Burmese firms through a variety of means, most of which had some pretext of legality,” he said.  “More than 70 per cent of these private holdings have never been developed, however, and often the original owners were allowed to continue farming on an annual basis. But anticipating a flood of foreign investment, private firms are beginning to reassert ownership over these increasingly valuable plots and beginning development projects, as well as seeking new concessions.”

With the introduction of two important new land laws earlier this year, this has resulted in land ownership rights and land confiscation re-emerging as national issues, he said.

He said about two-thirds of the country’s population relies directly and indirectly on the agriculture sector, yet government figures show it comprises only 36.43 percent of gross domestic product. According to a joint UN-government survey conducted in 2009-10, 26 per cent of the population remains below a poverty line set at a meagre 754 kyats a day – about 85 US cents – and poverty is most acute among landless rural households.

“Much of the land handed to private firms has been designated by the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation as fallow, vacant, or virgin land, with no registered owners. While it is often occupied and being cultivated, the government has typically characterized those working this land as “squatters,” he said.

In a nationally televised speech on economic reform on June 19, President Thein Sein said the country was facing “difficulties in land management as squatters on forest land, virgin and fallow land and others are acting as if they originally own the plot they illegally occupied.”

“The result is widespread problems and because of these problems we are not in a position to allot a large number of hectares of land for investments as other countries do,” he said.

Shwe Thein, chairman of the Land Core Group, a network of more than 30 international and local organizations focusing on land issues, said, “To me, this [statement] is not encouraging for the farmers. This is very alarming and as civil society networks we need to do more to update the president’s understanding on these issues and how farmers are vulnerable in terms of land tenure security.”

Kyaw Kyaw said while new laws allowing unions and legalizing protests have garnered most of the headlines, recent changes to how land is administered will be equally significant in the years to come.

In August of last year, the former Minister for Agriculture and Irrigation and now general secretary of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Htay Oo, submitted a new Farmland Law to Parliament, quickly followed by the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law, and amended versions of both laws were approved during the third session in early 2012. They represent the most substantial change to the legal framework for land since the early 1960s when everything was nationalized.

“The new laws officially reintroduce the concept of private ownership, which means land tenure rights – all land remains the property of the state and can be nationalized by the government if necessary – can be sold, traded, or mortgaged,” he said. “In one sense this is a positive step, as land was already being traded illegally but openly on a black market with little transparency. But the new laws also remove some protections for farmers; for example, allowing land to be repossessed if they fall into debt.”

Different organizations, networks, and institutions have responded in various ways to the challenge of improving land tenure security in Burma, he said. When the laws were submitted to Parliament, civil society organizations and nongovernment organizations – which were excluded from the drafting process – lobbied individual politicians to have their many concerns addressed, with some success.

At the other end of the spectrum, UN-HABITAT is working directly with the under-resourced Settlement and Land Records Department on a two-year program that aims, among other things, to modernize ownership records and cadastral maps, most of which are still only on paper.

“I think both approaches are equally important to achieving the same objective, which is to help the government implement land laws in Burma that are inclusive of the smallholder farmer majority. That’s a shared objective but with different role and different approaches,” said Eben Forbes, program officer at the UN-HABITAT office in Rangoon.

Support for the farmers’ cause has also come from some unlikely sources, particularly in Parliament. Aung Thein Linn, a former brigadier general, mayor of Rangoon and senior figure in the USDP, said recently following a study trip to central Burma that the new laws should be amended to strengthen the ownership rights of small-scale farmers.

Kyaw Kyaw noted that the country’s newspapers are now full of stories about land grabs, while farmers themselves have even started to use new laws to organize and form associations.

A new coalition of forces appears to be making some ground. Recently, a major agribusiness firm handed back a concession of some 40,000 acres to farmers in the fertile Ayeyarwady delta, and said more firms were considering doing the same, ostensibly because they were financially viable, he wrote. In June, the military agreed to pay compensation to the owners of more than 500 acres of land in northern Shan State that it confiscated in 2009 after lobbying from the local Member of Parliament.

He said most people agree that the private sector will play a significant role in Burma’s agriculture sector, which remains dominated by small-scale farmers who have little access to the formal credit.

On August 9, the Land Core Group hosted a workshop focusing on “how to engage with the private sector to benefit smallholder farmers” that was organized in “response to opportunities and threats of rapidly growing agribusiness interest in Burma, which is set to escalate as the country undergoes economic reform and prepares for a surge in foreign investments in the agricultural sector,” according to the group.

Another major development in Burma’s agriculture sector in recent years has been the formation of more than 50 “rice specialist companies” that provide cheap credit and inputs to farmers in one or two specific townships. While it has not been without its problems contract farming along these lines could provide a means of protecting land tenure rights while facilitating the private sector involvement that the government is keen to encourage, said Kyaw Kyaw.

“There are a lot of private sector pressures on the country [from] investors that want to get into the act so contract farming could be a way of satisfying all parties [and] avoiding a kind of ‘land grabbing model’ that you hear about happening in developing countries,” Eben Forbes said. “But it needs to be studied, particularly how it has played out in other countries around the region. I know it’s been abused but it depends on the contract: it can be a really win-win situation where farmers get better access to markets.”

The author is a Burma-based writer. His real name has been withheld at his request. For the complete article, go to

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