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Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the region
“When these lands [are given] to companies and converted to industrial agriculture or other uses, it destroys the foundation of rural people’s lives, livelihoods and knowledge systems, as well as their access to food, nutrition, medicines and incomes,” Shalmali Guttal, a senior analyst with Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based NGO which campaigns for social justice in Laos, told IRIN.
Large-scale land leases in Laos – or “land grabs,” as campaigners call them – are driven by foreign investment projects brokered between the government and private companies, which have increased in frequency in the past decade and encroached on the land occupied by hundreds of communities, according to researchers at the University of Bern’s Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) in Switzerland.
Ethnic minorities, which make up about 70 percent of the population, mostly live in resource-rich upland areas, which are often the target of land purchases by international corporations.
Because of where they live, they are disproportionately affected.
“Since many of Laos’s ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples’ traditional lands are in areas coveted for conversion into development projects, they have been targeted for relocation projects, largely without their free, prior or informed consent,” says Nicole Girard, senior campaigner for Minority Rights Group (MRG).
Corporations usually promise prosperity. For example, mining operations in Laos have claimed to create thousands of jobs and contribute to local development: The proponents of such schemes would probably point to the fact that between 2005 and 2012, Laos’ GDP increased from US$2.7 billion to 9.3 billion.
However, increased poverty and higher mortality rates are often the lot of those displaced following a government-brokered land deal.
“As most [ethnic farmers] have no education, if they are forcibly displaced, they have very few livelihood options,” said Debbie Stothard, executive director of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), a coalition of human rights NGOs.
Researchers and activists point to the impossibility of continuing traditional farming practices, coupled with lack of work skills, as driving resettled communities into poverty. Land deals in Laos, they say, despite decent laws, are carried out with little transparency or accountability.
While a 2005 government decree requires investors to compensate and resettle villagers whose land is appropriated for projects, loose monitoring means implementation has been piecemeal.
“The legal framework is good, but enforcement is the issue,” said CDE researcher Oliver Schoenweger. “Most of the time, no compensation is provided to individuals.”
For example, a lignite mining project in the northern Hongsa District launched in 2010 to provide electricity to Thailand will expropriate roughly 6,000 hectares of rice paddy fields cultivated by 2,000 farmers there. However, according to the Land Issues Working Group, a consortium of international NGOs based on Vientiane, the Laos capital, no negotiation with communities has taken place.
The government, in the report it co-published with CDE, acknowledged the lack of proper oversight allows such cases to occur.
“Weaknesses in national land planning and the enforcement of investment regulations have generated concerns,” admitted Akhom Tounalom, vice-minister of MoNRE, explaining: “This case and several others reveal the severe disadvantages local populations have in land negotiations, especially where they are poorly educated, illiterate, or simply under-exposed to tenure or business-related standards or practices.”
“There is a lot of scope for abuse,” said Taylor.
* The corrected percentage of the population comprised of ethnic minorities is up to 70 percent