Myanmar’s golden opportunity

CGIAR |  20 February 2013
Burmese farmer heading home after a day in the fields. (Photo: Sarah Depper on Flickr)

by Fred Pearce

Smallholder farmers are fighting for their land rights.  Large commercial farms are forcing smallholder farmers off their farms. Land grabbers are eating up valuable land and water resources in some of the world’s poorest countries. It seems that the “cost of ignoring people’s rights is rising,” warns Jonathan Glennie, as angered farmers retaliate against land grabbers.  With Myanmar’s new freedom, what will the future hold for smallholder Burmese farmers?

Myanmar is the new hope for liberty in a dangerous world.  But, in this predominantly poor and rural country, land rights for farmers will be a critical test of the dividend that freedom brings for its people.

Barack Obama surely had it right when he told an audience last November at the University of Yangon (formerly Rangoon, the country’s capital, and still its major city): “Reforms must ensure that the people of this nation can have that most fundamental of possessions – the right to own title to the land on which you live and on which you work.”

We should cheer the reforms under President Thein Sein, and the country’s opening up to the Western world.  This is good news for human rights. But some fear that, unless properly managed, this moment of hope could prove a false dawn, with the freedoms undermined by escalating land grabs and resource extraction, often by Western companies.

Land disputes, particularly over existing joint projects with Chinese companies, unleashed the civil unrest that helped trigger the country’s current reforms.  In late 2011, after protests from the Kachin people in the mountains of the north, the government suspended construction by the Chinese Power Investment Corporation of the Myitsone mega dam on the River Irrawaddy.  The scheme would have supplied power to China, while displacing some 10,000 Kachin.

The President said then that he wanted “economic development in parallel with environmental conservation.”  But this is not proving easy.  For instance, violent protests continue over forced evictions from 26 villages in Sagaing division in the northwest, to make way for a huge copper mine.

Land tenure rights have long been weak in Myanmar.  Last year, the government passed two new land laws.  They reaffirmed the state’s ownership of all land, depriving farmers of the formal title called for by Obama.  A new Central Farmland Management Body will ensure farmers plant and produce what the state says.

Some critics of this continued centralized control, such as Murray Hiebert of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, say the laws will stifle the commercialization of smallholder farming of the kind that transformed the Vietnamese economy in the 1990s. Others say they are a charter for state appropriation of tribal lands.

Clearly much will depend on how the government uses its control.  And it seems keen to take advice. This month, USAID begins an assessment of tenure issues in the country for the Burmese government — with the aim, USAID says, of promoting reforms that both respect citizens’ rights and “will be an essential step for reducing and mitigating conflicts and promoting economic growth.”

But the task of taking the heat out of land conflicts could be difficult.  Much of the recent upsurge of land protests arose from past grievances.  Of which there are plenty.  According to an analysis last year by Kirk Talbott of the Environmental Law Institute in Washington DC, and colleagues, “while exact information remains difficult to obtain, over the last 20 years, several hundred thousand hectares across Myanmar have been allocated to hundreds of companies and converted into a variety of cash crop plantations.” A local analysis, publishing anonymously, put the figure at 1.6 million hectares.

But with a further 6 million hectares earmarked for agricultural commercialization, notably rubber plantations, Talbott says, “millions of Burmese have been or stand to be dispossessed of land.”

Battles could also lie ahead over plans for more mines, for a dozen or more hydroelectric dams proposed on the Salween and Irrawaddy rivers, and for a giant Chinese gas pipeline extending the length of the country from a planned terminal on Maday Island, home of one of the country’s largest mangrove forests.

Forests need urgent attention.  In the past 20 years, the country’s forest cover has diminished from 46 per cent to 20 per cent.   This may be connected to the feeble spread of community forests.  Launched 15 years ago, the scheme to hand forests back to locals covers less than a tenth of the target of 600,000 hectares.   For there is growing evidence from around the world that local control is the most successful way of protecting forests.

Campaigners on land rights will be hoping that Myanmar does not fall into the trap experienced by many developing nations, leasing their land and natural resources to Western companies in the hope that the investment will automatically bring domestic development.  It won’t.

Across Africa in the past decade, countries like Mozambique, Angola and Guinea have seen this strategy result in fast-growing GDP but growing poverty.  Liberia, which has allocated more than half its land to foreign companies in an attempt to fast-track recovery from civil war, is still languishing at 182nd out of 187 nations on the Human Development Index.

By staying largely cut off from the rest of the world for so long, Myanmar has a golden opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others, and take a more equitable and sustainable path to development.  Will it take it?

About the Author:

Fred Pearce is a journalist and author based in London, UK.  He writes regularly for New Scientist magazine, the Guardian newspaper and the Yale e360 web site.  His books include Peoplequake, When the Rivers Run Dry and, mostly recently, The Land Grabbers.
  •   CGIAR
  • 20 February 2013
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