Forest-Land Commons in Laos in the Twenty-First Century: Agrarian Capitalism and the ‘Non-Commodified Subsistence Guarantee’

Keith Barney & Alex van der Meer Simo

KRSEA-Laos-sticky-rice

Over the last two decades, a broad alliance of domestic and international actors in the Lao PDR have devised policy interventions on the issue of ‘strengthening customary tenure’. The aim has been to establish legal protections for the rights of rural communities to forest-land commons, in the context of widespread enclosure due to large-scale land acquisitions. Secure tenure rights would be promoted through strengthened participatory procedures for land use planning, and the development of formalization procedures, with the ultimate goal towards the widespread registering and titling of communal or collective land. Despite pilot innovations, progress towards this  goal  has been at best intermittent. 1

At the village scale, local processes associated with the commercialization of agriculture continue to unfold. The outcomes of Laos’ agrarian transition include a widespread enclosure of land both ‘from above’ (through state-corporate land acquisitions for agribusiness and infrastructure projects), and the privatization of land ‘from below’ (through smallholder engagements in boom crops, and village land leases and sales). While commercial investment has supported important livelihood gains for many rural people, this combination has also led to a widespread squeeze in environmental commons across Laos. In this context, the protection of rights to customary village forest-land commons is both an important area for land policy, and a complex empirical issue that defies boilerplate policy solutions.

In this intervention, we forward that a key issue regarding the formalization of land rights in Laos relates not just to narratives of how customary forest-land can serve as an everyday basis for rural livelihoods, and (possibly) as an emergency ‘safety net’ for the poor. The metaphor of the safety net can relegate Lao farmers to an over-simplistic ‘subsistence slot’, while doing little to frame how rural livelihoods are articulating with agrarian capitalism. Building upon what Haroon Akram-Lodhi and Cristóbal Kay call the “non-commodified subsistence guarantee” (abbreviated below to ‘NCSG’), our aim is to direct attention to how customary and communal land can serve as a buffer against the dislocating forces of agrarian capitalism, as well as a source of livelihood autonomy in rural Laos. 2 Yet, research shows that customary and communal property rights to land are changing, and farmers are themselves widely participating in new agribusiness value chains and land markets. The challenge are not just to build protections to customary land, but to approach the idea of ‘commoning’ (as a partial decommodification of customary land), in terms that are locally relevant, and grounded in a community’s collective wishes and livelihood aspirations.

A remote rural village of Laos. Image: Dino Geromella / Shutterstock.com

Capitalism’s Enclosures and Peasant Production

A short discussion of key concepts in critical agrarian studies can assist in building our argument. Agrarian questions of land, as Akram-Lodhi summarises, fundamentally relates to “who controls [land], how it is controlled, and the purpose for which it is controlled”. 3 Enclosure is defined as the “privatisation of space-specific assets”, 4 and for Akram-Lodhi both enclosure and the emergence of capitalism can be understood as “rooted in changes in the content and meaning of social property relations”. 5 One type of limit to capital involves the frontier, which invokes not only spaces on the geographical periphery, but “any space of social life that is still relatively uncolonised by capitalist relations of production”. 6 A second involves dismantling sources of social provision not subject to the monetized logics of capital, including non-market means of subsistence.

Under agrarian capitalist relations, land is inexorably converted into capital, producing accumulation but also dislocation. While economically marginal households may combine a basic subsistence from their landholdings with selling their labour, those who fail to accumulate capital for new investments in technology or land, or fall victim to debt dynamics can be forced into selling their landholdings through a logic of accumulate, re-invest, or perish. Alternatively, an ability to retaining a foothold in a non-marketised sphere of production, (such as through access to customary land and resources) can provide important livelihood advantages for smallholders. Akram-Lodhi and Kay write:

The control of land can bring with it the possibility of production for direct use, a non-commodified subsistence guarantee that gives peasants a degree of autonomy from capital that may secure a livelihood, although it will not open the possibility of accumulation. 7

Such ‘NCSGs’ can offer (if not always an emergency safety net), at least a baseline support for smallholders. In other cases, maintaining some village forest-lands and communal resources as non-commodified spaces can support members facing insufficient exposure to wage labour markets, for example when land is enclosed without the corresponding provision of wage employment options. In this sense, NCSGs can represent a form of portfolio diversification, but that falls outside, or at least at arms-length from, of the logics and imperatives of the market. 8

The agrarian question of customary and communal land in Laos also holds implications for labour. While young people are attracted to farm and off-farm wage employment for remunerative cash income, many of these positions are associated with some degree of risk and vulnerability. Thus the social and economic terms of labour migration become critical. All else being equal, peasant households who do retain access to productive land could place themselves in a stronger negotiating position regarding labour markets. NCSGs can also offer a partial source of livelihood autonomy from state and corporate-backed commercial projects, that are prone to mismanagement, failure, or new forms of surveillance and political control, placing constraints upon a farmer’s freedom to manage village lands and resources according to their own traditions and preferences.  

The ‘Non-Commodified Subsistence Guarantee’ in Rural Laos

 As elsewhere, the process of agrarian transition in Laos raises the fate of smallholder farms, and the future of customary and communal land rights. Jonathan Rigg et al. have recently explored these issues in relation to the “persistence of the smallholder” in Southeast Asia. 9 Yet, definitions of ‘smallholder farming’ and ‘peasant farms’ can be an uneasy fit with the often quite extensive landholdings and overlapping resource tenure arrangements characteristic of many villages in Laos, where village territories can extend over 2,000 or 3,000 hectares (or more).In Laos such customary land is often organized into seasonally overlapping patchworks of household-based and communal access and use rights. In such contexts, forms of cash and non-cash “environmental income” can be particularly important for livelihoods.

Recent research by the second author in in central Laos closely documented the subsistence use and cash income value of dozens of natural resource products derived from customary and communal lands. He randomly selected four communities that were also home to corporate or smallholder plantation schemes. His fieldwork in 2016-2017 (25 surveyed households per village), identified an annual household average of US $1,272 (cash equivalent value) worth of food products sourced from surrounding customary territories. van der Meer Simo calculated that overall cash and non-cash ‘environmental income’ accounted for an average of US $2,316 per household per year, or 44% of overall average household income in the four surveyed villages. Fully ‘non-market’ environmental income (i.e. resources only consumed, not sold for cash), represented an average of US$1,355 per household per year, or 22% of total household income. These figures are indicative of the value of the ‘NCSG’ in the surveyed villages. While the benefits of different land management strategies should be contextualised in the relative area and the required labour inputs, the key point is that access to customary land still served as a cornerstone for household production, offering both livelihood flexibility and a partial alternative to the vulnerabilities and dull compulsions of plantation or migrant labour.

The ‘non-commodified subsistence guarantee’ in rural Laos: Fish, sticky rice, jaew (chilli paste), local vegetables and ‘lao lao’ (rice whisky). Khammouane province, Laos, 2006 (with first author, second from right)

Social Property Relations and Agrarian Reform in Laos

Above we presented an argument for considering customary and communal forest-land in Laos less in terms of the ‘safety net’ debate, and more in terms of how NCSGs can help rural people navigate the sweeping forces of agrarian development. In this section we add further complexity, based upon an understanding of customary land as a socially-embedded institution that is itself experiencing significant transformations.

As Dressler et al. identifies for upland Palawan in the Philippines, the basis for the non-market subsistence guarantee in swidden systems of Southeast Asia lies in customary social property relations, that organise multi-functional landscapes through a “livelihood bricolage” approach. 10 This gets to the heart of the idea of land as ‘socially embedded’. 11 In rural Laos, village forest-land commons are also being enclosed, in part due to the acceleration of informal smallholder reservations of land (often called chap chong in Lao). Chap chong claims are not always equitable between households, between men and women, nor in an inter-generational sense. While historically chap chong was used to reserve land for one’s children, today it is also used for privatizing land for commercial production. There can also be significant interest by communities in leasing or selling customary forest-lands for commercial benefit. Such trends challenge a blanket approach to ‘protecting communal land’, and has implications for efforts promoting communal land titling (CLT).

Non-market access to food resources in rural Laos: barbecued fish and steamed fish soup with ant eggs, jaew, forest vegetables, sticky rice and lao lao.  Khammouane province, 2006.” Photo by K. Barney.

 A Grounded Approach to Forest-Land Policy Reform in Laos

Providing policy support for legal reform processes in Laos is a challenging endeavor. In Laos, the decision-making system can be opaque, and the Lao government is careful in managing the lines of influence from external and domestic civil society. 12 To date only a handful of community forests and communal or collective upland parcels have secured formalization through CLTs, although other initiatives are making progress. While CLTs could serve as a buttress for resource rights in the context of ongoing land acqusitions, a program to roll out CLTs could also narrow the range of economic options for villagers. It is still unclear how formal and informal household rights to forest-land would be balanced with communal titles.

While the fit will never be perfect, it is still a worthy objective to better align state policy with local realities, and to arrive at formalized tenure arrangements that are flexible and provide social protections. We have argued that an alternative way to understand customary tenure and communal land is in terms of how such spaces can provide a ‘non-commodified subsistence guarantee’, in the face of deeping agrarian capitalism. There is scope for more research in Laos that explores various dimensions on this theme of social property relations in capitalist transitions, as developed in the agrarian studies literature. The balance between commodification and subsistence guarantees, and the formalisation of customary land in the contexts of commercialization and land markets, are critical policy issues, that will shape the agrarian transition in Laos in the twenty-first century.

Keith Barney & Alex van der Meer Simo
Keith Barney, Resources, Environment and Development Group, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University
Alex van der Meer Simo, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University

Reference

Akram-Lodhi, H. and C. Kay. 2008. Peasants and Globalization: Political Economy, Rural Transformation and the Agrarian Question. London: Routledge
Akram-Lodhi, H. 2007. Land, Markets and Neoliberal Enclosure: An Agrarian Political Economy Perspective. Third World Quarterly 28(8): 1437- 1456.
Dressler, W., J. de Koning, M. Montefrio and J. Firn. 2016. Land Sharing Not Sparing in the ‘Green Economy’: The Role of Livelihood Bricolage in Conservation and Development in the Philippines. Geoforum 76: 75-89.
Hirsch, P. and N. Scurrah. 2015. The Political Economy of Land Governance in Lao PDR. Vientiane: Mekong Region Land Governance.
Ironside, J. 2017. The Recognition of Customary Tenure in Lao PDR. MRLG Thematic Study Series #8. Vientiane: MRLG.

Notes:

  1. Ironside, J. 2017. The Recognition of Customary Tenure in Lao PDR. MRLG Thematic Study Series #8. Vientiane: MRLG. pg. iv.
  2. Akram-Lodhi, H. and C. Kay. 2008. Peasants and Globalization: Political Economy, Rural Transformation and the Agrarian Question. London: Routledge. pg. 228.
  3. Akram-Lodhi, H. 2007. Land, Markets and Neoliberal Enclosure: An Agrarian Political Economy Perspective. Third World Quarterly 28(8): 1437- 1456, pg. 1442.
  4. Ibid. pg. 1443.
  5. Ibid. pg. 1443. See also Ellen Wood. 2002. The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View. London: Verso.
  6. Ibid. pg. 1444.
  7. Akram-Lodhi and Kay, 2008. pg. 228.
  8. A complex elaboration is possible on the issue of commodification. Smallholder products established as a commodity that are raised or grown through capital-intensive methods, or products derived from commercialised land access, are not included within our approach to NCSGs.
  9. Rigg, J., A. Salamanca and E. Thompson. 2016. The Puzzle of East and Southeast Asia’s Persistent Smallholder. Journal of Rural Studies 43: 118-133.
  10. Dressler, W., J. de Koning, M. Montefrio and J. Firn. 2016. Land Sharing Not Sparing in the ‘Green Economy’: The Role of Livelihood Bricolage in Conservation and Development in the Philippines. Geoforum 76: 75-89.
  11. Polanyi, K. 1944, 2001. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.
  12. Hirsch, P. and N. Scurrah. 2015. The Political Economy of Land Governance in Lao PDR. Vientiane: Mekong Region Land Governance. pg. 4-5, 14.

3 Comments

  1. It would be interesting to explore who is “chap choging” the vast majority of previously commonly held traditional lands, how they are then disposing of these lands, who is benefitings, and who faces increasing hardships as a result. I would be willing to wager a guess.

  2. Hi Andrew:

    Thanks for your comment and that is a good question. However, I am not sure how you would “guess” who is doing the chap changing, since, from my experience at least, it has been a different scenario in each of the research villages under this project, and these informal land tenure systems are always locally (re-)negotiated.

    For example, in Khammouane province, one community that I often visit indicated that they began to “chap chong” in 2004, soon after a plantation company began to develop eucalyptus plantations in their village, based upon a state-led land zoning process. The reason they began this process in 2004, was because it was only then that they realised that they could lose much of their community land to the private developer. The former headman explained that in this community, the chap chong land system was indeed unequal between households, and this was because “some households who were poor were afraid that they would not have the money to pay the land tax. So some households with better income occupied more land.” Nowadays only the village spirit forest and cemetery forest is communal, everything else has been
    “chap chonged” even though a lot of the land is forest fallow. (i.e. in other words, the former swidden-based communal forest-land system has been privatised along household lines).

    In a second community, in Savannakhet province, according to community elders the “chap chong” process was completed as early as the 1960s! Again this was not really an equal process, but it had little to do with paying land taxes or land acquisition, since this was well before a land administration was in place in Laos. Land in this village was claimed and marked by households in order to have land to pass to children through inheritance. Back in those days, land was neither particularly scarce nor valuable, so it appears as though it was a bit of random foresight regarding who claimed what land. Nowadays, these decisions have big implications (especially for their descendants) since land is scarce and valuable. Another plantation company arrived to this community in 2008, claimed and developed over 550 hectares of (chap chong) land through a government land concession. But no compensation was paid to the chap chong informal owners.

    In a third example of a community I visited, from upland Salavane province, the very existence of chap chong in the community was disputed. The headman claimed that he did not allow chap chong, since according to him the neighbouring community had recently done so and “there had been no end of disputes since then”. However the vice headman said that some “chap chonging” was still going on. People in this community are just beginning the transition from a communal swidden system to household based cash cropping.

    So overall, it is a complex and variable picture of informal land ownership claims in rural Laos. However, what one can say is that nowadays, everyone knows that land is both scarce and valuable. So the “chap chong frontier” is closing very quickly. This will pose a lot of complexities both for official land administration, and civil society efforts to promote collective land titling. For agribusiness firms, the existence of chap chong land makes it more difficult to identify “community” land for plantations, while also perhaps facilitating a move towards establishing private land rental contracts with household landowners. There is likely to be gendered implications of this land transition as well.

    I came across this reference today that perhaps sums up the situation with informal land claims and property systems:

    The institutions governing resource use are “partial, intermittent and indeed often invisible, being located in the daily interactions of ordinary lives” (Cleaver, 2000: 366)

    [See Cleaver, F. (2000) “Moral ecological rationality: Institutions and the management of common property resources.” Development and Change. 31: 361-383].

    Best wishes,
    Keith

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