Asia is a land of small farmers. But across the continent, governments are introducing changes to land laws that threaten to displace millions of peasants and undermine local food systems. The region is witnessing an agrarian reform in reverse.
Despite decades of rapid economic growth and industrialisation, there are more small farmers in the Asian countryside than in the rest of the world combined. The endurance of Asia's small farmers is testament to their skills, their deep attachment to the land and their historical struggles. Over time, peasants have been able to win some legal protections that provided some basic safeguards to maintain their access to lands.
But the legacy of these struggles is under attack. Today, small farmers in Asia are being squeezed onto ever smaller parcels of land. Across the continent, farmland is being gobbled up for dams, mines, tourism projects and large-scale agriculture, with scant regard for the people living off those lands. Farms that peasant families have cared for for generations are being paved over for new highways or real estate development as cities expand. Long-standing government promises to redistribute land more fairly have been broken – in many places, governments are taking land away from peasant farmers.
Land concentration in Asia is higher now than it has ever been. Just 6 percent of Asia's farm owners hold around two-thirds of its farmland. Many of these landowners are politically connected elites, as is the case in the Philippines, Cambodia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Indonesia.1
As this concentration increases, one consequence is the eruption of conflicts over land throughout the continent. Peasant protests against land grabs have become a regular sight on the streets of major cities like Phnom Penh and Manila. The court systems in China and Vietnam are backlogged with thousands of rural land conflict cases. And militarised repression is a harsh daily reality in many places where communities are resisting land grabbing, from West Papua to West Bengal.
This report shows how governments across Asia are quietly proceeding with a raft of legislative changes to remove the few protections that small farmers have traditionally enjoyed, exposing them to the takeover of their lands for large-scale corporate farming. The changes differ from country to country, but they are all designed to make it easier for companies to acquire large areas of land from small farmers.
These legislative changes will displace millions of peasant families, undermine local food systems and increase violent conflicts over land.
Forcing small farmers off their lands through legal reform
Growing interest in farmland is prompting a legislative push to transfer land from small farmers to corporations. Big money is flowing into plantation companies and other corporate farming ventures from banks, hedge funds, tycoons and transnational commodity traders. Governments are under pressure from these investors to open up agricultural land, and few are putting up any resistance. The spree of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements that Asian governments have signed on to over the past decade and a half has locked countries into policies that favour corporate farming and foreign investors over small scale producers (see Box 1 on trade agreements).
In some cases the legislation is geared mainly towards a transfer of lands for industrial, tourism or infrastructure purposes, not corporate farming, but the clear trend across the region is the removal of legislative and other impediments that prevent foreign and national companies from acquiring large areas of farmland.
Each country has a different approach, but the changes can be loosely grouped into two types.
On the one hand, there are laws or policies that enable governments to carve up large areas of land into concessions and lease or sell these to companies. This is the case in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Thailand.
On the other hand, laws are being passed or amended to legalise new schemes that consolidate small farms and transfer the lands to companies engaged in corporate farming. Each scheme comes with a different label, such as "agri-parks" in India, "land circulation trusts" in China, "banks" in Korea, "clusters" in the Philippines or "special agricultural production companies" in Japan. (See Box 2 on China)
Table 1 – Land concentration and Asia's changing land laws – shows changes to the laws taking place in different countries in Asia, with further information contained in the Annex.
By GRAIN's calculations, the legislative changes listed in Table 1 have already led to the transfer of at least 43.5 million hectares of farmland in Asia from small farmers to agribusiness companies.2
The number of small farmers in Asia is shrinking, as is the size of their landholdings, while the number of corporate farms is growing rapidly. For example, the number of small farmers in Indonesia fell by 16 percent between 2003 to 2013, while the number of large scale farms increased by 54 percent and the number of plantations increased by 19 percent over the same period. Most of Indonesia's farmers, around 55 percent, now farm on less than half a hectare.3 Similarly, the number of Japanese farmers has dropped by 40 percent since 2000 while the number of "agricultural production companies" has increased to 14,333, double what it was in 2004.4
A massive transfer of lands
Different arguments are used to justify modifying or changing land laws. Peasants are said to be abandoning the countryside in favour of work in the cities. We are told that large farms are more efficient and competitive and that corporate farming creates jobs.10 Liberalised land markets, say donors and international lenders, create social stability and stimulate economic development.11
None of these arguments hold up to scrutiny. Farmers across Asia are fighting for their land, not trying to flee it. The fact is, the growing adoption of industrial farming systems and increasing corporate control of distribution of food – changes supported by the new land laws – have led to a reliance on expensive inputs, the degradation of land and biodiversity and volatile price changes for produce. The impact on peasant farmers has been catastrophic, in some places triggering a wave of suicides among indebted farmers forced to give up their land.
If anything, it is the policies of Asia's governments that are creating conditions that compel peasants to migrate to urban areas to provide a cheap labour supply for export manufacturing.
The arguments about productivity and efficiency are also false. Asia's small farmers are among the most efficient and productive farmers in the world. The truth is that small farmers feed Asia. Despite having the highest percentage of small farms, Asian farmers are able to produce 44 percent of total world production of cereal. India is the highest dairy producer in the world with 85 percent of the national dairy sector handled by small scale and backyard dairy farmers. China's backyard farmers, rearing between 1 and 10 pigs per year, accounted for 27 percent of nationwide pork production. And five Asian countries with a majority of small farmers, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, account for 70 percent of global rice production.12
The transfer of land in Asia represents a fundamental shift away from small-scale, traditional agriculture and local food systems to a corporate food chain supplied by industrial agriculture. If they are allowed to go forward, these changes will have major impacts on everything from food safety to the environment, from local cultures to people's livelihoods.
Governments are choosing sides in a struggle over the future of land and food. The case of India is a good example: sustained popular mobilisation led the government to adopt legislation that required social impact legislation and broad consultation with affected communities before transferring land, but the land acquisition act of 2013 had barely been passed before a land ordinance that overturned it was rushed through by the executive at the end of 2014.
The land struggles that rural people are engaged in are taking on much larger social dimensions. This can be seen in the street protests against the land acquisition ordinance in India or the creative actions to stop the conversion of farmlands in Taiwan. People across Asia are making it clear that they want farmland to remain with their farmers. They want their governments to stop facilitating a corporate take-over of agriculture.
The example of resistance in India – and powerful popular mobilisations around this issue are also taking place in Cambodia, Taiwan, the Philippines and elsewhere (see Annex 1) – shows the strength of joint efforts by rural and urban communities, as well as the importance of links between the local and regional levels in building effective political pressure.
There is an urgent need to further strengthen this resistance to the co-option of land reform in the interests of agro-industry. Farmers, indigenous groups and civil society organisations across the region are building coalitions to defend peasants' interests against trade agreements and national policies that facilitate the privatisation and commodification of farmland.
(GRAIN would like to acknowledge and thank everyone who contributed their thoughts, knowledge and experience to this publication: Yan Hairong, Forest Zhang, Assembly of the Poor – Thailand, Equitable Cambodia, the India Coordination Committee of Farmers Movement, NOUMINREN, Taiwan Rural Front, Peoples Common Struggle Centre – Pakistan), Lao land issue working group)
Annex 1 – Some country cases
Seventy percent of Burma's population lives in rural areas – one third of this rural population is made up of landless labourers.22 In 2000, the government of Burma launched a 30 year master plan for the farm sector that facilitated the transfer of 4 million hectares of land to agribusiness companies. In 2012, it enacted the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law – called “the land-grabbing law” by farmers – which aims to make lands the government identifies as “vacant” or “un-cultivated” available as concessions of up to 20,000 ha for companies.23
In Cambodia, only 23% of the country's 1.5 million small farmers have land. In 2001, the government passed a Land Law and an Economic Land Concession (ELCs) law that enables private companies to own concessions of 10,000 ha of land for up to 99 years.24 This has enabled the transfer of 70% of the country arable land, equal to 2.1 million ha, to industrial agriculture firms and forced hundreds of thousands of farmers off their lands.25
In 2013, in response to fierce land conflicts over development projects, the Indian government adopted a new land acquisition law under which lands for development projects cannot be acquired without a the consent of 80% of the people from the affected communities and a social impact assessment. The law also prohibited the acquisition of multi-cropped irrigated land.
But in December 2014, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a new ordinance that will eliminate the requirements for social impact assessments or consent from displaced communities as well as make it possible for companies to acquire multi-crop irrigated land. Mass protests have since broken out, led by farmers and farm workers calling for what they describe as a pro-industry and anti-farmer act to be withdrawn.26 The land ordinance serves to ease land acquisition, including for development of the proposed mega food projects which aim to integrate the entire food value chain from farm to plate in the hands of single companies. President Pranab Mukherjee has created a special fund of 2,000 crore rupees (323 million dollars) to provide credit for 72 food parks in 2015 budget session.27
Indonesia's Basic Agrarian Law No. 5 of 1960 laid out a programme for the redistribution of the lands of the colonial-era plantations and it put a ceiling on the size of private farmland ownership. But the law was put on hold after the 1965 coup and never really implemented. Much of the country was opened up for large plantation and mining concessions.
In recent years, the process of consolidating forested areas and small plots into larger parcels for industrial agriculture has accelerated, aided by a series of legal changes like the Plantation Law and the Investment Law. In 2010, the government introduced a new mega-project called the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), covering 2.5 million ha of lands belonging to the Malind community of Papua. A 2014 national human rights commission (Komnas HAM) inquiry found that the project has led to increasing rights violations and intimidation of villagers, loss of livelihoods, and malnutrition of local people.28
In the post-WWII period, Japan implemented one of the most thorough land reforms in Asia. From November 1945 to August 1950, the landlord system was dismantled and more than 80% of the lands were redistributed to former tenants. The “owner-cultivator principle” was explicitly written into the Agriculture Land Law of 1952, “recognising that it is most appropriate for agricultural land to be owned by those who cultivate and till the land for themselves.”
In 2009, the Japan Forum on International Relations – a think tank aligned with Japanese multinationals – proposed a new policy to designate 1.5 million hectares of land as “Food Production Base Areas” – an area covering approximately one-third of the 4.6 million ha currently under cultivation in the country. These areas would be considered as special economic zones exempt from farmland regulations, including the Agricultural Land Law. Ownership and tenancy rights would become freely transferable and open to overseas migrant workers.29 As a step toward this goal, the Japanese government revised the Agricultural Land Law the same year. The 2009 revision abandoned the owner-cultivator principle and instead promoted the “efficient” use of farmland to maintain rights to land. It also opened up the leasing of farmland to all forms of corporations with almost no restrictions. Finally, the new law eased the requirements for who can use and own farmland. By raising the ceiling for corporate investment in [agricultural incorporated bodies] that control farmland to anything below 50 percent, the law essentially makes them dummies, effectively under control of their corporate investors.30
In Lao PDR's Champassak province, the World Bank promoted an investment project where villagers received shares in the project in exchange for providing their lands to a company to farm. The promoters claimed that this would give the villagers an income and allow them to move out of farming into better paying jobs.31 A subsequent study, however, found that none of the villagers received payments from the project’s earnings.32 It is also unlikely that the peasants who were made landless were able to find decent jobs in urban areas, as Lao PDR already has a surplus of unskilled labourers competing for low paid jobs in the industrial sector.
In Pakistan, despite a 1947 land reform initiative put forward by the Government Hari (Peasant) Enquiry Committee, 50 percent of the rural population is landless and most agricultural lands remain under the control of large landlords. Pakistan's farmland was recently opened up to foreign investors and large scale farm concessions through the Corporate Farming Ordinance of 2004, followed by the 2009 Foreign Agriculture Law.
These measures allow for 100 percent foreign equity on farming companies and offer generous financial incentives, such as exemptions on land transfer duties and the waiver of customs duties and sales taxes on agricultural machinery imports.33 The Pakistan Board of Investment has identified 22.45 million ha of lands available for corporate investors.
The Philippines began implementing its agrarian reform programme in 1988. CARP – the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program – was in response to powerful mass mobilisation throughout the 1980s demanding changes. The programme was supposed to favour owner-cultivators on economic-size farms as the basis for agriculture in the Philippines, but it provided landlords with numerous exemptions and loopholes.
An administrative order published in 1998 sets out guidelines for Agribusiness Venture Arrangements that create a wide range of options to exempt land held by large-scale commercial agriculture operations from being redistributed, including contract growing, lease arrangements, management contracts, build-operate-transfer schemes and joint venture arrangements.
The programme and its successor, CARP/ER (the ER standing for “Extension with Reform), have so far failed to redistribute significant amounts of land to the country's peasants, farm workers and landless rural people. For this reason, CARP/ER has been labelled as a ‘bogus land reform’ by farmers movement. In recent years, the commercial farming developed further through the creation of agribusiness parks. In 2012, the government enacted new policy that designated strategic agriculture and fisheries development zones . The SAFDZ areas are identified by Department of Agriculture for production, agro-processing and marketing activities to help develop and modernise the Philippines' agriculture and fisheries sectors.34
The 2008 Land Expropriation Act allowed the government to take over agricultural land to lease or sell to developers of industrial complexes, food processing industries and facilities for the export market. Farmers across the country have staged numerous protests. In July 2008, farmers in Miaoli Wanbao, with the support of the Taiwan Rural Front, launched a protest against the county government for approving the Houlong Technology Industrial Park development project on their lands. The protest lasted three years until the regional planning committee was finally forced to overrule the project in 2011. 35
There have been no changes to Thailand's agrarian law in the past 40 years. However, the Forestry Master Plan (FMP) issued by Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in 2014 opens the door for large concessions in forest areas to be allocated to companies, putting the small scale farmers who live and farm within these areas at risk of forced relocation. Thai groups see this as the latest in a long line of attempts since 1992 to expand monoculture tree plantations such as eucalyptus.36
Some of the most active promoters of corporate farming are intergovernmental bodies, such as the FAO and IFAD of the United Nations or the World Bank and Asia Development Bank. These agencies provide key technical, financial and policy support to implement the legislative changes. While the FAO carried the banner for the International Year of Family Farming in 2014, its Director General was cautioning Asian governments about "fragmented" landholdings and urging them to pursue more economically viable public-private partnerships for agriculture.37
2 GRAIN calculated the numbers from existing government projects and publicly announced plans, but with limited data available in several countries, the total amount of land that has been transferred is likely much higher.
3 Sensus Pertanian Indonesia 2013.
6 Sally Dakis, "Trade Minister defends tighter foreign investment scrutiny," ABC Rural, 15 February 2015.
7 Equitable Cambodia and Inclusive Development, “Bittersweet harvest: a human rights impact assessment of the European Union’s Everything But Arms initiative in Cambodia”, 2013.
8 Shimizu, K. and Mclachlan, P., “Showdown: the Trans-Pacific Partnership vs. Japan's farm lobby”, The National Interest, 2 October 2014.
9 Japan's strategy for its agriculture in the globalized world, 31st policy recommendation of the Policy Council, Japan Forum on International Relations, January 2009.
10 See, for instance the FAO's work on land tenure and administration in the Asia-Pacific region in cooperation with UN Habitat, the World Bank, IFAD, and UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) in 2008 and at the FAO's 32nd regional conference for Asia and Pacific roadmap in 2014 . In Burma, Lao PDR, and China, schemes are promoted for reducing rural poverty where small farmers are promised shares in the company's annual profit or waged labour as a ‘reward’ for giving up their lands.
11 Grimsditch, M. and Henderson, N., “Untitled: Tenure insecurity and inequality in Cambodia land sector,” Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, Centre on Housing Rights and Eviction and Jesuit Refugee Services, October 2009.
13 The Chinese central government’s 2013 policy document identifies the actors in Chinese agriculture as ‘specialised big households’, cooperatives, family farmers, and dragon-head enterprises. ‘Specialised’ refers to commodity specialisation though the distinction between big households and family farms is not clear.
14 RIETI, "Rural land circulation in China gaining momentum: the increasing role of trust companies", 7 March 2014.
18 Jonathan Browning, Yuriy Humber and Alfred Liu, "Japan’s Itochu and CP Group said in talks to invest in Citic", Bloomberg, 5 December 2014.
19 Lin Yuan Zhong Yuan, "The agricultural land trust projects and more flowering: CITIC Trust intends to re-enter the multi-province", Xinhua, 17 February 2014.
20 The Chinese government will spend 26 billion Yuan (4 billion US$) to carry out a registration process aimed at freeing up the rural land market. Mandy Zuo, “China to spend 26 billion yuan to register rights ahead of rural reforms”, South China Post, 27 February 2015.
21 “Rural land reform in China will promote large-scale farms”, Xinhua, 19 October 2014.
24 Grimsditch, M. and Henderson, N. Untitled: Tenure insecurity and inequality in Cambodia land sector. 2009. Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, Centre on Housing Rights and Eviction, Jesuit Refugee Services.
25 LICADHO, “The great Cambodian giveaway: visualizing land concession over time”, 2013.
26 All India Coordinating Committee of Farmers Movement press release, January 2015.
28 AwasMifee, “Inkuiri Nasional Komnas HAM tentang hak-hak masyarakat adat sudah sampai ke Papua”, November 2014.
30 Yoshitaka Mashima, (Vice Chair of Nouminren, the Japan Family Farmers' Movement), personal communication.
32 Darren Daley, Global Association for People and the Environment (GAPE), Champassak Province, Lao PDR. Personal communication, 2015.
33 PSCS, “Corporate land grab: a neoliberal menace in Pakistan,” 2015; Michael Kugelman, “Going gaga over grain”, Dawn, 17 September 2009.
34 KMP, “Genuine agrarian reform: Still a distant dream from the Philippine peasantry”, 2001; Republic Act No. 10601 an act promoting agricultural and fisheries mechanization development in the country.
35 Jamie Wei and Jiun Ru-Chiang, Taiwan Rural Front. personal communication, 30 January 2015
36 Baramee Chaiyarat. Assembly of the Poor Thailand, personal communication 2015
37 FAO. The director general’s medium term plan 2014-2017.