A company is using a loophole in Laos' land law to appropriate hundreds of hectares from the residents of three villages in the country’s southern Savannakhet province to build cattle farms, and villagers are having a hard time resisting the land grab because they failed to register the titles.
Residents of Namseuk, Laosouliya, and Phang-heng villages in the province’s Champhone district have been at loggerheads with the Chinese-backed Lamxe Road-Bridge Construction Company since May, when the firm started clearing land they claimed belonged to them to make way for the cattle farms.
About 100 families are being affected by the concession.
District governor Soutthiphew Souliyamat told RFA that when officials from district and provincial natural resources and environment, agriculture and forestry offices surveyed the 400 hectares (988 acres) using global positioning satellite technology, they found that only 82 hectares (203 acres) had legal land titles.
“More than 300 hectares [741 acres] of land have not been registered for titles, so the residents have informed the district that they will reregister the land and pay property taxes,” he said. “But the district doesn’t view this as being in accordance with the land law and hasn’t allowed them to do so,” he said.
Only 30 percent of land plots throughout the country have been registered for titles, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
“The country’s land law stipulates that land belongs to a ‘national family’ and is managed equally by the state, which has created a big loophole that allows state officials to take over residents’ lands,” said a civil society official who declined to be named.
“The officials will ask to see land titles, but if residents don’t have them, their land will be taken over and given to investors as land concessions,” he said.
The situation has gone unresolved for many years after the land law went into effect in 2003 with the aim of turning land into capital, the civil society official said.
“State officials cooperate with investors to take advantage of opportunities to grab villagers’ lands, which is a hotbed issue,” he said.
“Now the state does not recognize communal land titles and residents’ customary rights to land,” he said.
In June 2012, the government issued a moratorium on the approval of new land and mine development projects until the country’s land policy and law are amended, he said.
At a government cabinet meeting in June, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith tasked the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment with reviewing the country’s land policy and law for amendment.
RFA contacted Vongdeuan Vongiharath, director general of the ministry’s Land Department, for information about the revisions, but he declined to take the call.
Villagers file complaint
So far, the villagers have prevented the company from proceeding with the project because it doesn’t have the legal documents necessary for the land concession.
“The company would like to create dairy farms, but it came here without any papers to clear the land, so villagers immediately disagreed and began protesting against the company,” a resident who declined to be named told RFA’s Lao Service.
That month, the residents submitted a complaint to the provincial cabinet to resolve the issue.
“The company will take over not only communal lands with forests, but also villagers’ lands and pay them compensation of less than U.S. $6 per hectare,” the resident said.
Four hundred of the hectares of land that the company intends to take over comprise Naseuak village alone, he said.
“After the protest, district governor Soutthiphew Souliyamat, who supports the company, tried to convince the villagers to cooperate with the company, but the villagers did not agree,” he said.
No amendments to the policy and law have been passed because the government and National Assembly have not approved their content and because the families of national leaders have conflicts of interest regarding land concessions, the civil society official said.
“So the amended draft of the policy and law were ignored and delayed during the terms of the previous cabinet,” he said in a reference to the administration of former president Choummaly Sayasone, who was replaced by his vice president in April.
The great land giveaway
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment estimates that Lao government officials have given more than one million hectares of Laos’ total land area of 23.7 million hectares (58.6 million acres) as concessions to foreign investors, excluding land for mining and hydropower projects.
Some local residents who oppose land grabs or the appropriation of public property to turn over to foreign and domestic companies have refused to speak out publicly because they fear retribution.
In June 2015, an employee of the Natural Resources and Environment Department in Luang Prabang province was detained for posting a “confidential document” on her Facebook account about a controversial land concession granted by government officials allowing Chinese investors to develop the area around the Khouangxi waterfalls, a popular tourist attraction.
The post sparked widespread criticism among local residents, who said that the provincial government routinely gives away public property to domestic and foreign investors in the form of concessions which bring the population little benefit.
That same month, authorities in the Lao capital Vientiane threatened to detain a group of villagers if they did not accept compensation to vacate their land, which the local government had granted as a concession to a development firm owned by the former mayor’s daughter and son-in-law.
Nearly all of more than 500 families in the city’s Xiengda village were forced to accept compensation of five million kip (U.S. $615) per hectare or would face imprisonment. Seven families refused the compensation, which they said was a mere 10 percent of the land’s market value.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.