Unlawful land concessions in Laos are increasingly forcing villagers to abandon their livelihoods and move far away from their homes to find alternative employment,a sign that government officials are not enforcing regulations meant to mitigate the adverse impact of involuntary land acquisitions, a legal expert on land issues and a villager said.
The legal advisor on land issues said the main reason villagers bear the brunt of illegal land appropriation is lack of enforcement of existing laws.
“There are no problems in the laws and legislation because their contents are comprehensive,” he told RFA, but declined to give his name. “There is a pretty clear process of leases and concessions, but the problem is that the law enforcement is not implemented equally throughout the country.”
The legal advisor, who provides legal training in the country’s provinces, said another problem he discovered while working in some areas is that local authorities had not publicly disseminated the contents of government decrees on compensation and resettlement of residents displaced by land appropriations out of fear that villagers will use it against them.
Prime ministerial decree 192 was signed in July 2005 to mitigate the adverse social impacts of involuntary land acquisitions or repossessions and compensate those affected to ensure they can maintain or improve their incomes and living standards. It was revised and replaced by another prime ministerial decree in April 2016.
“There should be a model for the resolution of land conflicts included in pilot projects to ensure those affected can have access to legal services and decisions justified on the basis of rule of law,” the legal advisor said.
The Lao government has given more than 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of land to foreign investors in the form of concessions, according to the first and only survey on land concessions completed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment in 2010.
The figure does not include land granted for the building of hydropower dams, mining operations, special economic zones, and the Lao-China railway.
‘Living conditions getting worse’
Land disputes continue to be a contentious issue in Laos, with villagers often dissatisfied because they believe they haven’t received appropriate compensation for land lost to development projects.
“Our living conditions are getting worse—villagers go out earning from hand to mouth,” a villager from Thataeng district in southern Laos’ Sekong province whose land was appropriated by Vietnamese rubber plantations told RFA’s Laos Service.
“We rent land in another village to produce crops for survival,” he said.
About 300 residents from his village now lack their own plots of land to make living, said the man who also declined to give his name.
The lack of land has forced young people to go to work on coffee plantations, where they receive daily wages of 20,000-50,000 kip (U.S. $3.60-$6), he said.
It would be better for local residents if developers carried out the land acquisitions so that all stakeholders—not just companies and officials—will benefit, he said.
Speaking at the National Assembly on April 28, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith conceded that many companies that receive land concessions are not following the law.
“Now many companies are receiving approval for [land] concessions, but they are not complying with the rule of law,” he said.
“Land-clearing is unlawfully taking over villagers’ land without their permission, and the concession areas are not being developed in accordance with the terms of lease contracts, which I have to admit has been occurring for years,” he said
Provincial authorities are authorized to approve 100 hectares (250 acres) of land for development purposes, the prime minister said.
Very large tracts of land about 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) in size must be divided into 10 projects of 100 hectares each, he said.
“The impact [on residents] cannot be avoided if we need the development,” he said. “We as people, officials, and developers have to make contributions, but without damaging the interests of people or those affected.”
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.