Land governance policies in Asia, especially concessions made to private companies, are leaving the region’s poorest vulnerable to human rights abuses, experts say.
“Land-grabbing by the rich and powerful continues,” Suson Bunsak, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said at the recent Asia Land Forum held in the capital, Phnom Penh. “Hundreds of thousands of people are severely affected for the livelihoods because of the land concessions to the companies.”
According to International Land Coalition (ILC) Asia, a global alliance working on equitable land access which organized the forum, Asia contains 34 percent of the world’s cultivable land and 15 percent of the world’s remaining forests.
The region also has 75 percent of the world’s farming households, 80 percent of whom are small-scale farmers and producers who often have tenuous land tenure.
Since 2000, 27 million hectares of land were bought by foreign and domestic companies throughout Asia, making it the second most targeted region for land deals after Africa.
Economic land concessions and land controlled by agro-industries, including sugar and rubber companies as well as rice mills in Cambodia, increased to more than two million hectares nationwide in 2011, which reduced cultivable land, according to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
Since 2003, in 12 out of 23 provinces where the local NGO Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights works, more than 400,000 mostly rural landholders have been affected by land deals which evicted them from their properties.
The NGO Oxfam calculates land deals worldwide tripled during the food price crisis in 2008 and 2009 when cultivable land was increasingly a profitable investment, and that 60 percent of the deals from 2000-2010 were in developing countries struggling to fight widespread hunger.
Oxfam calls for the World Bank to freeze lending on land deals that threaten local communities.
A new lending freeze was implemented by the World Bank in May 2011 - and continues to the present - in Cambodia when fishing communities protested against the Bank’s US$33million support for a government project that had evicted hundreds of families. In August 2011, the Cambodian government granted land titles to most of the affected families.
According to ILC, improved land tenure laws are needed to protect people at risk of losing their land and livelihoods in such deals.
The executive director of STAR Kampuchea, a Phnom Penh-based NGO that works with civil society groups in Cambodia, told IRIN civil society organizations in Asia are ill-equipped to interpret and enforce existing land laws.
After more than two years of consultation with groups and governments working on land issues, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently endorsed voluntary guidelines on the “responsible governance of tenure of land” intended to promote secure tenure rights and equitable access to land, fisheries and forests as a means of wiping out hunger and poverty.
FAO is opening a technical meeting on 4 October in Rome to discuss how to implement the guidelines.
The Asian NGO Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development based in the Philippines has noted the richest quintile own the bulk of land in Asia, particularly the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia, leaving the poorest uncompensated - and often homeless - in land deals.