Agricultural modernisation: key ideas and debates relevant to land tenure security


Modernisation is a key ideological underpinning of state development policy throughout the Mekong Region, and it is also a basic rationale for regional economic integration. The drive for modernisation is particularly fervent in the post-socialist framework where lingering ideas of socialist modernity combine with a desire for "catch-up" based on a sense of missed decades of economic development. Aspirations for agricultural modernisation translate into land policy informed by key assumptions. These include the need for foreign direct investment to modernise agriculture, the advantage of large- over small-scale farming, that land markets will put farms in the hands of the most efficient producers, that backward farmers should become wage labourers, if necessary on land given over from subsistence to commercial farming, and that there is sufficient labour demand in the modern economy to provide jobs to those exiting unproductive smallholder agriculture. At the same time, some NGO programs are locked in an anti-modern mindset that is increasingly out of line with aspirations of many rural smallholders.

Key reform issues:

  • Base assumptions associated with modernity on firm evidence, and if necessary challenge them
  • Create at least a level playing field to allow smallholders to compete with larger enterprises on an equal basis
  • Support civil society and educational programs that challenge fact-free claims of modernity-oriented policy initiatives
  • Support dialogue and debate within civil society on ideological bases for programs and their compatibility with farmer aspirations

Current critique and debate:

Modernity is a highly polarised ideological field in the Mekong Region. Many NGOs and academic studies have challenged modernist-informed assumptions on which regressive land policies and practices are based, but systematic mustering of data to back up these challenges remains a key task. In part this is because the debate manifests as one of values as much as one informed by facts. Challenges to anti-modernist discourses come from two main directions: developmental state and commercial programs that accuse NGOs and others of wanting to keep countries and rural people in poor, backward circumstances; and academic studies that identify gaps between communalist, subsistence-oriented programs for ethnic minorities, on the one hand, and aspirations of many rural people for economic advancement within and beyond agriculture on the other.

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