Land distribution: concentration/dispersion, landlessness


Inequality in landholding is a longstanding issue in land relations and their wider place in the political economy of the Mekong Region. Historically, the distribution of landholdings in some countries and regions within them has been much more unequal than in others. This has been associated with landlessness and the hunger, destitution and subservience faced by farmers with no other options than exploitative tenancy and/or poorly remunerated agricultural labour. While land reforms have periodically sought to redistribute land progressively, land grabbing and other processes have recently seemed to reverse the "land to the tiller" ideal. This is complicated by the voluntary move of some farmers in some places out of agriculture, together with the difficulties in measuring land concentration, dispersion and landlessness.

Key reform issues:

  • Conventional land reform through land redistribution
  • Conventional land settlement, but with a constrained land frontier
  • Checks put on allocation of concessions that concentrate land in the hands of corporations
  • Farm consolidation following rather than leading a move out of agriculture by smallholders
  • Land banks and other protective credit arrangements that minimise land foreclosure on the part of the poor

Current critique and debate:

Whereas the attraction of capital to productive agriculture has in the past focused attention on landlessness in core rice growing areas such as the four main deltas (Red River, Mekong, Chaophraya and Irrawaddy), critique of regressive land policy has more recently focused on upland areas where land concessions expropriate farmers, often ethnic minorities, whose lands are deemed "wasteland" and whose livelihood practices are rendered illegal or invisible. This focus on land grabbing as the main source of rising inequality in landholding may hide more proximate processes and instances of accumulation and dispossession within villages, between neighbours, in part accelerated by the marketisation of land and other social relations.

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