Agrarian change and land: Migration and labour


Land governance in the Mekong region operates in a context of rapid agrarian and demographic change. Migration has long been a key issue in land acquisition and governance in the region, but it has switched substantially - though not entirely - away from a mainly frontier-oriented movement of people in search of new agricultural land toward urban-destined movement in search of non-agricultural work opportunities. There is now a major cross-border movement of labour from rural parts of the region, largely - but not exclusively - to Thailand. In most parts of the Mekong Region the rural population continues to grow in absolute terms, even as it declines on a relative basis, but more slowly and with less exclusive employment in farming. Land pressures, dispossession and the growth of a rural-derived proletariat raises questions regarding the number and quality of jobs available, both in the cities and on land given over to industrial agriculture, plantations and other uses.

Key reform issues:

  • Policies of farm consolidation and mechanisation that follow rather than force movement of labour out of agriculture
  • Labour protection and in the mainly low-paid occupations available to those forced off the land
  • Value-adding through commodity-chain approach to rural development
  • Employment effects assessment of new land-based investments
  • SME programs geared to rural employment
  • Migrant support services in destination areas

Current critique and debate:

While a longstanding rural development objective has been to keep people on the land and away from urban slums, current patterns of agrarian change involve substantial voluntary movement out of agriculture, leading to critique of overly subsistence farming-oriented agricultural support programs. At the same time, modernist state programs to turn land into capital and farmers into labour are controversial and often predicated on unrealistic assumptions about the labour absorption capacity of the industrial sector. Cross-border migration is a subject of ongoing debate, particularly concerning the illegal or semi-legal status of millions of workers in several Mekong countries. The debate over labour is often ethnically charged and is heightened in the context of people trafficking.

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