Turning Land into Capital, Turning People into Labor: Primitive Accumulation and the Arrival of Large-Scale Economic Land Concessions in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

TitleTurning Land into Capital, Turning People into Labor: Primitive Accumulation and the Arrival of Large-Scale Economic Land Concessions in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsBaird IG
Secondary TitleNew Proposals: Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry
Key themesAgriculturalModernization, Conversion-FoodSecurity, Dispossession-grabbing, FDI, MarginalisedPeople

In recent years the Lao government has provided many foreign investors with large-scale economic land concessions to develop plantations. These concessions have resulted in significant alterations of landscapes and ecological processes, greatly reduced local access to resources through enclosing common areas, and ultimately leading to massive changes in the livelihoods of large numbers of mainly indigenous peoples living near these concessions. Many have lost their agricultural and forest lands, or means of production, making it difficult for them to maintain their former semi-subsistence livelihoods, and thus compelling many to take up employment on the same plantations that displaced them, despite having to work for low wages and under poor conditions. Using two case studies involving large economic land concessions in southern Laos, I argue that applying the theoretical concept of primitive accumulation is useful for better understanding the political processes and motivations of government officials, and their justifications for the rural dispossession that is occurring in a nominally ‘socialist’ country.


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Document Type

Journal Article


Overall relevance: 

This article explores the rationalization behind the Lao government’s modernist project of turning land into capital and farmers into labourers through the issuing of large-scale economic land concessions to foreign investors. The transformation of agricultural land, forest land and other commons previously used by smallholders for their livelihoods into large monoculture plantations controlled by companies is part of the government’s vision to “modernise” agriculture by turning land to more productive uses. A key component of the modernist project is to transform subsistence or semi-subsistence farmers, and particularly indigenous people, into wage labourers by forcibly removing them from their means of production. The article stresses the ongoing relevance and usefulness of the concept of primitive accumulation to explain the large scale rural dispossession occurring in this nominally socialist country.

Key Themes: 
  • Agricultural modernisation: key ideas and debates relevant to land tenure security - The drive for modernisation is particularly acute in post-socialist countries such as Laos where ideas of socialist modernity still permeate. A prevalent belief among many Lao government officials is that forcibly removing small-scale farmers and indigenous people from what they see as “unproductive” (non-capitalist) modes of subsistence agriculture so they become dependent on wage labour is a “necessary evil” in order for Laos to develop into a modern capitalist economy. The economic land concession system and other land policies encouraging violent capitalist accumulation through dispossession are controversial and are predicated on a number of assumptions, including assumptions about the labour absorption capacity of agricultural plantations and other industrial sectors.
  • Land zoning, planning, conversion and food security - The development of large scale economic land concessions is resulting in the rapid conversion of landscapes to industrial plantations and having significant impacts on rural populations, particularly indigenous peoples. The sudden loss of agricultural land, common forests and grazing land has impacted people’s ability to produce food for family consumption and prompted dramatic livelihood shifts. These impacts affect people differently. While some households and individuals are able to adapt to changes more readily, such as by selling labour to purchase food, this option is not always available to different groups, such as the elderly or female headed households.
  • Land dispossession/land grabbing - In Laos, the policy to “turn land into capital” deviates from the neoliberal idea of rural smallholders turning their most valuable asset (land) into a household level wealth-generating engine. Instead, the policy drive is to turn a purportedly land-abundant country’s asset into national wealth through expropriation. Farmers receive little or no compensation for agricultural and forest land that is appropriated, particularly if it is swidden fields, while labour opportunities on the plantations that seldom materialise.
  • FDI and land access: economic land concessions, contract farming, short term and long term renting - In Laos, the shift in land policy towards issuing large land concessions to foreign investors coincided with a number of factors: declining confidence of the Lao government in the ability of small farmers to increase crop production for export
  • Marginalized people's land rights and access: ethnic minorities, poor and women - Entwined in the Lao government’s vision for a modernised economy is the perception that “backward” farmers – especially ethnic minorities – should become wage workers to hasten progress. As a first step, it is hoped that large scale rubber plantations can replace swidden agriculture and that permanent jobs bring an end to slash-and-burn agriculture.
Research basis: 

The data used in the article, including the two case studies in southern Laos, has been collected intermittently by the author over the past 15 years. It also draws on information collected by indigenous and ethnic Lao staff working for the NGO Global Association for People and the Environment (GAPE), which the author was executive director of in 2001-2010.