Allocation or appropriation? How spatial and temporal fragmentation of land allocation policies facilitates land grabbing in Northern Laos

TitleAllocation or appropriation? How spatial and temporal fragmentation of land allocation policies facilitates land grabbing in Northern Laos
Annotated RecordNot Annotated
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsMcAllister K
Secondary TitleLand Grabbing, Conflict and Agrarian-Environmental Transformations: Perspectives from East and Southeast Asia
Paginationi-iii, 1-20
PublisherBRICS Initiatives for Critical Agrarian Studies (BICAS), MOSAIC Research Project, Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI), RCSD Chiang Mai University, Transnational Institute
Key themesAgriculturalModernization, Conversion-FoodSecurity, Dispossession-grabbing, FDI, Formalisation-titling, MarginalisedPeople, Policy-law

The Lao Land and Forest Allocation Policy (LFAP) was intended to provide clearer property rights for swidden farmers living in mountainous areas. These lands are legally defined as “State” forests but are under various forms of customary tenure. The policy involves demarcating village territorial boundaries, ecological zoning of lands within village territories, and finally allocating a limited number of individual land parcels to specific households for farming. In Pak Ou District, Luang Prabang Province, all stages of the LFAP had been completed in roadside ethnic Lao and Lue villages by 2006. However, in remote Khmu ethnic minority villages, while territorial boundaries had been demarcated, individual land parcels had not been formally allocated to specific households. Because the implementation of the LFAP was spatially and temporally fragmented, roadside villages where the policy had been completed lay adjacent to remote poorer Khmu villages where it was incomplete. This opened up new incentives and possibilities for grabbing remote lands within and between villages as well as by state officials. Roadside villagers suffering the effects of limited land resources resulting from the policy eagerly bought land or appropriated it in lieu of debt from poorer Khmu villages. Khmu villagers who had “privileged” (but not exclusive) rights to many land parcels began to use the discourse of “land allocation” and its ideas of exclusivity to justify denial of customary usufruct claims of others in their village, essentially “mentally” grabbing land from other Khmu villagers. Concurrently, district officials were misusing the LFAP as a way to appropriate Khmu village territory for Chinese rubber concessions and for elite entrepreneurs from the town. This paper examines how the fragmented implementation of land formalisation programs intended to protect local tenure security is implicated in opening up new possibilities and narratives for land grabbing at different scales, particularly in the context of increasing commercialization of land and agriculture. This paper is based on several periods of field research conducted between 2005 and 2012 which examined land grabbing and land tenure transition in the face of agricultural “modernisation” and transnational foreign investment in highland Laos.


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