Governing Dispossession: Relational Land Grabbing in Laos

TitleGoverning Dispossession: Relational Land Grabbing in Laos
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsKenney-Lazar M
Secondary TitleAnnals of the American Association of Geographers
Key themesCivilSociety-Donors, Dispossession-grabbing, FDI, MarginalisedPeople

The government of (post)socialist Laos has conceded more than 1 million hectares of land—5 percent of the national territory—to resource investors, threatening rural community access to customary lands and forests. However, investors have not been able to use all of the land granted to them, and their projects have generated geographically uneven dispossession due to local resistance. Based on twenty months of ethnographic fieldwork, this article compares how dispossession materialized in eight villages targeted by a Vietnamese rubber plantation and a Chinese pulpwood plantation in southern Laos. I contribute to a nascent literature on the political contingencies of dispossession by showing how extraeconomic forces of expropriation are governed relationally. Developing a Gramscian relational environmental governance framework, I demonstrate how such contingencies are shaped by social and political relations among and internal to state, capital, and community actors, leading to either the extension and solidification or contraction and fragmentation of dispossession as a hegemonic mode of development. In the case at hand, I focus on four sets of decisive relations: (1) corporate–state relations that mediate the capacity of investors to mobilize state powers of land expropriation; (2) the state’s discursive framing of socioenvironmental relations between communities and their rural environments, which affects how amenable village territories are to acquisition; (3) community–government relations built on kinship, ethnic, or historical links that villagers can use to lodge effective grievances with the state; and (4) coherent and democratic internal village relations that build community solidarity against plantation development.


Available for download



Document Type

Journal Article


Overall relevance: 

This paper seeks to compare how dispossession occurred in 8 villages by a Vietnamese rubber plantation and Chinese pulpwood plantation in southern Laos. The literature review also deals with various political contingencies of dispossession to find out how extra-economic forces of expropriation were governed relationally. The paper also digs deeper into how those political contingencies were shaped. This study was done by looking at four sets of decisive relations: (1) corporate-state relation, (2) the state’s discursive framing of socioenvironmental relations between communities and their rural environment, (3) community-government relations built on kinship, ethnic or historical links, and (4) coherent and democratic internal relations of villagers which enforced community solidarity against plantation development.

Key Themes: 
  • Civil society and donor engagement in land issues - Civil society is a key actor in dispute resolution. Civil society played a major role in helping the local communities in their efforts against plantation development. Oftentimes, civil society could bring the cases and use the legal strategies to fight against the large investors with hegemonic alignments. Civil society also assisted in getting local voices heard by international communities so that the government was pressured to act in favour of the local people. However, civil society needed funds to operate, so the only way to seek funds was by donation. Donors were the major funding sources to help civil society to operate and help local people in Laos.
  • Land dispossession/land grabbing - The Vietnamese rubber plantation and the Chinese pulpwood plantation were granted the concession and lease of about 1.1 million ha or about 5% of the total land area in Laos. Those lands included the areas on which ethnic minority peasants were relying for their livelihoods. Without formal land titles, the villagers were forced to move out, following which some had no option other than to become the wage labourers for the plantations, by which their labour was usually exploited.
  • FDI and land access: economic land concessions, contract farming, short term and long term renting - Since the mid-1980s, the Lao government initiated several reforms that introduced market elements into the economy, such as the opening of the economy to foreign capital with the passage of the first law on foreign direct investment in 1988. Foreign investors were first allowed to access land for projects through the lease or concession of state land, as authorized by the 1992 law. In the not-very-strong political regime of Laos, the companies found it easy to cut the cost of production. Corruption and hegemonic alignments could take place with ease in the government-corporate relation, so the company managed to obtain the concession at a cheap cost and exploited the local labour with no choice other than to work at low rates of pay. FDI came into Laos for investing in several key sectors such as agriculture, forestry, mining, and infrastructure projects.
  • Marginalized people's land rights and access: ethnic minorities, poor and women - The concept of marginalized people appears in the paper as victims of dispossession. These people had no or little power in their relationship with the government, civil society, or even within their own communities, and did not receive any compensation or did not receive assistance in fighting against the corporations. Most of them had no choice other than to become exploited wage labourers or to migrate to another place to build a new life.
Research basis: 

The study is based on 20 months of field research in 8 different villages in southern Laos. The research used semi-structured interviews and focus groups, field site visits, ethnographic participant observation, participatory mapping, and the collection of government and investor documents and maps. (Provided by Khan Ponnara)