Financing the 450 Year Road: Land Expropriation and Politics ‘All the Way Down’ in Vientiane, Laos

TitleFinancing the 450 Year Road: Land Expropriation and Politics ‘All the Way Down’ in Vientiane, Laos
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsPathammavong B, Kenney-Lazar M, Sayaraj EVinay
Secondary TitleDevelopment and Change
Key themesCivilSociety-Donors, Conversion-FoodSecurity, Policy-law, Urban

Over the past decade, the Lao government has developed the policy of ‘Turning Land into Capital’ (TLIC), a strategy for generating revenue and economic value from ‘state land’. The 450 Year Road Project built along the periphery of the Laotian capital, Vientiane, linking the national highway with the Thai border, was financed using a TLIC model. Additional land to the side of the road was acquired to be resold at rates significantly higher than the compensation provided to landowners. Prior to construction, however, most of the land had already been purchased by external buyers, who impeded the project's development by refusing to concede their newly purchased plots. This article contributes to the literature on political reactions ‘from below’ to land grabbing by arguing that in order to understand the operational success or failure of land development projects, it is imperative to analyse the politics that pervade such investments ‘all the way down’ — the interrelated roles, interests and relations of involved actors and groups in all positions of power within society. The 450 Year Road project stalled due to its failure to take into account the interests and politics of seemingly compliant actors, particularly landowning farm households and speculative land buyers.


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Document Type

Journal Article


Overall relevance: 

The article looks at the 450 Year Road project in Vientiane, Laos and analyses the complex state-society relations to account for failures in the project. In 2010, the municipal government of Vientiane constructed a two-lane highway to link the Lao-Thai border with the national highway of Laos, so that traffic can bypass downtown areas and to stimulate economic growth in peri-urban areas. Nevertheless, this project did not work out as anticipated and it remains significantly undeveloped due to unexpected contestation over land, which involved elite political economic actors and their role in land speculation.

Key Themes: 
  • Civil society and donor engagement in land issues - The important takeaway from this piece is to think about the heterogeneity in actors. The main reason why the policy did not work as intended was that the state failed to account for elite political economic actors who had a financial stake in the project. This group sided with the landowners due to their personal interest in speculative capital, and they were also influential due to their social status and connections to the state. The authors write about following politics and investments “all the way down”, which involves identifying the multiple stakeholders’ interests, roles, and relations.
  • Land policy and land law - In 2010, the municipal government of Vientiane wanted to complete the 450 Year Road construction and used the power of eminent domain to acquire land at the side of the road from farming landowners for the “public purpose”. This is part of the “Turning Land Into Capital” (TLIC) policy by the Government of Laos, announced in 2006. TLIC was never specified or formalised and retains flexible usage in extracting economic value from land. The policy works due to state management of land, where it has the mandate to regulate it according to the Constitution and Land Law.
  • Land zoning, planning, conversion and food security - The state’s plan was to capitalise the “rent gap” by selling it off at higher prices than the compensation paid to landowners, thereby helping to cover project costs. Specifically, they wanted to expropriate a 50-metre-wide strip of land for the road, and then an additional 50 metres either side for a 20km stretch. The Lao elite had bought this as a form of speculative capital with 95% being purchased by 2010 before expropriation. Instead of the project panning out as expected, the landowners banded together with the political-economic elite to refuse the state’s compensation scheme.
  • Urban land governance - The state’s attempt to employ an entrepreneurial model of urban governance was disrupted by an alliance of non-state land purchasers and landholders. Taking into account land policies, land laws, and the various actors involved, urban land governance in Laos is a not based on simple pricing mechanisms but is made more complex by the role of speculative capital by a group of private actors connected to state power. It also blurs the line between private and public, despite this being a “public” project. Thus, a careful consideration of the multiple actors involved in land governance and their positions of power is crucial to better grasping failures, successes, and processual dynamics in the project.
Research basis: 

The study draws on data collected in Vientiane from February 2013 to March 2016. The first author led the fieldwork with assistants from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) and engaged in a series of ethnographic work that included semi-structured interviews, archival work, and participation observation. Six villages were selected for study using quota and purposive sampling, with households selected using quota and convenience sampling. Additionally, media articles, government policies, development master plans, project implementation summary reports, and informal interviews complemented the ethnography. The first and third authors are state officials, and the second author who wrote the manuscript is an American researcher institutionally hosted by MONRE during his dissertation research. Thus, the co-written article presents insider insight and critical analysis, but was written sensitively due to their careers in or affiliation to the state. (Provided by Al Lim)