Forest-Land Commons in Laos in the Twenty-First Century: Agrarian Capitalism and the 'Non-Commodified Subsistence Guarantee’

TitleForest-Land Commons in Laos in the Twenty-First Century: Agrarian Capitalism and the 'Non-Commodified Subsistence Guarantee’
Annotated RecordNot Annotated
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsBarney K, Van_der_Meer_Simo A
Secondary TitleKyoto Review of Southeast Asia
Key themesEnvironment, FDI, Formalisation-titling, Policy-law

INTRODUCTION: Over the last two decades, a broad alliance of domestic and international actors in the Lao PDR have devised policy interventions on the issue of ‘strengthening customary tenure’. The aim has been to establish legal protections for the rights of rural communities to forest-land commons, in the context of widespread enclosure due to large-scale land acquisitions. Secure tenure rights would be promoted through strengthened participatory procedures for land use planning, and the development of formalization procedures, with the ultimate goal towards the widespread registering and titling of communal or collective land. Despite pilot innovations, progress towards this goal has been at best intermittent. At the village scale, local processes associated with the commercialization of agriculture continue to unfold. The outcomes of Laos’ agrarian transition include a widespread enclosure of land both ‘from above’ (through state-corporate land acquisitions for agribusiness and infrastructure projects), and the privatization of land ‘from below’ (through smallholder engagements in boom crops, and village land leases and sales). While commercial investment has supported important livelihood gains for many rural people, this combination has also led to a widespread squeeze in environmental commons across Laos. In this context, the protection of rights to customary village forest-land commons is both an important area for land policy, and a complex empirical issue that defies boilerplate policy solutions. In this intervention, we forward that a key issue regarding the formalization of land rights in Laos relates not just to narratives of how customary forest-land can serve as 1 an everyday basis for rural livelihoods, and (possibly) as an emergency ‘safety net’ for the poor. The metaphor of the safety net can relegate Lao farmers to an over- simplistic ‘subsistence slot’, while doing little to frame how rural livelihoods are articulating with agrarian capitalism. Building upon what Haroon Akram-Lodhi and Cristóbal Kay call the “non-commodified subsistence guarantee” (abbreviated below to ‘NCSG’), our aim is to direct attention to how customary and communal land can serve as a buffer against the dislocating forces of agrarian capitalism, as well as a source of livelihood autonomy in rural Laos. Yet, research shows that customary and communal property rights to land are changing, and farmers are themselves widely participating in new agribusiness value chains and land markets. The challenge are not just to build protections to customary land, but to approach the idea of ‘commoning’ (as a partial decommodification of customary land), in terms that are locally relevant, and grounded in a community’s collective wishes and livelihood aspirations.


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Journal Article