Land appropriation seen as volatile issue

Countries urged to reverse outdated rules

NAY PYI TAW : South and East Asian countries are being urged to draft new land acquisition laws to prevent exploitation by industries, the World Economic Forum was told on Friday.

A good deal of South and East Asia still operates under land acquisition rules that date from late British colonel times, and laws need to be updated in order to provide fair compensation.

Roy Prosterman, founder and chairman emeritus of the rural development institute Landesa, said India's law on land acquisition, for instance, dates back to 1894.

The extractive industry should petition governments to put adequate land laws in place, which would be a win-win situation, he said. These legal system solutions can be implemented fairly quickly.

Mr Prosterman said a large number of Asian countries that have succeeded in development started with major land reforms in which farmers became owners of their land and were given individual land rights.

Thailand in particular has done better on rural reform compared with its neighbours, but others such as China have very serious problems.

Mr Prosterman said the average amount that farmers in China receive from land for public purposes is one-twentieth or less the amount actually paid by developers to the government.

Some estimates show 180,000 incidents of unrest a year in China, mostly land-related, he said.

"What is almost forgotten today is the securing of land rights of farmers, and it's a real stability problem. The acquisition of land for a variety of economic endeavours can raise obviously a number of problems. One general standard is free and informed consent by those whose land rights are to be taken. That analysis proves to be a fairly complex concept, because you have the question of whose consent. A lot of companies in the past have stumbled because they assumed local governments, elders or male members could speak for the entire community. So inclusiveness in terms of whose consent is obtained is critically important," said Mr Prosterman, who is also a emeritus professor of law at the University of Washington.

The comments were made at a World Economic Forum session on extracting opportunities and sustaining livelihoods.

Prof Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung of the University of Massachusetts Lowell said one of the technical challenges is what constitutes fair compensation to people whose properties have been lost due to particular projects.

She said some countries inherit deals from past authoritarian governments that did not include social environmental impact assessments, especially in the case of Myanmar where there has been a surge in conflicts between people losing their land and foreign investors taking over this land to extract resources.

"90% of foreign direct investment in Myanmar has been from resource extraction, and the majority of resources are in minority ethnic areas. There seems to be in many developing countries a lack of effective institutional structures in place to deal with these issues and implement transparency initiatives especially in the case of myanmar," said Prof Thawnghmung.

She said state civil servants in these countries often do not act in the public interest and participate in illegal activities.

"Especially if you look at Myanmar, there needs to be general guidelines about land tenure rights, dispute mechanisms and guidelines about fair compensation about properties that have been lost. At the same time there needs to be simultaneous efforts to improve the media not only to become an effective watchdog but also to be responsible and help provide information to the public about the whole process in the extractive industry," said Prof Thawnghmung.

Melody Meyer, the president of Chevron Asia Pacific Exploration and Production Co, said governments need to look at the way communities can benefit from extraction, as it has a multiplier effect in terms or creating jobs and economic development.

She said with Asia growing dramatically, meeting energy needs is a top priority for it to continue to progress in providing reliable and affordable energy supply.

"Looking ahead, by 2030 Asia will be the largest consumer of crude oil and natural gas in the world. Fortunately, it has an abundance of energy resources," said Ms Meyer.

Atul Arya, the senior vice-president for research and analysis at the Colorado-based IHS Inc, said one tangible thing companies can do is to train local workers not just skilled jobs but to become petrochemical engineers and geologists.

He said transparency in revenue collection and contraction processes is also important, as the sum of money involved in the petrochemical business is very significant.

About the author

Writer: Nanchanok Wongsamuth
Position: News Reporter