Land grabbing in Southeast Asia

25 January 2017
Andreas presenting his land policy study to workshop participants (Photo: Mathias Pfeifer)
Andreas presenting his land policy study to workshop participants (Photo: Mathias Pfeifer)

Professor Andreas Neef has been in Cambodia sharing his work on legal frameworks for containing land grabbing in Southeast Asia.

Last week representatives from 12 human rights organisations gathered in Siem Reap to discuss new strategies to defend the land rights of Indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities and other marginalised groups against corporate land grabs and land confiscations by the state.

Andreas, the Director of our Development Studies programme, presented a six-country study on land policies and land rights systems in Southeast Asia, commissioned by the German NGO Brot für die Welt.

The study explores the potential and limitations of national and international legal frameworks for containing land grabbing, dispossession and displacement in the region.

In Cambodia alone, more than 800,000 people have been affected by land conflicts and forced evictions from their customary lands over the past ten years. Palm oil companies in Indonesia and the Philippines have cleared millions of hectares of forestland claimed by Indigenous peoples and other forest-dependent communities. In Myanmar, one third of political prisoners in 2015 were land rights activists.

Human rights activists are facing an uphill struggle against multinational corporations, urban elites and national governments who are complicit in this new land rush.

Workshop participants praised Andreas’s study for being highly critical of national legal frameworks that are enabling foreign investors and domestic elites to acquire or lease large portions of their countries’ fertile land and natural resources, thereby compromising the livelihoods of the rural population.

A participant from Vietnam suggested that more such studies by external researchers should be undertaken, as these could provide the basis for evidence-based advocacy work.

One afternoon was dedicated to discussing country briefing papers on land policies that had been prepared by postgraduate students in Development Studies as part of Andreas’s course on development policies and institutions.

A student from Indonesia, Siti Malikah, said that preparing a policy brief that can be used by human rights advocates to defend customary land rights was the most rewarding assignment she had undertaken during her studies at the University of Auckland.

Andreas reflected that “I was inspired by the courage of the human rights activists who fight against social injustice in very difficult political environments. Some of them face prosecution, while others have been victims of state violence. Yet they continue to risk their own freedom and sometimes even their lives for the most disadvantaged groups in Southeast Asia.”

Land Rights Matter! Anchors to Reduce Land Grabbing, Dispossession and Displacement: A Comparative Study of Land Rights Systems in Southeast Asia and the Potential of National and International Legal Frameworks and Guidelines