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The Mekong Region Land Governance project recently launched a book, “State of Land in the Mekong Region” at two events, one in Yangon, and one in Nay Pyi Taw. During the launch events there were panel discussions, and inevitably one of the issues of interest to many stakeholders was VFV land.
During the Nay Pyi Taw event, one participant commented that we need to have a plan for VFV land. A plan is good! But you cannot have a plan unless and until you have a vision – a plan is just a description of how you will achieve your vision.
So what is the vision of the Government of Myanmar – what is the vision of the people of Myanmar – for the future of VFV land? At one extreme, you could envisage landscapes devoid of trees, where large-scale agri-business and smallholders produce a variety of commodities. At the other extreme you could envisage a landscape dominated by forest, with some areas of cultivation here and there.
What would be the consequences of these two visions, and what lessons can we learn from other countries? We know the ecosystem services provided by forests, including soil conservation and water regulation, so under the first vision, you would have farmers struggling to grow crops, suffering from loss of soil fertility, droughts and floods. It was these problems that led Viet Nam to reverse a policy that had been in place for several decades of expanding agricultural land at the expense of forest to implement an aggressive (and successful) reforestation programme. At the other extreme, consider Japan, which has some of the wealthiest farmers in the world, yet 67% of the country is covered by forests.
Surely Myanmar’s farmers are best served by assistance to intensify their agriculture, to earn more from their current cultivated areas, rather than expanding their farms. Smallholder rubber farmers in Mon produce only half the rubber per hectare as their close neighbours across the border in Thailand. And their income is only about one-third of their Thai neighbors due to the lower quality of their processed rubber. If Mon rubber producers are to achieve the income levels of Thai rubber farmers, the solution is not to clear more forest, but to provide training and other support to increase productivity and the quality of the final product.
Of course, there is another issue that affects the future of VFV land – very little of it is vacant or virgin, it is occupied by local communities that are mostly of ethnic minorities, who practice traditional livelihoods such as shifting cultivation. The VFV Amendment Law of 2018 explicitly excludes land under customary tenure from “VFV land” but as yet there is not process for excluding such land. An aggressive policy of clearing VFV land to promote settled agriculture will cause hardships for the communities that have occupied the land, in many cases, for generation, and it will exacerbate ethnic-based conflicts.
Yet, alarmingly, at the Nay Pyi Taw launch event, mostly attending by government officials, the dominant vision appeared to be close to the first one described above – get rid of as much forest as possible and replace with settled agriculture. This would be a disaster for Myanmar’s farmers as well as for the world’s climate. Some clear and balanced thinking on the future of VFV land is desperately needed, and soon!