This blog was written as a contribution to the Mekong Regional Land Forum taking place from June 21-23 in Hanoi, Vietnam. Philip Hirsch is a keynote speaker at this event.
By Philip Hirsch, Professor of Human Geography in the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney
It may seem strange for a professor focused on land and natural resource management in Southeast Asia to question whether land governance is a regional issue. Let me break the question down a bit so that I can give a qualified response (right, academics can never give a straight “yes” or “no” answer!).
Is land and its governance an ASEAN issue?
There is very little in ASEAN documentation or institutional structures that deals with land. A couple of exceptions are a study reported to have been commissioned by the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) on rights of women to secure tenure of land in member countries, and environmental provisions within the ASEAN Charter under the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community that touch indirectly on land issues, for example the haze agreement and its requirements for prevention of transboundary impacts from land clearing.
In fact, land gets its most significant mention in ASEAN agreements under the so-called National Treatment (NT) measures, which are designed to give fellow ASEAN citizens the same rights and nationals in each ASEAN country. However, where land gets a mention is in the NT exclusions, which specify that land ownership is NOT an area in which countries are prepared to give up sovereignty to their ASEAN partners.
So, my answer is, “not really”
Are there regional issues in land in the Mekong Region?
Many of the pressures on land in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are associated with land concessions. Many of these concessions are granted to foreign companies. Particularly in agriculture, plantations, mining, hydropower, and other land-related areas of investment, companies from the other three regional countries (China, Thailand and Vietnam) are the main investors. In other words, foreign direct investment (FDI) patterns in land are largely regional.
There are also important commonalities in land issues in the Mekong Region. Five of the six countries have been undergoing changes from various forms of socialist economic management and associated land tenure arrangements toward marketised economies. Post-socialist issues in land governance presents particular challenges common within the region. People in all countries in the region have also faced limits on civil society action through authoritarian measures, although countries have moved in different directions in this regard over recent years. And all countries in the region have seen quite a rapid transition from a sense of land and resource abundance to a situation of recognized land and resource scarcity, generating pressures, inequitable access to land and associated conflict.
There are thus issues of regional interconnection and regional commonalities that make land a regional issue. For more background, see reports on the region and on the individual countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
So, my answer to this second question is, “yes, for sure!”
Are the main openings for governing these issues regional in nature?
While the issues are regional, there is not a strong institutional base for dealing with governance at a regional level. Unlike water, land does not have a regional institution such as the Mekong River Commission that is devoted to regional governance. Existing institutional arrangements such as the Greater Mekong Subregion program or the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation initiative are boosterish in promoting cross-investment in infrastructure and natural resources development, and they are unlikely to take on governance roles that might temper investment.
On the other hand, awareness of the regional issues in land governance can be dealt with in domestic legislation, civil society initiatives, partnering arrangements across borders, knowledge sharing and so on. It is likely that most of the governance initiatives in recognition of customary land, corporate engagement and corporate accountability, formalization of land holding and other priority areas will operate outside the bounds of a formalized regional governance framework, and certainly outside ASEAN in an institutional sense.
So, my answer here is, “only very partly, and not mainly through ASEAN”