VIENTIANE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A new land law may bring greater transparency in land management and modernization of records in Laos, but it could also curb ownership by women, as well as the customary rights of rural and indigenous people, analysts said.
The long-delayed legislation is scheduled to be tabled before the country’s National Assembly next month, according to campaigners and analysts who have given feedback on the draft.
The new law aims at the “proper use of land for better livelihoods, and improved socio-economic development … without negative effects on the environment and society”, according to a translation of the draft policy.
The landlocked Southeast Asian country is experiencing rapid transformation as it lures foreign investment to tap resources and build much-needed infrastructure.
But this is putting greater pressure on the land, much of it untitled. Most citizens have customary rights without formal documentation, according to the advocacy network Land Information Working Group (LIWG).
These rights – including collective rights of communities – may come under threat with the new law, and as the government pushes to title all land by 2025, said the network of local and international groups working on land issues in Laos.
“If customary land tenure rights are not recognized, people risk losing their land or not receiving fair compensation in case of acquisition, leading to poverty and food insecurity,” LIWG said in its feedback on the policy.
“Restricting rights to use forest land under the new law would also affect the livelihoods of a majority of the population.”
Laos has committed to keeping 70 percent of its land under forest cover, but pressure to build more roads and grant more land concessions to companies could deny the rights of people to continue living or farming in forests, campaigners said.
The new law comes at a time of growing dissatisfaction with concessions granted for industry and agriculture, and demand for better compensation for land taken for dams and highways.
Regionally, more than 5.1 million hectares of land were granted for mining and agricultural concessions in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, according to the non-profit Mekong Region Land Governance.
Following pressure from rights groups, the Laos government announced moratoriums on concessions for some mining and commercial plantations in 2012.
The new law has little clarity on concessions or contract farming, where an individual or group agrees to grow a specific crop or tree for an investor.
“The government appears to be acknowledging that concessions haven’t lived up to expectations, and that it is open to more inclusive models,” said Justine Sylvester, an advisor at the non-profit Village Focus International in Vientiane.
“But there is not yet a legal framework for contract farming, which is expanding quickly, and is harder to monitor,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Researchers and advocacy groups including LIWG and VFI say the law must also make it mandatory for land titles to include women’s names to show joint ownership.
They have also suggested greater clarity on expropriation of land for public purpose, including fair compensation.