Land relations research

Research theme

Land relations in the Mekong region: peasants, markets and the State

Neoliberal land reforms that accompany or pre-empt agrarian modernisation, imply the reconfiguration of relations between the peasantries, multi-level State organisations, markets, and a dense web of non-State actors. These have a direct influence on the recognition, formalisation, and actual security of the land rights of smallholder farmers, both individually and collectively. They also have wider impacts in terms of agrarian change. 

The legacy of colonialism, socialism and war in the region places the State at the forefront. As a result, land reforms are integral to State-making processes across the Mekong region. But ‘institutional pluralism’ reigns.

  • First, smallholders are not in a dichotomy between statutory and customary tenure. Instead, they borrow from State rules and local norms to create hybrid land tenure systems
  • Second, local actors have leeway in ‘interpreting’ formal policy positions and negotiating their implementation. In the context of an un-level playing field, conflicts lie at the core of these processes.

In short, the actual land practices and relations on the ground are contingent outcomes of different configurations of power rather than just the results of policies that have trickled down from central government. 

I examine mechanisms that shape exclusion and access to land and natural resources as well as the shift in land relations around two processes:

  • The commodification of land and labour is the result of land titling and market-based distributive land reform, the development of boom crops driven by smallholder migration, and large-scale land acquisition. I am particularly interested in the uneven development (in time and space) of these forms of agrarian capitalism
  • The recognition of customary tenure and its interaction and crossover with State regulations in forest landscapes and wetland resource systems. I look into these processes as they relate to common property regimes and protected areas management.