For decades, Myanmar’s smallholders have been affected by governance issues such as abuse of power by military and other powerful individuals, land concessions granting for agro-business, armed conflicts in ethnic areas, and an overlapping and complex legal framework. This has caused significant negative impact on access to land, land tenure security and livelihoods.

In 2012, in line with the country’s opening, Myanmar’s “land turn” occurred: the government approved the Farm Land Law, as well as the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin (VFV) Land Management Law. This first law authorised land transactions and also gave way to a very hasty land registration process through the delivery of Land Use Certificates. In addition, the VFV law, in continuation of the VFV instruction of 1991, raised the risks of massive land grabs since non-registered lands considered as vacant, despite being used by communities (for permanent or shifting cultivation, grazing, etc..), may be taken by the State for reallocation to business projects.

In 2014 and 2015, the government formulated a National Land Use Policy (NLUP), with the aim of an over-arching framework for all future laws related to land. The NLUP was developed through a participatory process that included the consultation of civil society for the first time in recent Myanmar history. MRLG supported the process through a QDF to organize a pre-consultation within civil society across the country. The initiative was led by LCG and Lokha Ahlin with various CSOs throughout the country.

Although the NLUP has been criticised in being too pro-business by some CSOs on one side, and being too pro-poor by some government and private sector stakeholders on the other, the document represents a major breakthrough with the recognition of customary tenure and land rights of ethnic nationalities. As approximately half of the Myanmar territory is part of “ethnic states” and occupied by ethnic groups who manage their lands and forests under customary rules and arrangements, this is a very important step with strong potential implications for securing ethnic peoples’ rights and national conciliation. However, the formulation of the laws and mechanisms that will effectively recognise customary tenure systems remains a huge challenge.

MRLG strategy

As a regional project with a small Yangon–based team, MRLG is looking at strategic opportunities to support reform actors with the aim of pursuing actions collectively towards improved access to land and natural resource tenure.

The team will focus on key priority areas targeting specific influential and beneficiary groups according to the following priority areas:

  1. Empowerment for recognition of customary tenure To address these issues and following its core objectives in Myanmar, MRLG will support civil society to improve coordinated efforts and enhance their capacity to document customary tenure systems and engage in policy dialogue, based on the evidence built. Initiatives include the development of a guidebook for community and CSO leaders to support the documentation of customary tenure systems in local communities. This will contribute in promoting customary tenure at all levels.
  1. Collective action on advocacy on customary land and tenure security issues Continued advocacy on the principles of the NLUP and those which are aligned with the VGGTs require further advocacy toward regional and central governments, as well as awareness-raising among communities and grass root organisations. It will be critical to improve policy-makers’ vision on development, the importance of smallholder farming and inclusive development.
  1. Advocacy for a moratorium on land concessions for agribusiness MRLG’s research-based policy dialogue on foreign direct investment (FDI) in agriculture and large-scale land-based investments aims at investigating their impacts in terms of economic development, rural employment, poverty reduction and income generation and social impact, especially on family farmers and local communities. The project will facilitate a dialogue between policy-makers and researchers to create conditions of a constructive exchange between governments and research institutions with the aim to reconsider policy and investment conditions in the Mekong Region by CLMV governments for the mutual benefit of investors, government and communities. Now, research has started in the countries.

    The findings clearly point towards ELC severely impacting smallholder farmers. This information will be used for evidence towards advocacy to promote a moratorium on land concessions, until proper regulations and mechanisms for customary tenure recognition are not set in place.

  1.  Return of grabbed lands and conflict transformation At the moment, the entry point for MRLG to engage in this topic has not yet been completely defined. Yet, given the expected challenges in setting up and implementing an effective and transparent mechanism for return of lands to the original owners, there will be many needs to support the definition of the mechanism and the monitoring of the processes. This should include technical support to government and to civil society.