Recently, whenever you hear about land grabbing, it’s almost automatically linked to foreign direct investment of either big companies or foreign government enterprises that want to secure their own food security. Over the condemnation of the “neo-colonial” foreigners, it’s easy to forget that land grabbing can happen just as easily within countries, setting up urban development and government bureaucrats against the rural community and farmers whose land is their livelihood.
So it happens in Vietnam, as yesterday’s Economist article reported.
As the value of land rises and infrastructure projects abound, especially on the peripheries of big cities such as Hanoi, the majority of complaints reaching the central governments are related to land grievances. Most of these complaints describe corruption in local bureaucracies, where government officials seize farmland for development projects and compensate the residents at rates widely below market value.
The villagers have tried different avenues of protest, from the aforementioned legal complaints to demonstrations outside of government offices and even the resort to the use of homemade weapons to defend their land.
One interesting issue is the state of legal land rights – though most of Vietnam’s land is owned by the state, the government awarded many farmers 20-year usage rights on farmland in 1993. These usage rights are about to expire this year, but according to the article, there is a good chance that the National Assembly will extend the rights for another 50 years. This thus seems to be an example that de iure rights are not enough, if they are not respected and enforced in practice.
Another challenge are vaguely defined regulations and loopholes, such as the regulation that allows officials to seize land (against compensation) for “economic development” – without specifying what economic development really constitutes. Public infrastructure projects such as roads or ports might be more justifiable than other plans. According to the Economist,
“older farmers in northern Vietnam complain that the land they defended against French and American armies was first wasted through failed Communist experiments and is now being lost to condominiums.”
Another project that was widely protested and received a good deal of news coverage is a so-called Ecopark, an “eco urban township”, that entailed the seizure of 500 ha of farmland, endangering the livelihood of more than 4,000 families. After years of protest against the decision, the confrontation escalated in April 2012, when villagers took over the construction site, cut off access to the area and organized guards to protect their camp. In response, the police intervened in a brutal crackdown that was caught on video and shocked the country’s online community.
A local resident commented that the local officials’ last compensation offer – after villagers had already negotiated – was 54 million dongs, close to 2,000 euros. On the other hand, “these days, a rural family with two children spend on average 100 million dongs [3,600 euros] per year; in other words almost twice what was offered. What would we live off for the last six months of the year? The authorities explained to us that they would give us job training in different fields, but I just don’t see how that would work for those of us who are already 40 or 50 years old. Besides, there are very few opportunities in the area.”
She furthermore highlighted that “no one has ever explained to us how this project will be useful in the future, and why it is justified”, and complained that “The Communist Party [which is currently the ruling party in Vietnam] is supposed to be an extension of the people. They’re supposed to come from agricultural backgrounds like us. It’s unfathomable that they would now steal our land.“
This might be the most outrageous aspect of the issue – the fact that the Communist Party, which came to power with the promise of land reforms and of the improvement of the quality of life of small farmers, is now the main threat to these farmers’ lifestyle.