In 2012, the Government of Myanmar enacted the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands (VFV) law which was modelled on a British colonial policy in which supposedly unoccupied land were labelled ‘wasteland’ and made available for agrobusiness concessions and plantation ventures. The lands categories as ‘wasteland’ and ‘virgin, fallow and vacant’ fall outside of the land surveys conducted by the land administration. However, many of these areas are under active cultivation by farmers and community groups in a traditional or customary manner or actively used for other important livelihood activities, such as livestock grazing, etc.
In October 2018, the ‘VFV law’ was amended adding a requirement for anyone cultivating land categorised as ‘vacant, fallow, and virgin’ to apply for a permit to continue using it for the next 30 years, and threatening fines and imprisonment if failing to do so. The law has been criticised as ignoring the customary tenure rights of local communities and as a major source of land conflict across the country. From the government perspective, this amendment was a unique opportunity for farmers to legitimise their existing land use. On the contrary, for civil society and various groups, the amendment represented a threat to many farmers cultivating land in unregistered areas.
In order to have a better understanding of the consequences of the law on the ground, MRLG has conducted a research study in seven villages of Kanbalu, Taze and Ye-U townships in Sagaing region. The key findings show that still one year after the amendment of the law, many farmers remain unaware of the opportunity and obligation to register their land under the amended law and, when they are, their interest is limited, except when they have lost land under previous land acquisitions. In that case they see an opportunity to claim back their land. However, since the amendment in 2018, none of the farmers who have applied have succeeded obtaining the VFV land use permit; the process is constrained by complex and non-transparent approvals. The criteria used to review their applications are not known to them and there is no independent mechanism to address farmer grievances. Farmers are overly dependent on staff from the land administration to manage their applications creating strong incentives for informal payments. In the study area, the law amendment per se did not create new conflicts; however, it did not address past land conflicts and grievances that arose from the earlier land acquisitions. In conclusion, the VFV Land Law and the process of applying for land use permits looks irrelevant for smallholder farmers. It would make greater sense for them to get Land Use Certificates on cultivated land as per the Farmland Law (2012) rather than 30-year land use permits of VFV land which offer less tenure security.
These findings alongside the results of research carried out by other organisations across the country were shared and discussed in a webinar on 27 July 2020. During this event jointly organised by Earthrights International, Oxfam Myanmar, Tharthi Myay Foundation and MRLG, 80 participants including farmers, activists, government officials and member of the parliaments discussed the impact of the VFV Law. Government officials and member of the parliaments showed a keen interest to understand the ground issues and to listen to the concerns of affected farmers and activists.
The conclusions from the webinar confirm that the VFV law not only fails to help smallholders secure their land tenure, but the law is being used to criminalise farmers and the amendments have made it easier to companies to prosecute farmers. The VFV law is also implemented inconsistently in different States and Regions.
A farmer from Maubin, the Irrawaddy Region, shared in the webinar that “Companies came and made a fence on the land we have been farming since we were young. Later we were prosecuted. Some are sentenced to 4 years imprisonment and some are to 2 years imprisonment. One farmer even died in prison.”
Read full report in English here