Whose Lands? Whose Resources?
ABSTRACT Shalmali Guttal looks at shifts in agriculture policy in Cambodia and Laos as governments aim to transform the structures of their agriculture towards greater commercialization and markets. She argues this has far reaching impacts on rural social structures, and rural peoples’ access to land and security of tenure.
KEYWORDS extractive development; biodiversity; farmers; monocrops; land acquisition
The forests that the company is clearing are not degraded; they are forests from which we get food, roots, medicinal plants and things for our life.We have protected these forests for decades. Now the company will pull these forests out from their roots, they will take everything; they will sell the hardwood and take out all the plants. Nothing will grow there naturally.What the company will plant in this area will not be a forest; they will plant trees that we cannot even eat the leaves of. (Woman community resident. Ansar Chambok Commune, Krakor District, Pursat Province, Cambodia, on 9 April 2010)
In Cambodia and the Lao PDR (Laos), unbridled exploitation of natural resources by
state and private investors is increasing land insecurity, landlessness, environmental
degradation and poverty. Joined by the Mekong river, rural populations in both coun-
tries depend on the natural environment for food and livelihood security. Agricultural
production is largely rain-fed and integrated with local eco-systems: streams, ponds
and wetlands provide fish, frogs, crustaceans and molluscs, seasonal flooding regener-
ates soil fertility and biodiversity, forests and woods provide wild foods, fibres and med-
icinal plants, and common lands and fallows serve as grazing lands for cattle.
Laos, a country of about 6.5 million people and 160 ethnic groups, lies at the very
heart of the Mekong region. Rich in natural resources and biodiversity, the country
boasts stunning landscapes of rivers, mountains, forests, plateaus and alluvial plains.
Over 80 percent of the population resides in rural areas and is engaged in subsistence
agricultural production. Laos is home to about10,000 species of animals, plants, insects
and fish, and considered one of the world’s hotspots in rice biodiversity. Generations of
local experimentation, seed exchanges and seed selection among its various ethnic
groups has resulted in an astounding variety of traditional seed varieties and indigen-
ous knowledge about rice cultivation and resilience. The country is the second largest
contributor in the world to the International Rice Gene Bank.