European and Asian leaders' summit displaces farming community
Delegates of the 9th Asia European Heads of Government Meeting (ASEM9) may not have known that the luxury villas, in which they met, had displaced a thriving farming community. But the story of the land grab is all too familiar one and casts doubt on the commitment of Asian and European nations to work for food security and sustainable development.
On November 5 and 6, European and Asian leaders will meet for the 9th Asia European Heads of Government Meeting (ASEM9) in Vientiane, Laos. While many important issues will be discussed at the summit, among them sustainable development and food security, delegates may be unaware that the buildings in which they are to be housed for the summit place these very goals in jeopardy.
A New World?
The construction of luxury villas on Don Chan Island – a sand spit in central Vientiane – forms part of a wider development project entitled ‘Vientiane New World’ (VNW). Carried out by a joint venture between Chinese CAMCE Engineering and the Lao Krittaphong Group, the project is described by the company as bringing Hong Kong to the banks of the Mekong - a magnet for tourists, commerce, and investment. What is not mentioned however is that the fertile land now occupied by the luxury villas was once home to a thriving farming community.
Producing up to 5 million tonnes of vegetables a year, the Don Chan farming community played a key role in supplying the local food markets in Vientiane, including the highly prized organic market. The villagers did not own land certificates, but paid land taxes and with the community having settled in the area since 1966, customary land use rights were observed and there was no perceived need for formal land titles.
All this changed in 2009 when the 100 households comprising the Don Chan village were informed that the 36 hectares of land will be taken over for the construction of housing for the ASEM9 summit. Villagers would have less than a year to move. In order to prevent collective resistance, government officials adopted a ‘one-by-one’ strategy whereby each household was approached separately about the relocation. The village head who defended villagers’ rights and received community complaints was sacked and replaced by someone more pliant. With no right to refuse, the community eventually ‘accepted’ the plans on the condition that adequate compensation and a suitable resettlement site would be provided.
These conditions have however not been met.
The villagers had no say as to where the resettlement site would be located. Originally told that the new site would not be far from Vientiane, the former Don Chan residents now find themselves 26km outside of the capital on plots of land smaller than what they were promised. Even worse, the arid infertile clay soils are totally unsuitable for farming, essentially stripping the villagers of their former livelihoods. Just beside the resettlement site meanwhile trucks rumble by and construction work is underway for the creation of a new ‘specific economic zone’.
With their income dramatically reduced, many villagers are living day- to-day off their compensation money. This is however a very precarious situation given that the resettlement process has been accompanied by many new expenses including the building of new houses, electricity connection, toilet facilities and transportation costs. The compensation package was also unequally divided among villagers with those with government connections receiving much more than others. A 12% “administrative fee” was also deducted from the compensation package and pocketed by government officials. The rights of the villagers to receive proper and fair compensation as stipulated under Decree 192 of Lao law were therefore not respected.
What kind of development does ASEM9 want to promote?
The future remains uncertain for the former Don Chan villagers as they attempt to adapt to their new circumstances. They do not know if the petition they have submitted to the new village head detailing their grievances has been passed on and their daily lives are marked by a high level of surveillance by local authorities.
This raises the question as to whether this is the type of ‘development’ ASEM9 wants to promote. The former Don Chan farming community made a significant contribution to the food security of the capital, growing quality food right in the heart of the city and bridging the gap between rural and urban, producer and consumer. This is the model that should serve as an inspiration for future development for European and Asian leaders.
KEY RECOMMENDATIONS on Land and Food from the AEPF Final statement
We call on our governments to:
- Oppose land and resource grabbing and support the Human Right to Food. Implement the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests. These Guidelines are an important first step in protecting the tenure rights of small-scale food producers and ensuring a more equitable governance of natural resources.
- Support the on-going process at the UN level of the recognition of the Rights of Peasants.
- Respect human rights in its trade, agricultural, energy, development, environmental, land and water policies. The EU should investigate the impact of its trade policies, such as the Everything But Arms agreement, which has evicted thousands of people from their land in some countries.
- Drop the agro-fuels targets under the EU Renewable Energy Directive.
- Support food sovereignty in Asia and Europe, including in the reform process of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.
- Invest in a coherent, progressive, publically funded rural development strategy. This investment should focus on the needs of small-scale food producers, rural women, and indigenous peoples. Local and national development plans must fully recognise the rights of local communities to sustainable livelihoods and food sovereignty. They should protect and respect people’s access to land, water and biodiversity. The Development Agenda must recognise that women traditionally have skills and knowledge for livelihoods that ensure food security for all.
- Respect the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories and resources as the material, economic, social and cultural base for their collective survival and development. This includes the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples in decision-making processes relating to development including the requirement for free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples in development projects. Lastly, acknowledge the contribution of indigenous peoples in sustainable development through their simple and low carbon lifestyles, their traditional knowledge, indigenous techniques and innovative ways of production.
- Regulate food speculation by banks and financial market traders as a matter of urgency. By passing legislation to ensure that all futures contracts are cleared through regulated exchanges. Contracts need to be brought out into the open, in the same way that shares are traded on the stock exchange. There should also be strict limits on the amount that bankers can bet on food prices. Caps should be set on the amount of the market that can be held by the biggest traders, and on the amount of the market that can be held by financial speculators as a whole.
TNI also wrote a letter to the delegates;
Dear ASEM delegate,
On behalf of the over 1,300 people who attended the very successful Asia Europe People’s Forum 9 (AEPF9) in Vientiane between 16th and 19th October, the Transnational Institute would like to share with you a briefing about “DON CHAN – LUXURY VILLAS HOSTING ASEM9 DELEGATES DISPLACE FARMING COMMUNITY”. As someone participating in ASEM9 we are sure that this will be of interest to you.
The AEPF9 tackled four major themes, or People’s Visions, which represent AEPF’s hopes for citizens of the ASEM member countries and the communities they live in. These are:
- Universal Social Protection and Access to Essential Services
- Food Sovereignty and Sustainable Land and Natural Resource Management
- Sustainable Energy Production and Use and
- Just Work and Sustainable Livelihoods
A number of the workshops looked at the issue of land grabbing which has become a significant phenomenon is many ASEM member countries across Asia and in parts of Europe. This is happening in the context of the pressure to rapidly covert agricultural land and land where poorer communities are living to a range of new uses. This is provoked by a wide range of pressures including concessions to grow bio-fuel crops and other crops for export, the establishment of special economic zones, the spread of the high end tourist industry and large infrastructure programmes. In Asia, land and resource grabbing is accelerating in the name of ‘development’. However there is a growing body of evidence that these large-scale investments in agriculture and extractive industries are resulting in a cascade of negative impacts on rural livelihoods and ecologies, human rights, and local food security and food sovereignty.
The Don Chan luxury villas are representative of what is happening across Asia and in parts of Europe. The AEPF9 is calling on ASEM member governments to adopt a range of policies and practices which we believe will provide a comprehensive foundation for more sustainable and equitable development. These are collected in our Final Declaration and there are eight related to Food Sovereignty and Sustainable Land and Natural Resource Management which we have pasted below.
We urge you to take the opportunity of ASEM9 to initiate discussions which can enable progression towards these and so enabling your commitments to sustainable development and food security to become a reality for the millions of women and men across Asia and Europe.
Pietje Vervest and Sylvia Kay