Palm oil sector audited
A coalition of land rights groups will survey the palm oil industry to determine how much land is used for the sector and how it is being farmed.
THE Land Core Group (LCG), a network of more than 50 land rights groups, led a workshop last week aimed at helping the Tanintharyi Region government tackle land ownership and usage in the palm oil sector.
“Land issues in the region have been very complicated for years,” said U Shwe Thein, LCG’s executive director. “The Tanintharyi regional government is trying to tackle the issue seriously. Therefore we are supporting the regional government in promoting a multi-stakeholder platform starting with oilpalm assessment.”
A survey will examine how much land is owned by palm oil companies, how much of that is currently being used for actual production, how the land is farmed, and the ownership history of the land, he said.
At the workshop on October 8, a leading committee for oil palm industry land use was formed, which included stakeholders from the regional government, civil society organisations, and representatives from the public and local ethnic groups.
The committee also includes representatives from the One Map project, an eight-year initiative that began in 2015 implemented jointly by the University of Bern’s Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) and the LCG.
One Map aims to develop an “open-access spatial data platform on land issues”, according to the CDE.
The LCG-led workshop on palm oil also agreed on the priorities for the next three months, said U Shwe Thein.
“Land use management and investment in the region are challenging at the moment, and need to be well handled,” he said. “I was very impressed with the government’s decision to form the multi-stakeholder leading committee with representatives from all relevant stakeholders in the region. I was also very impressed that even some of the oil palm companies provided their concerns in the workshop.”
U Thant Zin, coordinator for the Dawei Development Association (DDA), said that land use issues “seemed to arise almost every day”, and that it was positive that all stakeholders were coming together to resolve the issues.
“Palm oil companies have bought up huge amounts of land in the region,” he said. “In some cases the land had been occupied by people for a long time, or is in a conservation area. But previous governments failed to manage land issues and many are still in need of resolution.”
Some larger plots in Tanintharyi Region were confiscated by the military government, which ordered private companies to meet agriculture production goals in the 1990s and 2000s, U Hlwan Moe, director of the Agricultural Land Management and Statistics Department, previously told The Myanmar Times.
Tanintharyi Region’s chief minister Daw Lae Lae Maw announced in August that the regional government was surveying unused land and submitted its findings to the regional government. That survey is designed to return some land confiscated by the military government back to original owners or displaced workers in order to let them cultivate small-scale farms.
Under the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law of 2012, the state has the right to take back farmland if it has not been cultivated for four years after an initial land-lease agreement contract is signed.
Sai Myint Thein, a director at Asia World, said that today’s land use issues are the result of the old administration forcing companies into agricultural projects and not negotiating with local communities.
Asia World is suing two villagers in Band Mae village, Myeik district, for destroying palm oil trees. Civil society groups say the villagers left their land in the 1990s because of the fighting between the Karen National Union and the Tatmadaw. Although they are now ready to return, Asia World and other firms have set up plantations on the land.
Sai Myint Thein said that Asia World is willing to return land that it has not used for production if that is what the regional government’s new policy dictates.
“We are ready to return that land,” he said, adding that the palm oil business is in many cases not going particularly well. “It’s not a successful business for most oil palm companies, because we can’t produce edible palm oil, we end up with oil that can only be used for soap.”
‘Previous governments failed to manage land issues and many [cases] are still in need of resolution’
U Thant Zin Dawei Development Association
A shop assistant pours palm oil into bottles at the shop in Kyauktada township.