Major land crisis looms large

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20-year leases likely to breed corruption and leave millions of farmers in the lurch

A farmer carries home rice on a paddy field in Ngai Cau village, outside Hanoi. Vietnamese farmers should be allowed to extend their land leases in order to prevent violent eviction battles like the one that riveted the nation last month, analysts say.

Vietnamese farmers should be allowed to extend their land leases, many of which are set to expire next year, in order to prevent violent eviction battles like the one that riveted the nation last month and avert a crisis affecting millions, experts say.

They say that without this step, the prevailing 1993 Land Law is creating fertile ground for corruption and chaos.

Dang Hung Vo, former deputy minister of Natural Resources and Environment, said the current 20-year lease should be extended to 99 years or the limits done away with totally.

"Farming is a long-term business and the 20-year period cannot guarantee a decent income for farmers," he said.

The 1993 Land Law granted farmers 20-year leases on their fields. All land belongs to the state in Vietnam, which does not technically allow land ownership but instead grants land-use rights. About 71 percent of 88 million Vietnamese live in rural areas, and 62 percent depend on agriculture for their livelihood, according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization.

Vo said the January clash in the northern port city of Hai Phong between authorities and farmers who tried to violently resist a land eviction shows how the latter are pushed into a corner by the short-term land lease.

 On January 5, six police and soldiers were injured by homemade mines and fire upon from improvised shotguns as an armed 100-strong force moved to evict Doan Van Vuon from 19 hectares (47 acres) of swampland leased out to him in 1993 for 14 years in Hai Phong's Tien Lang District.


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Lie of the land

52-year-old Vuon, who turned an area of coastal swampland into seafood farms in Vinh Quang Commune, is said to have "poured much blood and sweat and all the savings of his family" to develop the land. After mediation by a judge in the eviction case, Vuon and his family were led to believe that he would be allowed to continue working on his land in return for withdrawing his lawsuit. Instead, local authorities used the situation to let a statutory limit for mounting a legal challenge expire, and in an unusual step, deployed the army in evicting the farmer from his farm. They also allegedly demolished Vuon's house after the confrontation.

The police have since arrested Vuon, his two brothers, and a nephew and pressed murder charges against them.

The violent and dramatic eviction rocked the country, prompting Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to call for an investigation into the case. The Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella group of political and social organizations, and two other ministries have also swung into action, dispatching delegations to Hai Phong to probe the issue further. Independent experts have deplored the violent resistance by Vuon's family, but also asserted local authorities had flouted the law in ordering and carrying out the eviction.

Bigger question

Moreover, the incident has steered attention to a much bigger question: What happens to more than a million farmers who were awarded land leases in 1993?

When the leases expire next year, they could have their lands seized and redistributed.

"Vuon's case has just rammed home a sad message: farmers looking to make long-term investments in their leased lands stand to lose everything," Vo said.

Local media reports have quoted Vuon's wife, Nguyen Thi Thuong, as saying that the family had tried to fend off the decision to seize the land because her husband and other local farmers had thought that their land leases would be extended, and if the local government took away the land, reportedly for an airport construction project, they would be compensated.

The Tien Lang District administration ordered the eviction without offering any compensation.

"Vuon's case demonstrates that individual initiative can be productive and assist Vietnam in developing its rural economy," said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam analyst at the University of New South Wales in Australia. "Farmers should not be penalized for improving their land and the means of productivity."

Fostering corruption

Analysts have also highlighted a major glitch in the Land Law, which stipulates that after the 20-year lease, local governments will assess if the lands have been effectively used and it is up to them to decide whether the lease will be extended. This would put the livelihood of the farmers in the hands of local authorities, paving the away for corruption, they said.

"If you are expecting a corruption-free zone at 100 percent of local governments, you are asking for utopia," Vo said.

James Anderson, senior governance specialist of the World Bank in Vietnam, said that when a single official or office has a lot of power and discretion over land allocation, and when there is little accountability or transparency, corruption is more likely.

"When there is little accountability or transparency"¦and when there is also the chance for making large profits through official decisions, corruption should not be surprising," Anderson said.

Permanent rights

Vo said the both the Party and the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, would continue discussing amendments to the Land Law this year.

"My position is that we should grant permanent land-use rights to farmers," he said. "Obviously, measures to curb land speculation or its wasteful use should also be included in the amended laws."

Thayer said there is evidence that the Party would look to amend the Land Law, "but I have not seen evidence that anyone is seriously considering changing the law to allow private ownership of land as distinct from access to land."

With land grievances remaining the main source of concern and protests in Vietnam, many people are worried that as long as the rich and the influential can sway local decisions on land use, Vuon's case will be repeated.

But Vo was not overly pessimistic.

"Vuon's case might just be a rare incident," he said. "But without a major shakeup, the ordeal of Vietnamese farmers will remain very true and evident across the country."

Analyzing the Hai Phong shootout, a recent op-ed by Ho Chi Minh City's Saigon Tiep Thi (Saigon Marketing) newspaper noted: "Since the 1993 Land Law took effect, farmers have had faith in the reforms because they believed that when their land-use rights expire, they would maintain the right to work on the lands"¦"

"That is the political basis of their continued trust in the Party."

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