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Large-Scale Land Acquisitions, Livelihoods and Human Rights in South-East Asia

Christophe Gironde and Christophe Golay


The various contributions to this volume show, first, that previous episodes of large-scale land acquisitions are crucial to an understanding of why, where and how the current wave is occurring; of how they are implemented and turned, or not, into production units; and of how and to what extent they affect livelihoods. This is valid even for those territories that have not encountered such episodes and where the creation of large estates is ‘new’. Second, beyond the usual emphasis on foreign companies, historical analysis also allows us to take stock of the key role played by nation states, which put in place regulatory frameworks and public policies or adopted a laissez-faire approach that paved the way for current land deals and acquisition practices around land and natural resources. Third, this volume highlights the importance of economic and political dynamics at local, national and sub-regional levels, which prove in South-East Asia to be as powerful as the global forces typically foregrounded in writings on ‘land grabbing’…

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Editors' notes

Paperback reference: Gironde, Christophe and Christophe Golay (2015) “Large-Scale Land Acquisitions, Livelihoods and Human Rights in South-East Asia” in Large-Scale Land Acquisitions: Focus on South-East Asia, International Development Policy series No.6, Geneva: Graduate Institute Publications, Boston: Brill-Nijhoff, pp. 275–292 – Order your copy on Brill-Nijhoff’s website

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The authors are extremely grateful to the anonymous reviewer for the comments and suggestions provided to the draft of this chapter.

1The various contributions to this volume show, first, that previous episodes of land acquisitions are crucial to an understanding of why, where and how the current wave is occurring; of how they are implemented and turned, or not, into production units; and of how and to what extent they affect livelihoods. Second, beyond the usual emphasis on foreign companies, historical analysis also allows us to take stock of the key role played by nation states, which put in place regulatory frameworks and public policies or adopted a laissez-faire approach that paved the way for current land deals and acquisition practices around land and natural resources. Third, this volume highlights the importance of economic and political dynamics at local, national and sub-regional levels, which prove in South-East Asia to be as powerful as the global forces typically foregrounded in writings on ‘land grabbing’. This is observable in the (land deal) negotiation stage, during the implementation of deals, and throughout the process of the transformation of the livelihoods that such deals induce in the medium term. A processual approach, as used by Nooteboom et al. (this volume), goes hand in hand with historical analysis. The diversity found in the implementation of land acquisitions shows that land deals are more often the beginning of a process of transformation to new livelihoods than the end of former ones.

2Overall, large-scale land acquisitions are a significant challenge for affected populations, but their consequences vary greatly between localities and among social groups. Dispossession, exclusion, disruption, etc. are undeniable. Extreme cases in which populations lost all, were displaced, and had to rebuild from zero (Cismas and Paramita, this volume) do exist. In other cases, some populations are left with some time and space for resistance, adaptation, opportunism, etc. Everywhere the processes of land acquisitions and their consequences are highly contingent on the particular contexts in which they occur.

3In terms of human rights analysis, the gap is huge between the abuses and violations of human rights perpetrated against local populations and the human rights instruments that have been developed for protecting them. Although instruments and mechanisms exist at the international and national levels, they do not provide substantial protection to affected populations, as there is not much implementation on the ground.

1. Recurrence and Expansion of Large-Scale Land Acquisitions

4The current wave of large-scale land acquisitions has often been addressed as a phenomenon caused by the 2007–08 ‘F-F-F crisis’ (Food, Fossil, Financial). The food price surge and export restrictions undeniably triggered a reaction from importing countries, who attempted to secure provision of food by engaging—among other activities—in land investment (McMichael, 2012; Akram-Lodhi, 2012). The rush for land can also certainly be ascribed to agro-fuel production, as illustrated by the case of sugar cane in Indonesia and the Philippines (Nooteboom et al., this volume), and to the fact that land has become a valuable financial asset (Smaller and Mann, 2009). Yet this short-term perspective is not sufficient for an understanding of the current dynamics of large-scale land acquisitions and the agrarian transformation they contribute to shaping (Zoomers and Kaag, 2014).

5An argument has been made for ‘analysing land grabbing historically’, since the acquisitions ‘tend to occur in cycles’ and because each new cycle is somewhat related to the previous ones (Edelman and Leon, 2013, 1697–8). Roudart and Mazoyer (this volume) recall that large public estates, back to ancient times and the Old Kingdom of Egypt, have always existed—within or outside national or imperial boundaries—and are not unique to capitalism. Some, like those of the Roman State, were created for the purpose of funding wars and feeding armies; others, as was the case for Spanish and Portuguese estates in the Americas, for mercantile interests; others still to seize the opportunities presented by industrial demand and international trade (from wool in the sixteenth century to ‘tropical’ commodities in the nineteenth century), or to fund rapid industrialisation as in the 1930s in the USSR.

6The need to look back into history is particularly valid in South-East Asia, which experienced not only the European colonisations and the opening up of ‘previously inaccessible tracts of land’ in the second half of the nineteenth century (Hayami, 2001), but also major territorial expansions from the 1960s in Thailand and the Philippines, then in Malaysia, Indonesia, and—lastly—in Vietnam from the 1990s on (De Koninck, 2003). Although most of the sites studied in this volume have experienced booms related to new crops, the sites’ expansion is related to the role these crops played in previous decades and even centuries, as best illustrated by the case of sugar cane, which has been core to the economies and the societies of the Philippines and Indonesia since the middle of the nineteenth century (Hayami, 2001; Maurer, 1986). Until the mid-2000s, the extent of rubber exploitation remained very limited in south-eastern Laos and north-eastern Cambodia (Baird, 2011; Fortunel, 2014) and the crop was almost unknown to local populations. Yet, the development of rubber that began around 2005 has its origins in the rubber sector set up across Indochina (except in Laos, where the attempt failed) by the French early in the twentieth century. Following approximately three decades of disuse due to the effects of war and inefficient post-independence state structures (Aso, 2014; Pham and De Koninck, 2014), it has been revived from the 1990s on, beginning in Vietnam. The current dynamics of land acquisitions and crop booms in Champasak (Laos) and Ratanakiri (Cambodia)—the former involving not only rubber but also coffee—are for a substantial part the result of the cross-border territorial expansion of Vietnam’s Central Highlands production area, in which there is no more frontier to open. For South-East Asia, these temporal dynamics suggest that the wave of land acquisitions that dates—or became visible—from the mid-2000s is somewhat a continuation of the territorial expansion witnessed from the 1960s on.

2. The Crucial Role of the State

7In the same vein as Roudart and Mazoyer, Keulertz and Woertz (this volume) recall that in previous centuries states adopted laws and policies in order to set up production and trade regimes that best served their interests. In the nineteenth century, the abolition of protectionist laws enabled the cheap import of food—often grown a great distance away—to feed the growing industrial-urban working class. After the Second World War, production subsidies made North America and Western Europe into net grain exporters and enabled them to reverse trade flows by disposing of their surpluses in developing countries while at the same time replacing imported raw materials with domestically produced industrial or synthetic commodities. These state interventions also included, in the first half of the twentieth century, the introduction of regulations—most using quotas and taxes—to control food production, similar to the regulatory approach to controlling rubber adopted in Malaysia and Indonesia; and—in the second half of the century—assistance to smallholders, mostly provided via support for the diffusion of high-yield crop varieties and better chemical inputs (Bissonnette and De Koninck, 2015). In some cases, these interventions benefited large estates; in other cases they supported the expansion of smallholders; in all cases, they were of crucial importance.

8The current wave of land acquisitions was preceded by legislative changes that established a state monopoly on land management and created insecurity in land tenure for local populations. This trend can be traced back to the land-related laws imposed on European empires’ colonies and, as Merlet (2010) argues, to some extent to those imposed by the Roman Empire. States gained control over the land and left populations unable to claim their rights, typically due to the fact that customary laws were not registered by colonial authorities and later were not recognised by the states arising from the process of decolonisation. In cases where peoples’ land rights were recognised, forest and fallow lands were not taken into account. From Indonesia and Malaysia at the time of the Dutch and the British presence to Cambodia and Laos from the 1990s on, there are striking resemblances among the processes of non-recognition of customary laws and of land takeover by the state. Furthermore, since the 1980s, states have received the support of international organisations that shape global development governance in this field; the most influential being the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Asian Development Bank, as well as major actors such as the European Union (EU) (Borras and Franco, 2011). These organisations have followed the path of land titling described by De Schutter (this volume), starting with Thailand in the 1980s (Burns, 2004; Hutchinson, 2008, quoted in Fortunel and Gironde, 2011; Verhaegen, 2013). They have provided substantial funding, guarantee schemes, technical expertise, and powerful legitimacy to the current land dynamics described in this volume. These interventions occurred in parallel with others that contributed to local populations’ resettlement, and which were also supported by the same organisations, with the fallacious rhetoric that they were supporting ‘voluntary resettlement’ (Baird and Shoemaker, 2007).

9De Schutter (this volume) reveals how the main outcome of the formalisation of land rights has been the creation of markets for such rights. This process, through which land titles have become commodities, has not only benefited the well-off groups within rural communities, but also opened the door to outsiders, local and national elites, and foreign buyers. The protective aim of land titling sounds like a fallacy when considering that titling can have powerful exclusionary consequences for certain types of actors (Hall et al., 2011; Dwyer, 2015). This can be found in the Lao villages studied by Senties Portilla (Gironde and Senties Portilla, this volume), where the policy of temporary use certificates for farmland and degraded forest was poorly implemented and later facilitated concessions instead. Similarly, Dwyer et al. (this volume) analyse how measures for regularising smallholder entitlements in Cambodia contributed, instead, to legitimising and enabling land concessions.

10The ground for large-scale land deals was thus prepared by land laws and public policies that made them legal, as illustrated by the ‘zoning policies’ of Indonesia and Laos, and the creation of special categories of land use and permits in Indonesia and Cambodia. This process is the continuation of the trend to eradicate customary land laws and regulations, such as the various adat in newly independent Indonesia and Malaysia, which took hold across South-East Asia in the 1990s (Cleary and Eaton, 1996). This ‘preparation’ also involves an attempt to make land concessions legitimate by persuading local communities that they would benefit from the promised development of infrastructure and markets and from job creation. But such process has gone even further than that, as it was achieved through the progressive delegitimisation of former land rights, of the community institutions that governed them, and of prior land use. Village and population displacements in Laos—also called ‘village consolidation’ in the case of the smallest settlements in Laos and Cambodia—and the ban on rotational cultivation in Laos made the communities targeted for large-scale concessions vulnerable. In Ratanakiri, the Khmerisation policy further challenged indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, as it led to the arrival of in-migrants who were better endowed in terms of financial, human, and social capital. Despite the emergence of certain opportunities, such as selling land plots to newcomers or the availability of jobs clearing those newcomers’ plantations, all this increased the ‘sentiment of surviving in a new insecure social environment’ (Bourdier, 2009). It also created such a pervasive confusion regarding whom the land belonged to that it ultimately made the newcomers more acceptable. Thus, the drawing up and signing of land deals, although it can occur in a very short span of time, is rather the ultimate step in a longer process whereby land rights (property or use; individual or collective) have been contested by governments, weakened by public policies and legislation, and challenged by newcomers—mostly migrants and merchants.

3. Specificities and Diversities of Land Acquisition Trajectories

11Among the factors that are striking about current land grabs is their suddenness—that is to say, the fact that many land deals are quickly agreed and signed (Neef et al., 2013), and that populations can thus be immediately dispossessed of their resources, discovering that their lands and natural resources have been enclosed overnight. Concepts such as ‘rush’ and ‘boom’ contribute to building a view whereby land deals trigger the full deployment of exclusion processes and spell the end of pre-existing livelihoods. Yet the signing of a land deal is also (just) the beginning of the story, as shown by the case of investors who were ‘materially behind schedule or operating below capacity’ (Zhan et al., this volume) and initial plans that were substantially negotiated and adapted before and during their implementation (Nooteboom et al., this volume). Although the process of implementation appears to be more monolithic and closer to original plans in the cases of Laos and Cambodia, it varies significantly depending on the types of investors and the corresponding reactions of populations (Gironde and Senties Portilla, this volume). ‘Timing’ also proves to be important in the power relations between former land users and new rights holders (Dwyer et al., this volume).

12In contrast to the commonly held view of unstoppable land acquisitions and mono-crop plantation landscapes as an inevitable process, one must take into account cases where land deals remained mere intentions and plans on paper, as occurred in the context of the 1997–98 Asian crisis where Thai investors pulled out (Baird, 2011) or in the case of China in Africa (Brautigam, 2013). Where land deals do result in production, one must take into account the time it takes for the signing of the deal to lead to the effective occupation of land and production beginning, which definitively exclude former or other users. The conclusion of land deals is sometimes only the beginning of the story, because they may be contested on the ground; because investors may decide not to implement their proclaimed plan; because a plan as it appears on paper may not be the real plan—as in cases reported from Cambodia where companies, once they had logged precious trees, withdrew; or because investors may not be able to mobilise the capital needed to turn land into production. Thus, acquisitions are not always synonymous with immediate occupation—or with plantation/cultivation—and former users may have time, and space not yet occupied, in which to respond.

13Moreover, one must not neglect the fact that the cropping systems that are currently being developed by large land estates may not last. This has already occured, for example, in the case of rain forest lands that were transformed to accommodate systems that quickly proved unsustainable (Dufumier, 2006). Keulertz and Woertz (this volume) also draw attention to the volatility of ‘rushes’ and to eventual reversals, illustrated by the case of Gulf countries’ investments, which faded in the 1980s and 1990s only to return in 2008. This is of relevance in a context of global markets marked by high-volatility cycles, and of particular relevance in South-East Asia where the ‘implementation gap has been particularly pronounced’ (Keulertz and Woertz, this volume). This resonates with the cases of Bener Meriah (Aceh), where all large-scale investors pulled out; of Luzon, where the company changed its plan from growing on its large plantation to short-term lease contracts (Nooteboom et al., this volume); and of Ratanakiri, where large Vietnamese and Chinese companies have not all had the physical capital (machines, seedlings) necessary to rapidly transform all the land they were leased into tree plantations (Gironde and Senties Portilla, this volume).

14Conversely, the beginning of the story may lead on to expansion and acceleration. Existing land deals and crop booms may lead to further ones, in the same way that pioneer migrants are followed by many others. Again following Edelman and Leon (2013), who call for a ‘history of the present’, one must add to links over time links across territories. The dynamics of rubber plantation in Cambodia and Laos are the result not only of Vietnamese-held land concessions but also of Vietnamese traders, who buy most of the liquid rubber and export it to Vietnam. Their presence is the strongest marker of the profitability of rubber for investors, companies, entrepreneurs, small peasants, brokers, etc. Similar spillover can also be seen for cassava, and—very recently—for pepper at the border between Ratanakiri and Vietnam. Another category of actors that link territories is the native population of Kampong Cham—the century-old rubber area of Cambodia—who play a crucial role in the boom taking place at the new frontier to which they migrate. Sturgeon (2012) highlights similar territorial connections between northern Laos and China, as Lao farmers have been able to benefit from ‘sharecropping arrangements with relatives’ from China who ‘extended their rubber holdings across the border’. Short distance connections are more obvious, but there are also longer distance connections such as for northern Thailand, where farmers have been able to develop their own rubber farms after having learned tapping techniques in the south of the country where they were salaried workers (Sturgeon, 2012). These connections are found on a broader scale: the dynamics of industrial crops—including sugar cane and rubber, as well as palm oil, cocoa, and coffee—have been intertwined for several decades in South-East Asia, as illustrated by the changes in the comparative advantage and market shares held by the various countries (De Koninck and Rousseau, 2012).

4. Large-Scale Land Acquisitions and Livelihoods

15The debate on the negative and positive impacts of large-scale land acquisitions on local populations is still very much open (Edelman et al., 2013). The realisation that large-scale land acquisitions can have negative consequences for local populations is not new. Roudart and Mazoyer (this volume) recall that tensions and violence have not been the exception; rather they have been systemic features of the development of the large-scale domains that have been forcibly set up, as illustrated by the examples of enclosures in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, European colonial appropriations, and collectivisation in the former USSR. Local populations have been severely dispossessed, and not only of their land; they also lost autonomy as they were enslaved or were left with no other option than to accept poorly paid salaried work from the new landholders; they were displaced, confined to restricted areas (reserves for Native Americans), and/or—in the case of ‘colonies of settlement’—exterminated. The same authors also highlight the fact that when ‘pro-poor’ land laws have been passed, they have met with strong resistance from large landowning elites.

16Zhan et al. (this volume) conclude that the impact of large-scale land acquisitions in terms of employment and income, land rights, and the environment, is largely dependent on decisions taken by governments and investors. Consultation with populations, at the pre-investment and initial stages of acquisitions in particular, minimise the risk of land disputes. Messerli et al. (this volume) see some positive changes occurring, with moves to replace top-down, authoritarian processes of land allocation—which have further marginalised vulnerable populations—with more inclusive implementation processes. They conclude that new policies are needed to support this evolution and address the negative consequences of large-scale land acquisitions, including conflict, loss of pre-existing land use rights and access to natural resources, the threat to livelihoods, and out-migration, which could all drive new waves of poverty. They therefore propose a list of recommendations addressed to governments and investors, as well as to civil society organisations; these include consulting and engaging with local populations, formalising their tenure rights under a proper land registry system, monitoring adherence to environmental and water regulations, and undertaking social and environmental impact assessments.

17In-depth field research shows that the process and magnitude of dispossession vary significantly across communes and villages (Gironde and Senties Portilla, this volume), and include, on the one hand, cases in which populations lost the vast majority of their lands without any compensation or opportunity to negotiate or even seek compensation (‘severe dispossession’), and on the other cases in which populations were left with enough land to satisfy their basic needs (‘partial dispossession’). In other cases, populations had to rebuild livelihoods from zero after they lost all their assets when they were displaced (Cismas and Paramita, this volume), a situation that the authors qualify as extreme dispossession (Gironde et al., 2014). The cases of ‘better-practice’ concessions in Cambodia analysed by Dwyer et al. (this volume) prove that concessions can be granted without evictions proving necessary and can represent a ‘relatively good option compared to other local alternatives’. Yet the authors argue that there remain many challenges that must be overcome for these concessions to have a long-standing, positive impact on local populations, as such populations are left to depend on the benevolence of powerful actors. For Dwyer et al., models based on empowered communities with more secure forms of tenure are likely to work better for all parties involved.

18Accounting for losses, typically of land, due to land acquisitions is actually a difficult exercise. In some cases, populations lose more land than indicated in the respective land deals themselves, as—in parallel—governments implement measures that additionally restrict people's access to natural resources, typically forest areas, or because large landholdings increase the distance people must travel to reach their plots and hamper activities such as animal grazing. In other cases, land losses were lower than indicated by an examination of land acquisitions areas alone, as not all land was immediately occupied by the new landholders, as explained above. Beyond the loss of land and access to natural resources, large-scale land acquisitions contribute to substantial transformations in local economies. The new socio-economic environment in which people have to reorganise their livelihoods is certainly more dynamic in terms of economic growth, diversification, and urban-rural linkages, but it also generates or exacerbates conflicts within local communities. Overall, the new opportunities do not benefit the majority of the population, who suffer from increasing competition over access to land and jobs. The benefits from crop booms and economic diversification are unevenly distributed and inequality is, overall, on the rise. The results of livelihood trajectory analysis (Gironde and Senties Portilla, this volume) echo the findings of supporters of large-scale land acquisitions, who have acknowledged that promises made are not kept and that land acquisitions are in some cases detrimental to a large proportion of the population (Deininger and Byerlee, 2011).

5. Human Rights Violations and Limited Responses

19The negative consequences of large-scale land acquisitions for local populations can also be described as human rights violations (De Schutter, 2011a; De Schutter, 2011b; Künnemann and Monsalve Suárez, 2013). Golay and Biglino (2013) find that the rights that are most frequently violated as a consequence of large-scale land deals are the right to food, the rights of indigenous peoples to dispose of their lands and natural resources, the right to housing and the right not to be forcibly evicted, and the right to water. The authors show that violations of these rights tend, in turn, to trigger a wider pool of infringements such as lack of access to education and healthcare, and violations of cultural rights, and that procedural rights such as rights to participation and consultation; the right to give, or withhold, prior, free, and informed consent; and guaranteed access to effective remedies—including adequate relocation measures and compensation—are also threatened.

20Analysing the jurisprudence of those United Nations mechanisms that have monitored the situation in South-East Asia, Golay (this volume) proposes a typology of the human rights violations that result from large-scale land deals. These violations include those linked to internal displacement and forced evictions, as also revealed by Cismas and Paramita (this volume), which often lead to drastic changes in livelihood opportunities; violations of the procedural rights of indigenous peoples, in particular their right to give, or to withhold, their free, prior, and informed consent to policies and activities that directly affect their land, territory, and livelihoods; and violations of the right to food of individuals and groups who are vulnerable to discrimination and marginalisation, including women, children, indigenous peoples, rural communities, and small-scale farmers.

21New international instruments have been proposed in response to these violations. The former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, has presented a set of eleven human rights principles that should be respected by states, investors, and financial institutions when they negotiate and implement land deals (Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 2009). In 2012, the Committee on World Food Security adopted the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (Governance of Tenure Guidelines), with the aim of promoting secure tenure rights and equitable access to land, fisheries, and forests; of reducing poverty; and of realising the right to food. The guidelines specifically recommend that states provide safeguards to protect legitimate tenure rights, human rights, livelihoods, food security and the environment from the risks that could arise from large-scale land acquisitions, and that responsible investments should do no harm, should safeguard against the dispossession of legitimate tenure-right holders and against environmental damage, and should respect human rights.

22While Gironde and Senties Portilla (this volume) are sceptical about the use of international guidelines at the local level, Monsalve Suárez (2013) shows that using such human rights instruments can have positive impacts on local populations, including ‘the empowerment of oppressed groups to stand up for their rights, decreasing violence in land conflicts, changing the way conflicts over resources are framed, opening up space for policy dialogue centered on people’s lives, fighting against agrarian legislation biased in favour of corporate interests and formulating alternative legal frameworks’. Monsalve Suárez also identifies a number of conditions that need to be in place for the application of these instruments to be effective. Awareness of rights and an ability to claim them are among these conditions, but she also stresses the importance of linkages with law professionals and advocacy networks and of pressure from below. Creative uses of different aspects of law become possible, especially when people have access to courts. Monsalve Suárez also recognises the limitations of using the human rights framework: it assumes that people know about human rights and have the resources to sustain political and legal action, and that the circumstances are such that they have access to justice, a condition that may be particularly circumscribed for women.

23Golay (this volume) shows that these conditions, including access to justice—very often non-existent in cases of large-scale land acquisitions, are far from being fulfilled in South-East Asia, which could explain why human rights instruments have little influence in the cases studied. Cismas and Paramita (this volume) describe the extreme disparities that exist in Cambodia regarding the extent to which human rights instruments inform the acts and actions of the government in relation to land transactions, and regarding the strategies employed by affected communities. The authors suggest that rural-urban spatiality is relevant to explaining these disparities, with rural communities left with no information, consultation options, or access to justice, and urban dwellers having made extensive use of human rights language and mechanisms to challenge their own forced evictions with a certain success.

24In the end, what counts from a human rights—and development—perspective is that the rights and needs of the local populations are respected, protected, and fulfilled. In the future, an argument more convincing than using the human rights framework to persuade states, investors, and financial institutions to ensure that large-scale land deals have a positive impact on local populations might be to demonstrate that land deals have less chance of being implemented if the rights of local populations are not respected. If the rapid and forceful acquisition of land exacerbates tensions between villagers and companies, prior consultations, negotiation, and conflict-resolution mechanisms could significantly mitigate these tensions and the negative consequences for local populations (Gironde et al., 2014). It is also important to note that informed, knowledgeable, and strong local leaders are often crucial in making the difference regarding whether, and—if so—under which terms, a land deal will be implemented (Gironde et al., 2014).

6. Beyond Current Land Dynamics in South-East Asia

25Current land dynamics in South-East Asia bring to the fore a number of avenues for further research and policies that could better support local populations in their efforts to cope with, and benefit from, these dynamics. At least three of these avenues have been explored in detail in this volume.

26First, this volume echoes the call by ‘land grab’ analysts to move beyond the initial picture and early-stage assumptions, a move reflected by the insistence on the need for historical analysis (see, for instance, White et al., 2012 for Asia; Baglioni and Gibbon, 2013 and Wily, 2012 for Africa; and Edelman and Leon, 2013 for Central America). The current wave of land acquisitions that became evident around a decade ago cannot simply be dated from that point in time. What has happened elsewhere, and before, is crucial to an understanding of the here and now (Edelman et al., 2013). The recurrence of large-scale land acquisitions and the formation of large estates under different contexts also call for an investigation of the cases and contexts of non-grabbing (Sikor, 2012) and raise the question of why there is not more land grabbing all over the globe.

27Second, the importance of particular contexts in which land acquisitions occur calls for in-depth field research in order to make the link between particular contexts, processes, and outcomes of land acquisitions and the different trajectories of agrarian transition they contribute to shaping. Empirical material analysing how land deals are negotiated and then implemented across various governmental, administrative, and jurisdictional scales is crucial not only for the purposes of generalisation and out-scaling (Messerli et al., this volume), but also for the design of policies that correspond to realities on the ground.

28Third, the outcomes of the current wave of land acquisitions can also been assessed from a human rights perspective. These outcomes have been addressed mostly in terms of dispossession, marginalisation, exclusion, disruption, etc. These analyses come mostly from the fields of political economy and political ecology and build on livelihood studies. Despite a great interest in the governance of large-scale land deals (Margulis et al., 2014) and the fact that many studies have shown that human rights violations can be one of their immediate consequences (De Schutter, 2011a; De Schutter, 2011b; Künnemann and Monsalve Suárez, 2013), a human rights perspective that would analyse the efficiency of using human rights instruments and monitoring mechanisms to mitigate these violations is still embryonic (Cotula, 2009; 2012; Monsalve Suárez, 2013; Narula, 2013; Clays and Vanloqueren, 2013; Golay and Biglino, 2013) and could also be developed further.

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Christophe Gironde and Christophe Golay, “Large-Scale Land Acquisitions, Livelihoods and Human Rights in South-East Asia”International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 6 | 2015, Online since 28 September 2015, connection on 09 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Christophe Gironde

Christophe Gironde is a political economist who works as a lecturer in development studies and researcher at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. His research interests are agrarian change, sustainable livelihoods and human development, in particular in continental South-East Asia.

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Christophe Golay

Christophe Golay is research fellow and coordinator of the Project on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. He is also a lecturer at the Geneva Centre for Research and Education in Humanitarian Action.

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