Burma

An image of the country's flag.

Burma is situated in Southeastern Asia, bordering Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. The majority of its population lives in rural areas and depends on land as a primary means of livelihood.

Because all land in Burma ultimately belongs to the state, citizens and organizations depend upon use-rights, but do not own land.

Burma’s laws grant women equal rights in some respects and also recognize certain customary laws that provide women equal rights in relation to land. In practice, however, the rights of many women are governed by customs that do not afford them equal access to or control over land.

Forcible and uncompensated land confiscation is a source of conflict and abuse in Burma, and protests and fear of “land grabs” have escalated as the state opens its markets to foreign investors and pursues policies to dramatically increase industrial agricultural production.

Burma has rich water, forest and mineral resources. However, a rapid expansion of resource extraction efforts in the past three decades has led to widespread land and water pollution, deforestation and forced relocation.

KEY ISSUES AND INTERVENTION CONSTRAINTS

To help strengthen the implementation and reform of existing law and build corresponding institutional capacity, USAID and other donors might consider focusing on the following high-impact interventions:

  • Support the development of a land policy. Burma does not have a written policy on land use and land tenure. Donors could help provide a sound foundation for the development and implementation of a comprehensive land law by providing technical, legal and other support for the development of a formal land policy.
  • Support the development of a comprehensive land law and related implementing rules and regulations. The body of law governing land in Burma is expansive, complex and poorly harmonized, with many of the legal instruments dating back to the late nineteenth century. Although the state enacted several major land-related laws in 2012, their effect on preexisting laws is unclear. Donors could help resolve this ambiguity by providing technical, legal and policy support for the development of a comprehensive land law and for the implementing rules and regulations that would follow it.
  • Improve tenure security for vulnerable populations. Populations relying upon customary tenure arrangements, which the government does not recognize, as well as smallholder farmers whose land use does not align with how land has been classified or who did not report their land use to the government in the past, are vulnerable to being removed from their land without receiving compensation. Donors could improve tenure security for these populations by supporting the development of: laws and policies that recognize and respect customary tenure systems; and registration schemes that allow for the titling of land under rotational or other customary tenure.
  • Improve land tenure security for women. The land rights held by women in Burma are often highly insecure. Cultural norms and practices often marginalize women within their marriages and households, and many women lack awareness of their rights as joint owners of family land or as family members with rights of inheritance. Rights held by women-headed households are particularly vulnerable to loss to male family members, local elites and commercial interests. Donors could work with the government to protect and improve women’s land rights through educational programs and legal literacy campaigns focused on increasing women’s knowledge of land rights and land administration procedures. They could also provide support for programs that assist women, their families and their communities with training in communication and dispute-resolution techniques. Additionally, donors could support the development of legal aid organizations and NGOs as well as their efforts to expand their services to include a focus on protecting and improving women’s land rights.
  • Reduce landlessness. Landlessness rates are significant nationally and especially acute in states with ethnic minority populations. Estimates of landlessness among Burma’s rural population range from 30% to 50%. Donors could help reduce landlessness by supporting the analysis and development of laws and policies to reduce landlessness and an investigation of whether and in what regions land might be available for allocation to households that possess less than an acre of land.
  • Bring compulsory acquisition policies in line with international best practices. Burma’s laws permit the state to use compulsory acquisition to acquire land for public purposes and for business purposes. The law defines neither purpose in detail, leaving landholders vulnerable to losing their land through arbitrary processes. Donors could help improve compulsory acquisition policies by providing technical, legal and policy support for the development of a law that embodies minimum international standards for fair and effective compulsory acquisition procedures.
  • Promote expansion and improvement of community forest user groups. Community forestry initiatives have strengthened the land rights of villagers, ensuring greater protection from land expropriation, as well as increased village participation in land governance. However, community forest groups have been both slow to expand and – as a result of their neglect of agroforestry strategies, local needs, gender dynamics and marginalized groups – adversely affected food security in villages. Donors could support the expansion of community forest user groups that encourage sustainable, equitable and participatory strategies in forest management.
  • Support more sustainable water management. Freshwater resources in Burma are abundant, but access to water is temporally and spatially uneven. Water quality has rapidly deteriorated as a result of urbanization, industrialization and mining activities, along with a lack of adequate sanitation facilities. Insufficient data as well as vague legislation and overlapping institutional authority have hampered water management. Donors could help reduce water pollution by facilitating investment in sanitation facilities in both urban and rural settings. Donors could also offer technical assistance to help the government obtain better data on water resources and improve coordination of water management across agencies.
  • Support regulation of the mining industry. Burma lacks the necessary laws, regulations and enforcement mechanisms to protect its environment and vulnerable populations against the impacts of mining. Over the past two decades, these inadequacies have led to conflict and widespread environmental degradation in the wake of a rapid increase in large scale mining. As investment in the country’s mineral sector increases, conflict between mining interests and local communities will likely increase. Donors could help the government manage competing interests by assisting in the development of a progressive legal framework that supports investment while recognizing the rights of local communities. Donors could also help local communities protect their rights and interests through public-awareness building, community organizing and the development of contracting and negotiation skills. Specific attention should be given to developing a foundation for the negotiation of fair and equitable benefit-sharing agreements, with mechanisms to ensure that benefits reach all members of local communities.

SUMMARY

Approximately 67% of Burma’s population lives in rural areas, and the majority depends on agricultural land as a primary means of livelihood. Burma is the poorest country in Southeast Asia, and poverty rates are particularly high in rural areas, where it is estimated that 30– 50% of households are landless, and in border regions populated by minority ethnic groups.

Burma’s laws dictate that all land ultimately belongs to the state. The body of law governing land is expansive, complex and poorly harmonized, and dates back to the British colonial period. In 2012, the state enacted several high-profile laws whose effect on preexisting laws and systems is not yet clear. These include the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law (VFV Law).

Burma’s constitution guarantees women equal rights before the law, and the government claims that women have equal rights to administer property. Customary laws, which govern succession, marriage and inheritance, grant Buddhist women (the majority of women in Burma) equal rights in property matters. These customary laws and Burma’s statutory laws do not always govern in practice, however, and many women are subject to systems that do not afford them equal rights. Furthermore, Burma’s newest laws governing land (the Farmland Law and VFV Law) are not gender neutral and appear to lack a mechanism for the joint ownership of property between husbands and wives.

The primary central body governing land in Burma is the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation (MoAI), whose departments are responsible for land-use planning, water resources, irrigation, mechanization, settlement and land records, among other matters. The Farmland Management Body (FMB) and the Central Committee for the Management of Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands (CCVFV), both established by laws enacted in 2012 and chaired by the head of MoAI, are responsible along with their lower-level branches for approving certain requests for land-use rights.

Burma’s land market has grown in the past two decades and has produced a particularly dramatic increase in the number of commercial landholdings. Prices have climbed in both urban and rural areas, due in part to land speculation. While there is some concern that inflated prices will deter foreign investment in Burma’s land market, there is also alarm over prospects that increased foreign investment could lead to an epidemic of land confiscations. The law allows the state to use compulsory acquisition to acquire land for public purposes and for business purposes, neither of which the law defines in detail. Although Burma’s laws require the state to pay compensation for land it acquires, in practice the compensation often falls short of minimum standards or does not occur at all.

Natural resources are a leading source of conflict, and development projects have often involved Burma’s military forces, which have a history of displacing and violently abusing affected populations. Conflict and abuse have also surrounded the military’s confiscation of land in cases unrelated to development projects. Of particular concern in recent years is the forceful and uncompensated confiscation of land for commercial agricultural development. As the state pursues an ambitious plan to convert vast amounts of land to industrial agricultural production, farmers are increasingly protesting what they call “land grabs.”

Burma has diverse natural forests, including tropical evergreen forests, hill forests and temperate evergreen forests. Forests cover approximately 48% of Burma’s land area. Deforestation due to excessive legal and illegal logging as well as traditional practices has emerged as a significant problem for Burma, with the country losing 19% of its forest cover between 1990 and 2010. Rapid exploitation of Burma’s natural resources is threatening the country’s agricultural and forest land. Large dam building, oil and gas extraction, mining, logging and large-scale agriculture projects are leading to severe soil and water degradation, as well as the forced displacement of smallholder farmers and minority ethnic communities.

Published / Updated: September 2017

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