Land transformation has been at the centre of economic growth of post-colonial, Asian nation-states. While their political reforms and economic policies have focused on land governance, the outcomes have resulted in promoting privatisation and speculative business interest in ecologically sensitive landscapes that are also under diverse forms of common use by resource-dependent communities. A three-year study undertaken to understand community-level responses to land use transformation in India, Indonesia and Myanmar shows that the current scale and approach of land–intensive development in these large democracies is facilitated by fast-paced, top down policy changes. These policies are ‘stacked’ (when multiple layers of current and revoked laws are simultaneously in use) rather than integrated and their implementation is the responsibility of various authorities and agencies that overlap.
Growing private investments in land that has remained within varying degrees of state control have changed the way land is managed. Land has become increasingly securitised and ‘out of bounds’ for small farmers and other land-users with or without recognised forms of ownership and use rights. Land conflicts are caused due to coercive acquisition processes or land grabs, unlawful operations of projects and long pending remedies to social and environmental impacts. In many instances, these conflicts begin even before the final decisions on projects are taken and persist for years.
Highly capitalised land use change brings powerful investors and corporations, governments and local communities in unequal and precarious arrangements of negotiation and confrontation. Citizens and communities affected by land use change, use varied strategies such as administrative complaints, protests, litigation, media campaigns and political advocacy, and engage in improving project design and implementation, increase compensations, restore community access to resources and get a review on the operations of harmful projects. These are done under conditions of political intransigence and criminalisation of those who speak up. While all three countries have recognised land conflicts and their impact on development plans and proposals, they are yet to give affected people a formal and effective role in land and natural resource governance.