In Myanmar, the agriculture sector comprises 32% of GDP, and accounts for 18% percent of total export earnings. About 60% of Myanmar’s 54 million people live in rural areas and rely on crop husbandry and livestock for their livelihoods and incomes. Rice, beans, pulses and maize are the most widely produced crops in the country, with rubber and rice also important foreign exchange earners. While Myanmar was long one of the fastest growing economies in the world, more than one-third of its population remains in poverty.
While pervasive smallholder capital constraints result in low productivity, smallholder agriculture is critical to rural food security and labour markets, offering important employment opportunities to Myanmar’s many landless laborers. Both farmers and laborers were, however, hard hit by the labour movement restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation has become more challenging after the change of the political climate in February 2021, as the depreciation of its currency reduced input accessibility and produced new market uncertainties. With Myanmar’s population concentrated in disaster risk-prone areas, increasing incidence of weather hazards is further compounding rising social vulnerabilities.
Myanmar’s military government began actively courting agricultural investors under its import substitution and modernization agendas of the early 1990s. Agricultural investment peaked towards the end of the 2000s, with predominantly domestic, Chinese and Malaysian companies securing large areas of so-called Vacant, Fallow and Virgin (VFV) land. A large proportion of these investments are concentrated in Myanmar’s northern and southern provinces for crops such as oil palm, rubber and sugarcane.
As VFV land often overlaps with areas occupied and cultivated by smallholders, many smallholders were – as ‘illegal occupants’ – forcibly evicted. While the Myanmar government began to more actively investigate and redress land confiscation issues since its return to civilian rule in 2016, few cases were successfully resolved. Establishing legitimate ownership proved challenging. Land investments thus compounded Myanmar’s landlessness and inequality problems. Furthermore, as many land investments are established for extractive purposes, forest conversion is rampant, with many investors failing to develop allocated lands after trees were harvested and sold.
Key initiatives and commitments
Myanmar’s 2018 Agriculture Development Strategy recognizes that land investments precipitate social and economic unrest, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss due to tenure insecurities, weak regulatory enforcement capacity and land classification issues. Despite recent amendments to its Farmland Law, Forest Law, VFV Management Law, Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Law, smallholder protection from land expropriation remains weak.
To address outstanding regulatory issues, Myanmar began amending its National Land Law in recent years. With growing political support for more smallholder-inclusive investment models, Myanmar also began developing an inclusive business strategy to guide reforms to its investment laws, with new technical and financial support initiatives for inclusive businesses, such as the UK Department for International Development’s (DFID) DaNa Facility, following suit. However, recent political uncertainties are frustrating and undermining important innovations like these.