BANGKOK (TrustLaw) - Fish farmer Doan Van Vuon became something of a folk hero earlier this year when he used homemade landmines and guns to stop local officials, police and soldiers from forcibly taking his land in northern Vietnam.
In April, near the capital Hanoi, thousands of police overwhelmed villagers who were trying to protect a 70 hectare (170 acre) plot of land slated for use in a satellite city development.
These are just two examples of conflicts over land that are a major source of friction between the public and officials in Vietnam, where rising land prices have led officials to move farmers off their land for more lucrative projects, often with little compensation. All land in Vietnam belongs to the state and usage rights are not always clear or protected.
Government statistics show there were 700,000 land-related complaints in the last three years, 70 percent of them about land appropriation and compensation decisions that experts say are not only opaque and prone to corruption, but are also inequitable and discriminate against farmers, a crucial sector of Vietnam’s economy and an important base for the ruling Communist Party.
Farmers and foreign analysts are cautiously optimistic that a revision of the Land Law now under way will make the law fairer, impartial and more transparent.
Land conflicts “served to focus attention on how badly the land management framework needs to be improved,” said James Anderson, senior governance specialist at the World Bank in Vietnam. “If the revisions afford more rights to farmers and others who lose land, if the new system is perceived to be more fair, the number of conflicts will be reduced,” he added.
Twenty-year leases for agricultural land issued in 1993 will expire in 2013, and the revision of the Land Law is expected to be approved around mid-year.
“The clock is ticking,” said David Brown, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in Vietnam and has written articles on corruption in land issues. “The government said (the leases) will be automatically renewed for anybody who has been conscientiously farming that land… but the details are vague,” he told TrustLaw.
Some 25 years ago, Vietnam launched the Doi Moi (renovation) policy, which transformed it from a country wrecked by war into an Asian Tiger economy, at the same time cutting the number of poor to 16 percent of the population in 2006 from 58 percent in 1993.
Land use also changed. According to a World Bank report, during the 2001-2010 period, almost one million hectares of farm land was converted to non-agricultural use.
Yet nearly eight out of 10 citizens were unaware of land use plans in their districts, only 22 percent said they had a chance to comment on local land plans and only two out of every five who did so said their views were taken into consideration, according to the 2011 Viet Nam Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI).
PAPI 2011 also found that on average, only 9 percent of those who lost land said their compensation was close to market value.
“The current system of setting prices benefits investors and state officials at the expense of farmers and other land users, provides opportunities for corruption, increases complaints and threatens social stability,” said a joint policy brief released in November by the United Nations, the World Bank, Oxfam and other organisations.
David Koh, a Vietnam analyst at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said Vietnam’s use of decentralised decision making over land allows “a lot of space for local authorities to mediate and do things, and a lot of times these rights are abused.”
“The Tien Lang case has shown that when local authorities are determined, they can take the land from the people,” he said, referring to Vuon’s land in Tien Lang district.
Media reports say Vuon was told he would not be compensated for improvements he’d made to his farm during his tenure. The clash ended with Vuon and his relatives being charged with injuring six policemen and soldiers, the demolition of Vuon’s and his brother’s houses - even though the latter wasn’t listed for eviction - and the destruction of Vuon’s fish ponds.
The normally reticent Vietnamese media attacked the heavy-handed tactics of the local authorities, who they said wanted the land for an airport and reneged on a deal with Vuon. Public outrage was so strong that the prime minister stepped in to admonish local officials and some were suspended.
LONGER LEASES FOR FOOD SECURITY
Under the current law, long-term grants are available to develop residential land but farmers are given only 20-year leases so they have little incentive to make long-term, expensive investments in their farms, said Nicholas Booth, policy adviser at the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) in Vietnam.
“It's bad for livelihoods, economic development and growth,” he told TrustLaw.
Bert Maerten, associate country director of Oxfam in Vietnam, says land, especially for the poor, is a “critical asset”. “It’s on the land that they grow the food they eat so it’s critical for their own food security and also for their livelihoods,” he said.
Oxfam is holding consultations with communities in five provinces to ensure the revised law, expected to be approved next summer, will address people’s concerns.
The November joint policy brief called for household agricultural land use rights to be granted for an unlimited period and land recovery to be limited to cases of national defence, security and the public interest, with compensation based on market value defined by independent professionals.
It also said farmers should be able to change land use in areas where rice farming is not profitable, and a comprehensive national registration system of land use rights, open to the public, should be set up to improve transparency.
“The less is known about who holds which land, who it gets transferred to and for what price, the easier it is for corruption to occur. The greater the state's role in management and the less the public know and are consulted about, the greater the risk of corruption,” said the UNDP’s Booth.
As Vietnam continues to develop and urbanise, citizens understand that land will continue to be converted from farming use, he said. “The point is - how do you do it equitably and fairly?” he added.
There are concerns over how far the revision will go.
A day before the United Nations and its partners released the joint policy brief, local media published the politburo resolution on the revision. It spoke of “longer duration of land allocation or lease” but did not exclude economic reasons for land recovery and stuck to the state’s role in determining prices.
“The big debate is really about who the land belongs to,” said ISEAS’s Koh.
“No doubt the land belongs to the country, but should the state be the only owner of land, leasing it to private individuals? And if the state is to hold all land, what safeguards are there to prevent the state and its actors from abusing the system in order to benefit themselves?”