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Rubber concessions in the Mekong Region: A gender perspective

Farmers now live near their fields to protect their land. Afar, one can see the rubber plantation under economic concession at Rattanakiri Province, Cambodia. (Photo by Rubber-GIAI project team)

In Cambodia and Lao PDR, rubber and cash crop plantations have expanded into farmlands posing difficulties for local people, and in particular, women farmers.

By Kyoko Kusakabe

In Cambodia’s northeastern province of Rattanakiri, farmers practice rotational cultivation that eeds to maintain certain fallow periods without farming. However, the government does not recognise these farming practices so that land left fallow is treated as unoccupied land and given out for “economic concessions” mainly to agribusiness companies for planting cash crops like rubber.

Local farmers also used to raise livestock by allowing them to graze freely in the nearby forest areas. But with the expansion of economic concessions, plantation owners do not allow the cattle to enter into the plantation areas, and farmers have been asked to pay exorbitant fines if their cattle stray into plantation areas.

As a consequence, farmers have started to reduce the number of cattle they raise, which in turn means a drastic reduction in their income since livestock provides a major source of income and also long-term savings. Some of the farmers have also moved out from their original village areas to live closer to their fields and fallow areas in fear that plantation companies may come and seize their lands if left unoccupied.

Since 2001, farmers in Rattanakiri province have been working hard to register their lands as communal land, but this has been an extremely slow bureaucratic process. In 2012, the Government of Cambodia, in order to expedite the land registration process, launched Directive 01BB:  Measures Reinforcing and Increasing the Efficiency of the Managment of Economic Land Concessions.

A large number of student volunteers were mobilized to measure and record land ownership of the farmers. However, during this process, fallow land was not considered as land that the farmers are using and therefore was not formally registered..

Therefore, this survey exercise resulted in a large number of farmers officially losing their farmlands and grazing areas. Many of these inhabitants are from ethnic groups that are matrilineal ie the land is passed down from mother to daughter. However, after the survey, women have totally lost control over their lands – either to the economic concession of rubber plantation or to the male head of households (although the surveys would have registered both names). Some of the communal lands that were used by farmers were also recorded as private land, further diminishing ownership of the land that women inherited from their ancestors. 

Since 1997, in Lao PDR’s Luang Namtha province, the government has made efforts to assist farmers to plant rubber to get cash income. At first, farmers were reluctant to change from rice planting to rubber. But the government started to provide economic land concessions to Chinese companies, who then opened up forests for rubber plantations.

Observing such concessions as well as successful cases of private rubber plantation seen in Hadyao village, other farmers started to follow suit, and now most of the farmers are involved in rubber in some form or the other – either planting on their own, working for other people’s plantation, or as labour for the Chinese companies.

When they are planting on their own, most of the people convert only part of their upland farms into rubber plantations. The reasons for this may vary: because it is too expensive to invest in rubber; not all their land is suitable for rubber plantation; or because they want to keep some land to produce rice for home consumption.

The problem of rubber plantation is that it takes around seven years to start tapping. In the initial years, the rubber crop is a loss-maker since it only occupies the land that could have been used by other crops, and also requires labor for planting and weeding. During this initial period, households have to find ways to supplement their income through wage labor. It is also noted that most of the hired daily wage labor is by women.

One of the conversation in our field work meetings was: 

Men:     Before, women’s workload was heavier, but now their life is easier (with rice mills, so they do not need to pound rice). Now, most of the work is done by men.

Women: Still, women work more than men.

Land use map of village in Vieng Phouka District, Luang Namtha, Lao PDR. (Photo by Rubber-GIAI project team)

Most of the people have started to plant rubber since the 2000s. But when the global price of rubber dropped in 2012, many farmers had either just started to tap their rubber or not yet started tapping. For local farmers, even though the price is much lower than what they expected, they still tap since it is better than not having any income at all. Some of the concessions are not tapping the rubber because of the low price. Meanwhile the increasing demand for banana crops has resulted in some farmers, being frustrated with the low rubber price, cutting the young rubber trees and renting the land to Chinese companies to plant banana trees. Some have rented out their paddy land for banana production. Farmers soon found out that after renting out their lands for banana production, their land quality has deteriorated drastically.

In Northern Laos, farmers still have a perception that land is abundant. The upland areas are not considered as a limited resource, but labor has been, and with more labor, people were able to cultivate more. This is changing fast. Farmers are not equipped with information and negotiation skills to deal with the rapid and vast occupation of farmlands by cross-border investors. The rapid conversion of farmland to cash crop plantartions, especially in places where land ownership is not formally secured or registered, brings about  many impacts on local farmers especially women farmers. When land becomes a scarce commodity in a patriarchal society, women are further put at a disadvantage since women are the ones who are responsible for upland rice cultivation for home consumption. At the same time, it is becoming more and more difficult to fend off outside forces to defend their lands to provide food for domestic consumption. The influx of cross-border investment is slowly creating more and more landless women, leading to disempowerment of women with no attention being given to women’s entitlements over land and resources.