Gerard Dougher is a new media specialist at Oxfam America. Find him on Twitter at @gdougher.
One day, less than a month after I moved to Luang Prabang, Laos, I woke up to the sound of coconut trees crashing down beside my house. When I walked outside to investigate, my landlord told me that the two families who had been living and working on that plot for years had been displaced by a new development.
This was my first, but not my last, experience, with land grabs: land deals that happen without the free, prior, and informed consent of communities, and that often result in farmers being forced from their homes and families left hungry.
Before joining Oxfam, I spent two years researching land rights issues in Luang Prabang—a city recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique architecture, urban layout, and natural heritage. Truly visually stunning, Luang Prabang’s heritage rests not only in its landscape, but in the diversity of agricultural methods the local community has used for decades.
Throughout the city, families use all available land to grow food both for sustenance and as a secondary source of income. These activities occur in every imaginable space: from sizable rice paddies, swamps in between houses (yes, you can grow food in swamps!), the city’s riverbanks, and in large urban gardens. With little arable land and expensive food imports as the only alternative, it is not an exaggeration to say that land used for urban agriculture has been a lynchpin in the long-term sustainability of Luang Prabang.
Sadly, as in so many other communities throughout the developing world, land grabs have threatened Luang Prabang’s sustainability, resulting in the uprooting of families, displacement of farmers, and destruction of income sources and food supplies. While I lived there, urban agricultural plots were uprooted and sold off to build luxury hotels and restaurants. A tent city popped up to house families displaced by infrastructure projects. Farmers were squeezed off of the city’s riverbanks to make way for hotel patios. What was most disturbing about all of these events is that they always affected the city’s most vulnerable people.
When I found out about Oxfam’s new campaign on land grabs, I was thrilled to lend my voice and experience to the effort. Land grabs are almost always motivated by large-scale projects that don’t consider the needs of the local community. While what I saw differed in many ways from other cases of land grabs that Oxfam recently investigated, there is one sad truth they share: the experience and threat of losing your land, home, and source of income is a wrong that cannot be tolerated as an acceptable business practice.
Still, there is a silver lining. In Luang Prabang, pressure from those displaced by land grabs has contributed to the slowing down of land deals. Today, communities and neighbors are more often involved in land deal decisions. UNESCO has also recognized the danger of land grabs and has committed to preserving the city’s natural heritage and sustainable practices, particularly areas used for sustenance agriculture.
One thing I’ve learned from my experiences and Oxfam’s campaign: No matter where we live, we can take steps to help stop land grabs. Through our actions, change is possible.