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Globalization

Accusations of landgrabbing overshadow ASEM

According to NGOs active in Laos, the recent ASEM 9 conference was held on land that had been taken away from local residents. They say this is representative of an increase in landgrabs across Asia.

Asian and European politicians meeting in the Lao capital Vientiane this week have been staying in villas built on land that was taken from locals against their will, according to NGOs active in the country.

For Oli Courtney from the UK-based organization Global Witness, there is tremendous irony in the situation. "Europe is a major donor to Asia, and that money is all about trying to improve the lives of people there," he told DW.

"At the same time, though, they are indirectly taking part in a land grab that takes people off their land and fishing areas, away from their traditional livelihoods."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, Brunei's Sultan Bolkhiah, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf talk each to other as they move to the meeting room for the opening ceremony of the ninth Asia-Europe (ASEM 9) summit in Vientiane on November 5, 2012. AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH Nam (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

The politicians' villas used during the ASEM conference will be sold off as luxury accommodation after the event

As part of the ASEM villa development, some 500 residents were relocated from Don Chan Island in central Vientiane to an infertile area of land 26 kilometers out of town.

Compensation promises

Courtney says the locals are scared to speak out. Thong Lor, however, an editor at the state-owned newspaper the Vientiane Times, said the relocation of locals wasn't a problem at all. 

The new area where Don Chan residents are due to live is barren and sandy (Copyright: TNI)

The new area where Don Chan residents will live is barren

"The people are very happy because they now have more land," Lor told DW. "My friend was moved. As far as I know, he was reimbursed fairly."

Sylvia Kay recently toured Laos to look at the issue of land grabbing for Netherlands-based watchdog organization TNI. She met relocated locals, and says some degree of consultation with those involved did occur.

"According to one farmer we met, three meetings between locals and government officials took place," she told DW. "Apparently certain promises were made, but not delivered on."

Kay did admit, however, that compensation was paid, at varying levels, to relocated families. "I have no doubt that for some it would be the largest sum of money they have ever seen in their lives."

A change in livelihood

But Kay still believes that any remuneration provided does not make up for the fact that the livelihoods of local farmers and fishermen have been severely and permanently affected by the forced resettlement.

A farmer kneels in a field, working on his crops on Don Chan island. (Copyright: Global Witness)

Don Chan was once a fertile area for local vegetable growers

"The people involved told us that before, on Don Chan island, they produced over five million tons of vegetables per year," Kay said. The area of land that they have been moved to now is apparently almost completely infertile.

In Oli Courtney's view, the current ASEM villa land development is just one example of the landgrabbing trend sweeping across Asia. "Sadly, we don't see land grabbing decreasing in the region. Instead we see the Laos government and others treating their citizens with increased impunity in recent times."

In neighbouring Cambodia, he says, some 54% of all land has been moved from small landowners into the hands of larger companies, following forced evictions.

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