Asia-Pacific

UN bodies putting smallholders' livelihoods at risk

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Indian laws are squeezing out smallholders
Indian laws are squeezing out smallholders

Related tags: Agriculture, Local food

With two-thirds of Asia’s farmland now owned by just a handful of landowners, United Nations-backed policies to promote corporate agricultural production have been blamed for displacing farmers. 

According to a report by nonprofit Grain, which campaigns for small farmers, changes in legislation that have been sweeping across Asia threaten millions of independent landowners, undermine local food systems and increase violent land conflicts.

These include changing laws that prevent corporations from acquiring vast areas of farmland, allowing at least 43.5m hectares of smallholder farmland to change hands over the last decade in Asia.

In China alone, the rights for 25m hectares of smallholder land had been transferred to corporations, according to the country’s agriculture ministry. This was facilitated by local governments under a land circulation trust scheme.

And in Indonesia, aided by series of changes to plantation and investment laws in 2010, large-scale agricultural concerns are growing in size, says Grain.

Today, just 6% of farm owners hold two-thirds of farmland across the continent, Grain estimates. However, the issue has awoken popular anger in some parts.

A recent bill amendment by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ease land acquisition for commercial development has already met with major protests from farmers' unions, opposition lawmakers and civil society groups. 

Critics say the affected landowners are being given little or no compensation, with displacement meaning many stand to lose their livelihoods as their holdings shrink.

Indonesia, according to Grain, saw a 16% drop in smallholders between 2003 and 2013, while the number of large-scale farms and plantations increased by 54% and 19% respectively.

Fifty-five percent of Indonesia's farmers now farm on less than half a hectare, Grain believes.

At the same time, India had saw a decline of 9m farmers—the first time in four decades that the number of pastoralists has fallen in the country.

Even in developed Asian countries, the number of farmers is dropping, with Japan seeing a 40% reduction since 2000. Concurrently, the number of “agricultural production” companies, as the majors are dubbed, has doubled.

That’s not to say smallholders and corporations cannot work in harmony. Listed Thai palm oil exporter Univanich is one company with a policy in place to protect the interests of both sides. This is because chief executive John Clendon believes in including the local community to support its environment, economic and social sustainability.

The corporation gets its palm kernels from local farmers, who are seen as suppliers, while also helping the farmers with their plantings business. 

“It’s important for us to feel part of the local communities.” ​Clendon told FoodNavigator-Asia. 

“Years ago, many of these farmers would not have been able to afford a motorcycle, but now they have their own pick-up trucks, and they deliver their fruit to the ramp at our factory​.”

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