Communal land tenure, where state’s interventions meet farmer’s agency


by Diana Suhardiman and Natalia Scurrah | September 4, 2021

Customary or community-based tenure systems play a key role in global land governance. They shape how land and natural resources are allocated, used, accessed, and transferred among rural communities worldwide. In many developing countries, much of the agricultural and forest land held under customary tenure arrangements is only partially recognized by the state’s formal legal frameworks. Yet these lands, communally and/or individually used and managed, play a crucial role in sustaining the livelihoods and well-being of individual households and entire communities.

Communal land systems are often imagined as existing and evolving separately from the state and wider influences. The formalization of communal land tenure through the provision of communal land titles, for example, is often seen by civil society groups and state institutions alike as providing protection for traditional agricultural systems such as shifting cultivation, but also from market forces and modern forms of production. In reality, the two systems coexist, and market trends influence how communal lands are used and managed these days. Rather than being clearly delimited and mutually exclusive customary and statutory systems are usually intertwined in a complex mosaic of land resource tenure.

In Laos, as in other parts of the world, statuary and customary systems coexist over the same physical space, often resulting in overlapping rights, contradictory rules, and conflicts within and between villages, local authorities, and/or private companies.

Our recent study linking land tenure security with state transformation processes in Laos shows how communal land tenure rules and practices are coproduced between communities, state, and other actors (e.g., donors). It examines the complex and diverse ways the state shapes communal land tenure arrangements, and how local communities respond to interventions through various forms of farmers’ agency.

We see that communal land arrangements in Laos are in a constant state of flux, shaped by different configurations of power among local communities, and between communities and government authorities. While state policy measures, such as internal resettlement and large-scale land concessions often create limiting and disabling environments for communities to sustain their livelihoods, diverse community actors play a key role in (re)negotiating the rules and norms of communal land use and access. Whether or not communal land tenure can contribute to fulfilling the state’s development objectives depends very much on the extent to which local communities and state actors have been able to negotiate fair rules and arrangements surrounding land allocation and use.

This constantly evolving arrangement, which we refer to as “institutional bricolage” are key in defining the actual significance of communal tenure, including how the latter can contribute to food security for local communities. Processes of institutional bricolage reflect not only local communities’ and state actors’ (in)ability to come up with a new set of agreed rules, but also result in the creation of hybrid governance mechanisms, where rules evolve through interactions among various farm households, and between local communities and the state. For example, in the upland shifting cultivation village of Pa Khom, in Laos’ northeastern province of Houaphan, such institutional bricolage has been key to ensuring farmers can access suitable farmland to produce sufficient food. In the communal paddy village of Navit, processes of institutional bricolage have pushed villagers to confront the provincial government’s policy, albeit indirectly, towards better positioning of their farmlands as key household-level assets for agricultural food production.

Better understanding of how local communities (re)shape communal land tenure arrangements is key to not only improve food security in Laos in general, but also to promote farmers’ agency to achieve food sovereignty.

This work was undertaken by researchers from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM). 

Diana Suhardiman is a Senior Researcher and Governance and Inclusion Research Group Lead at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), based in Vientiane, Lao PDR.  Natalia Scurrah is an Independent Researcher at Chiang Mai University, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

For more details, please read the article:

Suhardiman, D., Scurrah, N. 2021. Institutional bricolage and the (re)shaping of land tenure arrangements: Two contrasting cases in upland and lowland Northeastern Laos. World Development.

Photo: Communal grazing land in Pa Khom village, Khouan district, Houaphan province, Laos. Photo credit: Diana Suhardiman.


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