From conflicting to complementing: The formalisation of customary land management systems governing swidden cultivation in Myanmar
Swiddening is a traditional and widespread agricultural system in mountainous regions of Southeast Asia. It is prevalent in Myanmar’s hilly border region. However, economic, political, demographic, social and technological drivers in this region are causing this form of land use to undergo significant transition. This transition is affecting the customary land use rights of swidden farmers. Throughout Myanmar’s tumultuous history, customary land management systems and the state land management system have been poorly integrated. This has led to customary land use rights receiving little formal recognition and left customary right-holders vulnerable to exploitation. Recent political and economic developments within Myanmar have prompted changes to the state land management system. The Myanmar government introduced the Farmland Law 2012 and the Vacant Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law 2012 which significantly altered how agricultural land is managed. However, these laws also contain minimal interaction with customary land management systems. In relation to swidden cultivation, the legislation is unclear how land under customary tenure is identified, how communally-held land is recognised and what swidden practices are legally permitted. The draft National Land Use Policy released in late 2014 reveals progress in addressing these issues. However, greater clarity is needed with regard to how the policy is implemented. Many lessons may also be derived from the experiences of surrounding Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Cambodia, in the way customary land use rights are incorporated into state legislation. The goal of this thesis is to propose how customary land management systems may be integrated into the state land management system in order for customary land use rights over swidden land to be recognised as comprehensively as possible by the state. The legislative framework should also allow sufficient flexibility for local farmers to adapt to changing circumstances. The identification of swidden land will be considered in the context of producing maps of customary land use, the management of swidden land under collective land-holding structures will be discussed with regard to pressures to individualise land-holding and the use of swidden cultivation practices will be considered in light of proposed development projects. The current political and economic climate in Myanmar indicates some willingness to acknowledge and address these issues. There is hope that customary land management systems and the state land management system will begin to complement, instead of conflict with, each other in order to enable swidden farmers to access their customarily held land into the future.