The task of opening a large event is never easy. Within a short space of time, you need to set out a clear agenda, freshening the perspective of the viewer, and then clear the decks for discussion to move forwards rather than retread old ground. Following some introductory greetings from Jean-François Cuénod of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Micah Ingalls (Team Leader MRLG) took up the challenge. He noted the progress made in recent years, the COVID pandemic notwithstanding, in the tenure security of smallholders farmers in the Mekong region, through policies and public sector practices. Nevertheless, there are increasing calls for the private sector to extend its role in economic growth to embrace social and environmental sustainability in the region. This can be supported by a civil society which is increasingly strengthening its voice. Farmers are adapting to new opportunities, incorporating new crops and new practices. However, with increased demand and competition for land, agricultural frontiers are expanding, which can be a threat to forest areas.
Interlinked to all of these matters is the issue of tenure registration, and there is a clear need for reform, supported by a robust land administration. This reform includes the need for the effective recognition of customary tenure, and the promotion of responsible agricultural investment. Indeed, the agricultural land area has grown by 20% in the last 25 years (in Vietnam by more than 65%). However, this has come at the expense of forests and natural ecosystems. Together with a turbulent global economy and the potential impacts of climate change, the Mekong region is at a tipping point. Ingalls emphasized that we do not have the luxury of time. Discussions should not be held behind closed doors. MRLG is rooted in the conviction that these issues can be tackled, and while there are gaps in different stakeholder views, these are not so wide that they cannot be traversed. It is hoped that dialogue in the Forum will contribute towards the bridging of such gaps.
In the second key speech, Louisa J.M. Jansen (Land Tenure Officer, FAO) welcomed the Forum as an opportunity for dialogue and information exchange on land and forest governance challenges. In particular, she emphasized the need to include vulnerable groups such as smallholder farmers, ethnic minorities, and women. Southeast Asia was highlighted as being a hotspot for agro-industrial investments, including the emergence of Special Economic Zones and tree plantations. However, despite higher levels of investment in Asia during a spike in 2008, there has been an information gap compared to other regions such as Africa. Jansen asserted that there will be a new surge in investments once COVID-related restrictions are eased. This presents both new opportunities for local land users to share in the benefits of land-based investments, but also risks that they will lose access to their land, particularly for those lacking secure tenure.
In the Mekong region, the agriculture, forest and fisheries sector employs over 43% of people and contributes 16% to regional GDP. This represents an important access point for investment. if this investment can be conducted responsibly, it can contribute to economic growth, the enhancement of food security and nutrition, and the alleviation of poverty, aligning with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With COVID-19 putting pressure on food security, and migrant workers returning to rural settings, there is at present an increased demand on land and resources. Never has the question of who can access, control and use land been more pertinent. Of particular significance is the recognition of customary tenure security, such as for those living in and around forests. Inclusive participation is needed in the formulation of policies and laws, allowing for Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).
Jansen encouraged the Forum to contribute on discussions as to how land-based investment can meaningfully aid rural transformation. To inform decision-making processes, governments, civil society and the private sector must be presented with a range of land and resource governance options that can benefit all, making sure that vulnerable groups are not left behind.
Check further details on the 3rd Mekong Land Forum