TGCC, or the Land Tenure Project (LTP), as it is known in Burma, has been providing targeted legal assistance to the development of a National Land Use Policy (NLUP) and associated laws while also piloting recognition of community rights to land and resources in two pilot sites (Yway Gone Village Tract in Minhla Township in Bago Division and Let Maung Kway Village Tract in Nyaung Shwe Township in southern Shan State).
Local authorities engaged in land governance are key to connecting NLUP principles to local-level work. Local land governance at the regional, district, township, and village tract levels is complex and the capacity of local authorities to implement the NLUP is not well understood or documented. To fill these gaps in understanding, TGCC commissioned a legal and technical capacity assessment to inform key actions needed to strengthen local land governance at the village tract, township and, where relevant, regional levels. The assessment focuses on two main themes:
- Understanding of the NLUP (How does the NLUP translate to the local level? How do local authorities understand the legal and operational context of the NLUP? What are key capacity gaps to be filled for local authorities to successfully implement the NLUP?) and,
- Roles and responsibilities for implementation of the NLUP (How do local authorities understand their roles in the participatory engagement processes undertaken at TGCC pilot sites? How can outputs of participatory mapping activities inform local authorities’ work? This may include applications for land use planning, land use management, disaster risk reduction, responsible investment, land administration, recognition of customary tenure claims).
This assessment is meant to increase understanding of local authorities’ knowledge of, attitudes towards, and capacities to implement different components of the NLUP, while also identifying key points of engagement between local authorities, civil society organizations (CSOs), and communities on land themes. These findings will inform the design of a capacity building plan to support local authorities in implementing the components of the NLUP; the plan will serve as the basis for LTP’s continued engagement in these pilot areas going forward.
Generally, beyond the township heads of departments, there is a low level of awareness of the NLUP through the lower levels of government administration. Those who know about it think highly of it, as evidenced by the authorities’ praise for the policy’s stronger recognition of elements such as customary tenure and gender equality. A common view is that the NLUP currently has no “teeth,” so a consistent message is that the policy needs to be translated into law and awareness needs to be raised throughout all levels of government.
The link between different aspects of land tenure governance and the NLUP is, not surprisingly, strongest in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MONREC). The three forest officials interviewed cited it when speaking about participatory land use planning as a way to strengthen land tenure security for communities, which they view as a weak priority relative to land for investments. They pointed to a need to do long-term national planning in the allocation of land for different purposes: livelihoods, investments, and conservation. Through this approach, they believe customary tenure can be protected while promoting other equally important national objectives. In the meantime, they promote community forestry as a good example of participatory land-use planning, and a way to protect community land tenure. Communities, in turn, see the LTP maps, which delineate land use categories, as a way to help them plan for engagement with community forestry, as well as a tool to strengthen their claims to land that they have customarily used.
Despite the lack of active application of the NLUP, the assessment found several themes in local land governance which relate to different themes in the NLUP linked to land use planning and administration. Representatives of different departments called for more detailed and accurate land uses on the ground, including correcting land use boundaries between land administrated by Department of Agricultural Land Management and Statistics (DoALMS) and the Forest Department (FD); updating agricultural information in the kwin maps; assessing actual use of land in land concessions as a way to increase the efficient use of land through the country – a priority of the current government; and, standardizing mapping scales and procedures throughout the government to reduce administrative inefficiencies and errors. Many of these administrative gaps have been improving in recent years, as a result of more interministerial committees coordinating on land issues, as well as the increased use of technology. Despite this, most departments still fall short in human resources, skills, and equipment. All township authorities interviewed expressed an interest in receiving support from LTP for addressing each of these gaps, and a willingness to increase outreach to communities.
On the communities’ side, while community members from the project’s first two pilot sites appreciate the maps and have gained a degree of empowerment from them, most people still feel there is a large gap between what the project has achieved and their wish to have concrete tools for reclaiming (Yway Gone Village Tract) or securing (Let Maung Kway Village Tract) their land. There are several structural issues which continue to disadvantage communities. The legal framework prioritizes investments, while providing few legal channels to secure community land tenure, except for Community Forestry Instructions (CFI) and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin (VFV) Land Law. Furthermore, most communities have little to no awareness of the legal instruments to secure their tenure—what they are and how to engage with them—nor the financial resources to do so. With the village tract administrator (VTA) being the main point of contact for all villages, on the whole there is still very little information sharing and extension by local government. Despite this, there is a greater openness with regards to transparency of information. Very tellingly, the assessment team was able to directly ask the State DoALMS Officer about the status of the land concessions and the legal options for villagers to access these lands should they be returned to the state pool. This kind of conversation would have been unheard of a few years ago.
In the implementation of local land governance, it has been recognized that VTAs are central brokers between villagers and local government. Ever since the elections of VTAs under the Thein Sein government, they have generally exhibited more accountability to the rural communities they represent. For example, the VTA in Yway Gone Village Tract has actively been championing the needs of his villages to the township authorities. The fact that they now meet with the township General Administration Department (GAD) on a monthly or bi-weekly basis signals the beginning of stronger community-government relations. While this is a positive development, they themselves require more awareness raising to carry out their jobs. Evident of this is that the VTA in Let Maung Kway Village Tract asked whether he could apply for land use certificates (LUCs, or Form 7s) to secure their taungya land which is located in reserve forest. This demonstrates how far local land governance structures have to go before we can see the appearance of strong administration.
Despite the continuing challenges, there are a number of political factors that have changed the project’s operating environment. These factors include: a) the central government’s wish to reclaim unused land leased to investors; b) the awareness among reform-minded authorities of the value of a bottom-up approach to land use planning and the need to prioritize it for community wellbeing; c) the explicit need among local government for human resources and technological upgrading; and, d) the explicit need among communities for concrete tools to reclaim or secure their community lands. Together, these factors create an opportunity for LTP to build on its achievements of the last two years, and to leave its pilot sites with more concrete outcomes for strengthening community land tenure.