Land use systems and traditional livelihoods form a close-knit nexus: living off the land, rural communities adapt to and shape ecosystems through land use, and livelihoods depend on land use outcomes. In the uplands of Mainland Southeast Asia (MSA), shifting cultivation and other agroforestry practices have been the dominant livelihood activities among indigenous communities and smallholder farmers with various cultural, ethnic, and social backgrounds. Despite being linked to poverty [1
] and environmental degradation [4
], many scientists highlight that shifting cultivation exerts moderate pressure on ecosystems compared to annual cropping and provides both staple crops and non-timber forest products to local communities [5
]. Traditional land use systems and their users are currently in transition driven by global change processes such as increasing market integration of local land and natural resources [9
]. In MSA, liberalization policies have brought development and increased well-being during the past 30 years, but have also exposed marginalized communities to new and potentially disruptive forces. The transition from traditional upland land use systems to continuous cropping systems has accelerated along multiple pathways in the past decade [10
] with, in particular, shifting cultivation being replaced by annual cropping of maize for fodder and plantations with perennial crops such as coffee, acacia, banana, and rubber [14
]. This commodification transition has implications for local indigenous communities, simultaneously restricting their scope and influence, but also opening new opportunities for land use activities and livelihoods [17
], e.g., income stability through contract farming, increased crop production by agricultural intensification, or cash income through sales of land. At the same time, the transition can be associated with loss of land or tenure rights, increased exposure to market price fluctuations and indebtedness due to higher costs of agricultural inputs.
However, lack of reliable data and scarce research documentation of land use and transition pathways thwart a full understanding of the impacts on society and environment. Due to its particular political regime, Myanmar is at the tail of this land transition. However, with Myanmar’s official strategy of agricultural commercialization and intensification [18
], recent liberalization of the national economy, and influx of multinational agricultural companies, the effects on land transitions are likely to come fast. To the best of our knowledge, no research has been published on general land use and land use change in Myanmar; a single study of deforestation at national scale points to deforestation drivers [16
], complemented by several local scale case studies (e.g., [19
Similarly, the impact of a commodification transition on local livelihoods and land use systems in Myanmar remain understudied and poorly understood. This is unfortunate, since recent research from other parts of Southeast Asia documents that traditional land use systems and smallholder livelihoods could be at risk when exposed to new policies, actors and market forces [21
This paper’s main objective is to analyze the current state of upland land use in a socio-economic, environmental and political context. We identify commodity-crop-related land use dynamics occurring in upland areas of mainland Southeast Asian over the past decades, discuss the drivers behind these, and draw on these experiences to contextualize our study and hypothesize possible transition pathways for Myanmar. We address this specifically through four main research questions:
What is the current state of traditional upland land use systems in Myanmar?
What have been the driving forces of land use transitions in Mainland Southeast Asia?
What are the key impacts related to livelihoods and the environment during recent land use transitions?
What are the potential pathways of future land use transitions in Myanmar and the possible impacts related to livelihoods and the environment?
We hypothesize that upland agricultural land use changes and impacts in Myanmar are or may become comparable to those seen in the remaining MSA. This is supported by comparable agro-climatic conditions, similarities in traditional farming systems (notably shifting cultivation), joint experiences with totalitarian and/or military government regimes, recent liberalizations of national economic systems, and the exposure to market drivers, megatrends promoting boom crops, contract farming, and a growing regional demand for food, fibers and energy. However, this hypothesis could fail due to Myanmar’s particularities: being the Eastern border post towards India, Myanmar has direct physical access to the Indian market with different dietary preferences than MSA. This could impact crop choice and farming system in Myanmar. Furthermore, despite a ceasefire agreement, national hegemony has not been reached, and armed conflicts still occur between government military and armed rebellions. Finally, we cannot predict if the drivers and changes seen in MSA during the past 50 years will repeat, or if new megatrends and boom crops will emerge.
4. Land Use Transitions and Driving Forces in Mainland Southeast Asia
In the remaining upland MSA, substantial changes have and are still taking place. As for Myanmar, we present here a synthesis of change processes and their driving forces for Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in order to identify transition pathways which could potentially be replicated in Myanmar. This will be analyzed in the Section 6
. Because crop statistics are reported at national level and drivers often apply to an entire country (in contrast to specific regions within the country), the synthesis draws on nation-level statistics and drivers. A more elaborate presentation of land change processes and their drivers for the respective countries is found in the Supplementary Material
to this study.
The areas devoted to maize, cassava, and rubber in Mainland Southeast Asia have generally increased since 1960, but this trend covers substantial variation between crops and countries in the timing and expansion and contraction rates (Figure 4
). For all three crops, a regional spatial diffusion appears with initial seeding in Thailand, followed later by Vietnam. Laos and Cambodia were the latest adopters, with crops booming after 2000, as has been the case in Myanmar for maize and rubber, while a cassava boom is still pending. For maize and cassava, Thailand saw an area contraction approximately two to three decades after the initial take-off—a pattern also evident for cassava in Vietnam. The area contractions were paralleled by stagnant yield levels. In Vietnam, maize has gained renewed interest since 1990, and both area and yield have increased substantially. A similar trend is observed for cassava since 2000 for Vietnam and Thailand, with Cambodia picking up cassava in 2005 and Maize becoming more popular in both Laos and Cambodia since 2000.
The above-described pattern is a typical example of the introduction of new crops in an area. Early adopters introduce a crop variety possibly not suited to local conditions and farmers are unfamiliar with cultivation techniques and soil suitability. After some time, farmers abandon the crop because of disappointing yields. This phase is followed by government-funded breeding of more suitable varieties, extension services to increase knowledge of cultivation techniques, and possibly subsidies for HYV seeds and inputs, which leads to area expansion and output intensification (Figure 5
While Myanmar mimicked the contraction/stagnation/intensification trend for maize from around 1975 to present, the late-adopting countries (Cambodia and Laos) leapfrogged the contraction/stagnation phase and are currently following an intensification pathway. For Myanmar, cassava expansion and intensification remain to be seen. In Vietnam, rubber has followed a development similar to the crops outlined above, whereas Thailand hasn’t experienced contraction and declining rubber yields. On the contrary, the rubber area expanded continuously, and after a period of stagnant yields, they too exploded in the two decades between 1985 and 2005. In Myanmar, rubber yield improvements began in the mid-1990s, and expansion has only taken off since 2000, and even then, only at modest rates.
To the best of our knowledge, no studies have systematically analyzed the drivers of the upland crop trends for Southeast Asia during the past 3–4 decades described here. While such an effort is also beyond the scope of this study, we provide a brief summary of the economic, political and technological drivers behind the observed trends. Often, political drivers will have an impact on economic drivers, as exemplified below.
4.1. Political and Economic Drivers
The political drivers operate at national levels, at levels specific to the entire agricultural sector, and at crop-specific levels. In MSA, fundamental national political reforms include the transitions from planned economies to market economies and opening to international trade. These include the Doi Moi
in Vietnam (1986), the New Economic Mechanism in Laos (1986), and the gradual transformation of Cambodia from the socialist, closed, and planned economy in the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979–1989) through the State of Cambodia (1989–1993) to the Kingdom of Cambodia (1993), now an open market economy [63
]. With these reforms came access to regional markets followed by world market access. Thailand had already joined ASEAN in 1967, whereas the remaining countries were latecomers (Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, Cambodia in 1999) [64
]. As a further means to this end, The ASEAN economic community (AEC), established in 2015, seeks to lift all trade barriers within the group, thereby securing a free flow of commodities [65
]. However, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar have been granted extensions due to the need for further reforms, and are scheduled to join in 2019.
This market access has allowed producers to respond to market demands and changing market prices. In the early phase of the study period, demand primarily originated from overseas markets, as exemplified by Thai cassava production for the EU fodder market. More recently, Japan and China have emerged as large regional markets (with Chinese rubber demand being the strongest case), and national markets have emerged for, e.g., maize and cassava as feedstocks for the national poultry and fuel industries. The opening of the economies provided foreign companies access to national markets and land. An example of this has been a rush for land for rubber, cassava and banana plantations, as documented thoroughly for Laos and Cambodia, and although with restrictions, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai companies have negotiated their way to local land possession [66
]. However, trade and land access have been subject to import/export subsidies, tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers as well as moratoriums on granting of land concessions (as seen with the volatility in cassava trade across the Laotian/Thai border and Chinese-owned banana plantations in Northern Laos.
Along with these changes came political granting of private land rights such as usufruct rights, leases, or ownership, and rights for private individuals and companies to trade products internationally. These reforms were intended to stimulate the entire economy and incentivized production of boom crops which were in high demand regionally.
However, these policies have also been used to promote intensive commercial cropping at the expense of traditional land use systems. For example, land reforms in Vietnam in 1993 allowed private use rights to land, but also permitted the state to designate areas according to land use type—effectively a ban on upland shifting cultivation. Adverse effects of land rights on smallholders have also been observed in Cambodia [67
]. As reported above, large land concessions have been granted to domestic and foreign businesses in Myanmar, bypassing individual land right claims of smallholder farmers.
One of the prime examples of how policies can be a driver of agricultural development is from Thailand, where former Thai president Thaksin in 2001 implemented an extensive set of policies and agricultural credit programs as an attempt to accelerate Thailand’s recovery from the Asian crisis by stimulating agricultural growth. In addition, governmental support for development and promotion of High Yielding Varieties (HYVs), sometimes coupled with micro-credits, is a crop-specific political driver. Specific examples include maize subsidies, extension services and distribution of HYVs in Thailand and Vietnam, as well as rubber in Vietnam.
The response of agricultural systems to political and economic drivers is evident in the boom(/bust) cycles of the three indicator crops. A prime example is the recent rubber boom/bust: Soaring increases in area and production [68
] was followed by the 2011/2012 bust in rubber prices caused by a combination of reduced demand due to China’s economic slow-down, saturation of the regional rubber market and a substantial decrease in crude oil prices, reducing the production costs of synthetic rubber. The price drop was immediately followed by a decrease in production, while area did not contract as swiftly, due to the semi-permanent nature of tree crops.
4.2. Technological Drivers
Mechanization, application of agro-chemicals and adoption of HYVs constitute the main technological drivers of agrarian change, while expansion of physical infrastructure contributes to both agricultural and generic rural development. Unfortunately, statistics on the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and tractors remain scarce to date, rendering consistent documentation of changes in technological drivers difficult. Similar lacunae exist for data on road development, although local case studies from Laos have identified expansion of ‘feeder’ roads to agricultural production areas as important drivers of maize expansion [54
]. Despite these data paucities, it is beyond question that the road network has expanded throughout Southeast Asia, that use of chemical inputs in agriculture has increased hand-in-hand with the introduction of HYVs, and that mechanization and motorization are ongoing processes. According to FAO, Thailand and Vietnam have been first-developers of agricultural nitrogen use in MSA, with Cambodia and Myanmar now following similar pathways [70
Sporadic documentation of mechanization confirms this tendency; already by 1983, the agrarian Northeast Thailand held 40,000 2-wheel tractors, a number that had exploded to 1,250,000 by 2003, strongly supported by the government [71
]. For Cambodia, agricultural machinery increased 600% from 2001 to 2010, both for small tillers and larger tractors, followed by a doubling of small tillers from 2010 to 2012 [72
]. This mechanization has been supported by lifting taxes and import tariffs on machinery [73
]. In Myanmar, motorized hand tillers increased 6-fold [74
] from 1995 to 2010. These trends are indicators for a general mechanization of agriculture, and uptake rates in MSA’s uplands are likely to have lower uptake rates due to sloping terrain.
6. Scenarios for Future Pathways
The scenarios outlined here will point to possible future pathways of agrarian change in Myanmar’s uplands, guided by Myanmar’s recent development and the development in other parts of MSA. We structure the scenarios according to the direction and speed of change along an intensification gradient and discuss the potential roles of and implications for tenureship, actor types, and the environment.
6.1. Business as Usual
This scenario follows the pathway laid out by Thailand and Vietnam decades ago. It is characterized by a slow trial-and-error expansion and intensification process where certain crop varieties are promoted with government support, concurrent with government-funded research and development in improved varieties.
The scenario results in modest expansion and yield improvements, or even an initial yield stagnation and area contraction due to (i) the promoted varieties may be unfit for local agro-climatic conditions, (ii) upland areas are sparsely connected to road infrastructure and hence with limited market access, and (iii) local farmers are unfamiliar with new cultivation techniques. The stagnation/contraction phase is followed by years of research and development in improved varieties, expansion of rural road networks and access to local/regional markets, a new introduction of HYVs combined with agricultural extension services and possibly subsidies for agro-chemicals proves more successful, in particular on yield performance.
The main actors in the scenario will be smallholders, agro-businesses, and the Myanmar Government. Smallholders could benefit from government crop campaigns in transitioning from partly subsistence and traditional agriculture to commodity crops. Smallholder uptake of new crops and intensive cultivation methods could be hampered if land titling is not implemented through strong institutions and enforced by just local authorities. Paradoxically, legal land rights could also result in the loss of land, as impoverished or indebted land owners sell their newly recognized land assets, eventually causing a concentration of land on the hand of agro-businesses or large private landowners.
If agro-businesses spearhead this scenario instead of the Myanmar government, there is a risk that smallholders’ land will be confiscated and handed to investors, leaving the local population without access to natural resources. In even more severe cases, smallholders have also been forced to work as tenants on the seized land, effectively introducing a feudal land management regime. A third alternative is confiscation of land that is leased back to smallholders, with the risk of indebtedness when the smallholders cannot pay the lease.
The environmental impacts of the slow growth scenario could be of low intensity due to lacking financial backup by agro-businesses, but widespread due to the promoting role of government authorities. We anticipate increased tillage, low application rates of agro-chemicals in annual cropping systems, resulting in loss of soil quality but also moderate leakage of nutrients to the ambient environment, and increasing erosion.
This scenario is a gloomy version of the business-as-usual scenario prescribing little progress for upland smallholders in the coming decade. Several indicators point in this gloomy direction:
(a) Ongoing land grabbing, including land confiscations by the military and the authorities [103
], undermine attempts to establish land rights. This is enforced by lack of cross-compliance between land-related policies, as seen with the discrepancies between the National Land Use Plan, the Agriculture Development Strategy, the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Law.
(b) Improvements of upland livelihoods are neglected as the government focuses on intensification and maximization of rice, beans, pulses, rubber, and oil palm in the dry zone, the delta zone, and lowlands bordering China.
(c) Potential (foreign) investors in upland areas are repelled by ongoing civil unrest and armed conflicts.
(d) The hopes for democratization with the 2015 election of Aung San Suu Kyi as state counselor are fading with recent setbacks in Myanmar’s democratization process. This could negatively influence foreign direct investments and Western tourism.
(e) Slow expansion of the sparse rural road network hinders market integration and limits access to agricultural inputs. Smallholders rely on few market outlets for their crops, which can cause high price volatility.
(f) Farms, fields, and roads in rural uplands are exposed to landslides in the monsoon season, with fatal consequence for smallholders, and loss of crops, landesque capital and roads. These risks provide little incentive to invest in agricultural expansion and intensification in such areas. The Government of Myanmar serves as a main actor in this scenario, primarily by maintaining the status quo, thus allowing persons and companies in positions of power to grab land at the expense of smallholders.
The socio-ecological impacts of this scenario mimic those of the business-as-usual scenario, but with minimal influx of capital to upland economies and lower intensification rates.
6.3. The Intensification Leapfrogger
While maize and rubber have been cultivated in Myanmar for decades, yields are comparable to those of Cambodia and inferior to Thailand and Vietnam. Furthermore, the area devoted to the three indicator crops remains low, in particular for cassava, which has been a boom crop in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, seeing expansion and rapid yield increases.
If the high-yielding varieties grown in the neighboring countries are suited for the agro-climatic conditions in Myanmar, the country could potentially leapfrog into intensive production. However, one or more of the following conditions need to be met for this to happen: (a) granting of land rights and large-scale concessions by Myanmar authorities to domestic or foreign investors; (b) contract farming with links between smallholders and agro-businesses being mediated by brokers, farmers’ organizations or cooperatives; (c) implementation of government-lead intensification schemes.
Furthermore, the political, social, and physical environment in a given region should be attractive to investors and agro-businesses, and for lasting success, smallholders should be properly trained to handle new crops and cultivation methods. These requirements would in turn depend on (a) proper infrastructure to secure the access of smallholders to HYV planting material and access to markets, (b) government schemes for agricultural extension services to train farmers, (c) subsidies for agro-chemical inputs to meet regional yield levels, and (d) access to credits through credit institutions. As witnessed in Thailand and Laos, such conditions are sometimes established by agro-businesses, bypassing the role of governments [104
The intensification trajectory laid out here cannot realistically be applied wall-to-wall across Myanmar by the government. Instead, it is likely to be a hot spot phenomenon, with transitions happening in selected areas and driven by investors and agro-businesses in large-scale concessions, potentially assisted by government-facilitated access to credit for smallholders. The environmental and socio-economic impacts will depend on these modes of deployment and could lead to socio-economic differentiation between provinces with/without investments, between villages and between households in the villages as described for Cambodia above. A transition towards mono-cropping could expose local communities to market price volatilities and impact food provisioning negatively, especially if the cultivar is not part of the traditional diet. Furthermore, intensification is labor demanding and would require either local labor availability or construction of infrastructure to bring labor and/or machinery into the affected areas. Compared to the business as usual scenario, the environmental impacts of the intensification leapfrogger scenario could be intense but limited to transition hot spots.
The positive factors of intensification could be capacity building regarding cultivation methods among local households, influx of cash in the local economy, and increased accessibility due to road constructions.
The environmental impacts follow those described in the environmental impacts section, including changing soil quality, erosion, agro-chemical leakage, and depending on crop type, changes to tree cover, carbon storage, biodiversity, etc.
Currently, concessions and contract farming projects are ongoing in Shan State along the Thai and Chinese borders (maize) and Southern Myanmar (rubber, oil palm), whereas Western Myanmar along the Indian and Bangladeshi borders receive little attention from investors.
6.4. The Sustainable Leapfrogger
Agricultural intensification has been identified as a way to feed a growing population and reserving land areas for ecosystem conservation (ref support of land sparing), but agricultural intensification often carries negative socio-economic and environmental impacts, including environmental degradation and lack of local food security and livelihood improvements. As a way forward, sustainable intensification is a process benefitting all components of the socio-ecological system. This includes conserving or improving bundles of ecosystem services, increasing production of food and fibers while securing access rights to land and food for various groups, including vulnerable people. Due to Myanmar’s relatively large forest area and low-intensive agriculture, a potential option exists to skip the well-known agricultural development pathways with negative socio-ecological outcomes and leapfrog to a sustainable solution. The prerequisites of a sustainable intensification pathway would be (a) official recognition of the socio-economic and environmental tradeoffs involved in conventional development pathways, (b) willingness to balance production, socio-economy, and the environment, (c) securing land titles for rural smallholders, including communal/customary and private rights, (b) focus on holistic socio-ecological resilience, in contrast to crop production maximization.
These prerequisites are recognized in Myanmar’s Land Use Plan (the Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2016) and partly in the Agricultural Development Strategy (Myanmar 2018). However, contradictorily, the latter also has a strong focus on production maximization, and the existing Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Law allows granting of land to investors, including areas confiscated from rural communities.
The main actor driving sustainable intensification in Myanmar should be the Republic itself, by establishing and pursuing clear, univocal plans and policies, strong institutions to regulate land use, and local enforcement of institutional rules. Smallholders, in particular in marginal uplands under customary/communal land management, would be the main beneficiaries, e.g., if the acknowledgement of socio-ecological co-benefits of traditional farming systems could manifest as payments for ecosystem services. Such efforts would be backed up by NGOs and state donors.
The environmental impacts of this scenario would be limited, as land use transitions should move along a sustainable pathway. This could include promotion of land sharing, maintaining partial tree cover on farm fields, reduced or no-tillage, and utilization and recycling of organic fertilizers available in the land use systems, e.g., from foliage, and integrated livestock and aquaculture.
Boom crops have swept across mainland Southeast Asia in the past decades, along with land use transitions and livelihood changes. Due to its particular history and political regime, Myanmar is at the tail of these transitions. However, international economic interests have entered Myanmar and brought both potentials and, perhaps, perils to upland smallholders at the margins of society, with consequences for local ecosystems and livelihoods. In the absence of an orbuculum, we cannot predict how the future plays out in Myanmar, but the pathways taken by other countries of Mainland Southeast Asia bring important lessons which could assist clever land use strategies and policies that integrate environmental and social dimensions of rural and economic transitions to minimize socio-ecological tradeoffs.
However, Myanmar is challenged by a strong regime with weak democratic institutions. This is evident in the lack of land rights, in particular, recognition of traditional communal tenure systems, and in the brute land grabs seizing smallholder land for concessions and development. A gap remains between the reforms recognizing customary/communal land rights in the National Land Use Policy, and the ongoing land grabbing, effectively pointing to a regressive land reform. In addition, upland smallholder farming systems are neglected in the agricultural development plans which focus on production of rice, beans and pulses in lowlands.
The question, then, remains: what awaits upland farmers of Myanmar? Among the neighboring MSA countries, Myanmar shares traits with Laos and Cambodia in being late adopters of the boom crops rubber, maize, and cassava. Like Laos, Myanmar is also prone to land grabbing and granting of concessions to Chinese and Thai investors, and the three countries represent MSA’s poorest populations. It would thus not be surprising if Myanmar mimics the recent upland developments in Laos. This points to the intensification leapfrogger scenario with sporadic intensification in hot spot areas while the vast majority of uplands are left in the slow growth scenario. The recent critical stances of Western governments and the UN and the resulting unwillingness to invest in Myanmar could indicate a slowdown for Myanmar, making the stagnation scenario probable.
All authors contributed equally to conceptualization, data curation, writing and editing this manuscript. We declare no conflicts of interest. We thank two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments which assisted improving the manuscript.