By Raveen Devaraj
All state governments must stop evicting ordinary citizens from the land where they live, grow crops or raise livestock.
Many of these evictions aim to acquire the land from customary dwellers or farmers so that government-linked companies or private companies can implement certain development projects.
Certain politicians and bureaucrats sometimes allegedly use such transactions to collect ‘rent’ in the form of kickbacks for themselves and their cronies.
One group who have long faced evictions are small farmers. Historically, these small farmers – who are important for the country’s food security – have worked on their land since before World War Two.
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Usually, in eviction cases, the land used by these small farmers is first ‘alienated’ (sold or disposed) to a government-linked company and later sold to private developers for housing or industrial projects. The small farmers are required to vacate the land and are rarely offered suitable replacement land.
In Malaysia, about 25% of the total land area, or eight million hectares, is used for agriculture. Of that amount, over 80% of land is used for commodity crops such as oil palm and rubber. Only 0.4 million of the eight million hectares is used to produce vegetables, fruit, freshwater fish and dairy products.
Malaysia depends heavily on foreign countries for food, with a yearly import value of about RM60bn. It still relies on Thailand, Vietnam and India for its rice supply.
Most of the country’s dairy products are also imported.
Malaysia’s production of beef is only about 22%, mutton 14% and milk 60% of its needs. If a major problem hits us and the ringgit drops, if the climate crisis worsens, the food import bill will soar, and the country will suffer a food shortage crisis. No doubt, the nation’s food security is weak.
So, the ongoing evictions of small farmers by state governments and companies make little sense. The drop in food production will further weaken the nation’s food security.
Evictions harm small farmers and livestock breeders, regardless of ethnicity, and damage local economies.
Many small farmers who faced evictions had been willing to pay rent to the government. But the land office refused to approve their applications and instead granted land ownership rights to parties who had never worked on the land. So the allegations that these small farmers want to use the land for free and refuse to pay rent are not true.
Evictions also hurt low-income urban settlers who had occupied the land for a long time. They do not have the financial resources to move and rent low-income homes elsewhere. So they had no choice but to occupy that land.
The ongoing evictions reveal the true intentions of certain politicians and bureaucrats in state governments. They appear more concerned about the interests and greed for profits of certain developers and companies. The socioeconomic plight of ordinary people, especially the low-income group, is often overlooked.
The federal and state governments need to change their political mindset. They need to implement systemic reforms at the state and federal levels immediately to stop the evictions.
What should they do?
1. Immediately stop all evictions of farmers
2. Maintain areas used for growing vegetables, fish-rearing or cattle farming as food production areas
These areas must not be disposed of to any party for any development project.
Amend the standard operating procedures for land alienation for all the state governments in Malaysia to protect small farmers working on the land. Carry out development projects on abandoned land instead.
3. Lease existing farmland for 10-20 years to small farmers on condition the land is only to be used to produce food and cannot be converted to oil palm plantations. This includes land that has been alienated to developers but is still being worked on by small farmers and livestock breeders.
4. Amend laws such the National Land Code and the Land Acquisition Act to recognise and legalise urban settlers who have occupied the land for over 20 years
Provide them land ownership at reasonable prices. Upgrade the surrounding basic infrastructure and essential services. And provide them low-interest small loans to repair and upgrade their homes.
5. Amend land laws to create a mechanism of checks and balances to ensure that the government’s land assets are not ‘liquidated’ simply to gain political funds or for the self-interest of those in power.
It is time to create state-level committees with veto powers to stop land alienation if it harms poor communities, including small farmers and livestock breeders.
To protect low-income and marginalised groups, the federal and state governments must take these steps to stop the evictions.
Raveen Jeyakumar, an Ipoh-based Aliran volunteer, is a writer who is passionate about social and environmental issues. His work can be found at reform-the-system.com