By Agence France-Presse
Thi Sieu says her family lived for generations on a small plot of land studded with cashew trees until they fell victim to an alleged land grab by powerful local elites, a fate shared with many indigenous farmers in Vietnam’s lush central hills.
All land in the communist nation is owned by the state and usage rights are frequently opaque, allowing corrupt local officials and well-connected businessmen to seize land with impunity, according to activists speaking to AFP.
The Central Highlands have long been a hotbed of discontent over land rights, thanks in part to government schemes luring big agricultural firms and lowland migrants seeking their fortunes in booming cashew, coffee and rubber industries.
Official figures show the area’s population surged from 1.5 million in 1975 to around six million in 2010, prompting complaints from indigenous minorities of forced evictions by newly arrived ethnic Kinh, who make up 90 percent of the population.
Thi Sieu is a M’Nong, one of a patchwork of indigenous minorities which make up the remaining 10 percent of Vietnam’s roughly 90 million people.
She said her family’s trees were felled and ancestral graves destroyed in 2011 to make way for a rubber plantation run by a private company operating with the support of local officials.
“They said if we did not go they would beat us and kill us. There was no compensation at all. They cut down our trees. We lost everything — our land and our crops,” Sieu, 42, told AFP.
“Most of the land in our area now belongs to those who have money. Many of them are Kinh people,” she said.
“Our M’Nong community does not have much land now. We’ve been kicked out of areas that we had been living in for generations. We’re forced to become farm labourers,” Sieu added.
Many such local tribes — collectively known as Montagnards — sided with the US-backed south during Vietnam’s decades-long war. Some are calling for more autonomy, while others abroad even advocate independence for the region.
The last major protests against the loss of traditional lands to large-scale plantations was in 2004, and the government is still hunting down those involved. Eight men were recently jailed for up to 11 years for a demonstration in 2002.
‘Robbing villagers’ land for profit’
Three decades ago, before Vietnam abolished collectivisation and began a process of market reforms, land disputes were largely based on demographics and history, and concentrated in “diem nong” hot spots like the Central Highlands.
But as the country developed and land values rose, the trouble spread to cities where land values are higher.
People realised that by owning land close to cities they could “make seriously more money” than from remote coffee plantations, said Professor Adam Fforde, a Vietnam expert at Australia’s Victoria University.
According to octogenarian activist Le Hien Duc — who began working on land issues in the 1980s — once-isolated cases of land grabbing have become “rampant.”
“Local officials are robbing the villagers’ land for profit,” said Duc, who once worked for the country’s revered founding President Ho Chi Minh.
Villagers have no way to seek redress, as local authorities — their first avenue for complaint — are usually involved in the corrupt land deals, she said, calling for a clear land law and a serious anti-graft drive.
Nationwide, some 70 percent of complaints filed to authorities concern land.
“But there is no solution,” Duc said. “The people get kicked around like a ball between different levels of government — local, district, province. Then finally, they go to Hanoi.”
Daily protests in the capital
Sieu has travelled to Hanoi three times — at great personal expense — to file complaints to get her land in the Central Highlands back, without success. She is far from alone in making the attempt.
Come rain, shine or police crackdown, protesters can be found standing on a busy street corner near several government buildings in central Hanoi, holding handwritten signs detailing their land grievances.
“I have been here four months. The police have tried to remove me many times. But I will not leave — we will not leave — until they fix this problem,” said Do Thi Ngoc Nguyen from southern Dong Nai province.
With all land owned by the state, people must rely on land use rights certificates, but in reality they offer limited protection.
The problem is set to become more acute this year with the expiry of 20-year land use leases, which give many farmers some legal claim to their land. The government has not made it clear how the issue will be addressed.
“The robbery of the land, by local government, officials and enterprises, is the root of all the instability we see,” one leading Hanoi-based Vietnamese academic said on condition of anonymity, citing a growing number of protests in the capital.
“The villagers always lose,” he said, explaining that authorities commandeer the land in the name of “public interest” only to sell it to developers who build expensive houses and shopping malls.
Public opinion is firmly on the side of the land protesters.
Farmer Doan Van Vuon became a folk hero after using homemade shotguns to resist forced eviction last year — an incident that prompted one popular blog to name him “Person of the Year 2012″. He was jailed for five years in April.
Other land defenders have paid a different price. Le Thach Ban, 74, walks with a limp after being attacked by thugs last year when he refused to give up his land for a development in Hung Yen province near Hanoi.
“I had a punctured lung, head injuries, three broken ribs and spent 23 days in hospital,” he said, vowing to stay despite the efforts to remove him.
“We will defend the land that belonged to our ancestors,” he said.