The livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers in the Mekong region are tied to their land. But the demands for land for large-scale agriculture, industrial and energy development schemes such as monoculture plantations, special economic zones, and hydropower projects are taking away land from smallholders, giving rise to more landless farmers and increasing land inequality.

Meanwhile, national policies often fail to protect the rights of smallholder farmers who are poorly positioned to compete with these developers and to benefit from the outcomes of the investments.

This indicates a precarious future for smallholder farming-based livelihoods in the Mekong Region, the situation exacerbated by the failure of current labour markets to provide decent, secure jobs for the increasing number of landless people.

Generational impacts of agrarian transitions

The 2nd Regional Land Forum on the “State of Land for Smallholder Farmers in the Mekong Region”, hosted in Bangkok by the Mekong Region Land Governance Project from 28 to 30 May discussed landlessness and the influence of factors such as gender, class, ethnicity and location on individual experiences of this agrarian transition.

However, I noted that little attention was paid to how the transition is affecting the region’s youth who are growing up and entering careers in a time of rapid change.

In fact, generational aspects of agrarian transitions often seem to be overlooked. In the Mekong Region, the rural youth are often referred to as having lost interest in farming, as it is perceived to be associated with limited opportunities, little prestige, lack of independence, drudgery, and low returns. Attracted to more modern lifestyles in urban centers, the rural youth are thought to have left farming behind.

A young farmer casting rice seeds in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo: Roengchai Kongmuang / SEI.

While rural youth out-migration is occurring, the extent to which this happens and the reasons behind it are poorly understood and rarely associated with current agrarian changes. In Cambodia, for instance, two-thirds of the youth continue to be engaged in the agricultural sector. For some it may be a choice; for others, an occupation of last resort. The latter was found to be the case in Laos, where lack of education and skills left farming as the best opportunity for the rural youth who were interviewed.

Yet, relying on farming is more and more difficult due to increasing landlessness. In another study from Laos, rural youth were ‘forced’ to migrate as land is acquired for economic development projects such as hydropower and large-scale monocrop plantations. Climate change and a lack of access to technical support, cheap loans and markets also contribute to pushing youth out of rural areas. Overall, the discourse that the youth have simply lost interest in farming is more complex than it appears to be.

Concurrently, the availability of attractive jobs in urban areas is questionable as rural youth are often pushed into low-paid, insecure jobs and are amongst the most vulnerable of migrants, especially young women. Even though the rural youth’s education and skills are improving throughout the Mekong Region, the challenge of accessing decent work is intensifying. For instance, in Cambodia, almost three quarters of youth are underemployed, and 36% live below the poverty line (compared to the national average of 13.5%).

Understanding youth aspirations

There are many reasons for understanding and addressing the generational impacts of current agrarian transitions. While the issue is finding its way into the policy agenda, very little is known about the rural youth’s aspirations for the future and their reasons for migrating. Consequently, policymakers are left with inadequate information to form policies that support rural youth and address the future of food production. Important questions remain to be answered: are rural youth really losing interest in farming, and if so, why? If the policy and market environment were more enabling, would more youth envision their future within rural areas? What would such an environment entail? And importantly, how does this vary for young women and men and by ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and location? These are all questions that we in SEI are starting to engage with.

This perspective is based on discussions on power imbalances and land tenure insecurity at the 2nd Regional Land Forum on the “State of Land for Smallholder Farmers in the Mekong Region”, hosted in Bangkok by the Mekong Region Land Governance Project from 28 to 30 May 2018.