About drones, activists, and oil palms – power and inclusion in multi-stakeholder land platforms

Multi stakeholder land platforms can open new spaces for less influential actors, but they are not a “technical fix” that can cut through politics.

 

Multi-stakeholder platforms (MSP) to address land conflicts have become very popular in international development over the last years, including in Myanmar.

 

The idea sounds simple: Include all stakeholders, bring them to the table, and find solutions that are acceptable for everyone. However, things are much more complex in reality – especially against the backdrop of armed conflicts.

To have a closer look at how MSPs work in heavily contested environments, we analysed an MSP that is addressing land conflicts in Tanintharyi Region.

 

These land conflicts mostly emerged around the oil palm concessions in this area, which are deeply intertwined with Myanmar’s conflictive history and thus heavily contested.

 

We approached our analysis of the MSP with the assumption that power is structuring all aspects of our lives.

 

From this perspective, an assemblage like an MSP is the site of various power struggles and resistances – despite the rhetoric of inclusion and collaborative processes. This allowed us to draw out three main findings.

 

First, the MSP brought together stakeholders with highly conflicting interests. Thus, it is a precarious thing, and always on the brink of falling apart. Accordingly, MSPs often circumvent conflictive, political questions and focus on the more technical aspects.

 

While this may help make a dialogue possible, it also bears the risk that land conflicts are perceived as purely technical problems that can be ‘fixed’ with technical means (e.g. better data, better resolution from mapping technology with drones, etc.). This, in turn, excludes political grievances from the discussion and the questions at the root of the conflicts might go untouched.

 

Second, there are always power imbalances. The hierarchies that structure Myanmar’s society (along the lines of gender, ethnicity, social status, etc.) are not magically disappearing just because the process appears to be more inclusive.

 

And even if a good process facilitation can mitigate that in parts, some actors will always have more influence on the decisions that are finally taken. Hence, an MSPs can open new spaces for dialogue, but it will also reproduce existing, exclusive power structures.

Third, inclusive platforms have effects that are larger than the platform itself: If an MSP is set up following a strong rhetoric of inclusion and dialogue, it quickly becomes seen as the only legitimate game in town to deal with land conflicts.

 

This means that other, more adversarial strategies of making demands on land issues can be de-legitimised as uncoordinated or unwilling to compromise. Actors are pulled into the MSP because of its inclusivity – even if the process is not without its flaws (see point 2). Their participation then implicitly legitimises the frameworks within which this process operates, which is the Myanmar government’s land policy.

 

The government’s land policy itself, however, is excluded from discussion within the platform (see point 1). Moreover, actors that were not included to be part of the MSP lose influence on decision-making – leading to an even greater marginalisation of the already marginalised.

 

What we learned from this analysis is that we cannot just see MSPs as a simple cure to a complex problem like a long-standing land conflict.

 

An MSP that envisions an “inclusive” resolution of land issues in a post-conflict society tends to be messy and is shaped by questions of power. There is a need to be flexible and adaptive when implementing an MSP, but also to be aware of its limitations.

 

MSPs can open new spaces for less influential actors, but they are clearly not a “technical fix” that can cut through politics.

 

Stefan Bächtold (swisspeace), Joan Bastide & Lara Lundsgaard-Hansen (both Centre for Development and Environment CDE)

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