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Land reform long overdue

Agriculture Minister Captain Thamanat Prompow scored some political points recently. He got the front-page treatment from local media after he publicly announced his "New Year gifts" to millions of farmers. That translates as the new Sor Por Kor land policy, which will permit Sor Por Kor 4-01 holders to turn their land reform papers into title deeds.

After that, the land — public plots originally given to poor and landless farmers — can be sold, which is not usually possible for land with Sor Por Kor status.

Such a national land reform policy was unthinkable in the past. Created half a century ago, Sor Por Kor 4-01 plots are public land plots given to poor landless farmers to do small-scale farming. Holders must comply with many rules. For example, they can only build small houses, dig small ponds and cannot alter the land for other purposes except farming. Holders can only use land as a guarantee to get a small loan from government banks.

Despite these strict rules, many holders remain poor and then illegally transfer the plots to investors and land grabbers. Much Sor Por Kor land is misused as rich investors use it to build large hotels or even mining sites.

Politicians have also exploited Sor Por Kor land. One glaring example is a case from three decades ago when veteran politician Suthep Thaugsuban, who oversees the 10,536 rai of Sor Por Kor plots given away to 486 people. The beneficiaries included members of rich families in Phuket province, including the husband of a rich Democrat politician. The shameful exposure led to the dissolution of the Democrat-led government to the holding of a new election.

Reforming Sor Por Kor land has now emerged as an election campaign promise. Politicians like Capt Thamanat or even the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) have promised to change the rules and let holders apply for title deeds. They vow to update the Sor Por Kor rules, allowing landholders to convert public lands into title deeds.

The problem is that politicians rarely discuss the risks tied to such an upgrade. Capt Thamanat claims the new rule will stop land plots from falling into the hands of investors, but he has never spelled out how.

The MFP went one better by proposing a few measures, such as setting an income level for the owner and banning plots from being merged to prevent land grabs. It’s still a bit of a stretch to imagine that even these safeguards can deal with the problem.

To make the new Sor Por Kor 4-01 serve landless farmers, the government must put more safety measures in place before revising the Sor Por Kor rule. Farmers — and there are estimated to be over 2 million who have obtained such title deeds — must be trained in legal knowledge, financial management as well as land use so they can use their land most efficiently. The government must also prepare a mechanism to provide loans or buy back Sor Por Kor land when holders’ businesses fail. In this case, the Land Bank Administration Foundation can serve as an alternative source of finance.

Above all, the government must create a national land use masterplan that provides land use zoning such as for agriculture and industrial use. With this in place, landholders would have to develop their plots in line with the zoning requirements. For instance, Sor Por Kor landholders in farm areas cannot use their land for industrial purposes such as mining.

Without these measures, the new Sor Por Kor policy will just be another populist promise that allows politicians to use public land to campaign for votes.

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