Chapchong: land tenure implication for commercialized agriculture in Southern Laos

By Saithong Phommavong and Maliphone Douangphachanh

Chapchong is a Lao word which means ‘freely access’. Chapchong land tenure then equates to free acquisition of the land. In an area, where a pre-determined land user is non-existent, people can mark, cultivate, and harvest the yield from the land, where they do not need to pay taxes. The history of Chapchong land tenure in Laos dated back to a long time ago.  After the cease-fire in 1973, local villagers started returning to their hometowns, given that land was abundant and few people resettled at the beginning, an access to agricultural land was practiced at will. Like in many parts of Lao PDR, local people and new comers have chapchong land in the Bolaven plateau for housing and agriculture. Various qualitative data  from fieldworks reveals the situation:

After the war in 1973, we moved into the village area and land were abundance, anyone could mark and cultivate, one could get small or large land area as they want (FGD, village authority, Setkhod village, 17 May 2015).

I moved to Phorkhem village in 1975, that time any villager could decide to build house anywhere, jungle was thick, sparsely populated, anyone could occupy land and plant rice anywhere (A member of FGD, Phorkhem village, 21 May 2015).

After marriage in 1975, I had to lead my family lonely and I could chapchong 2 ha of land for my own family where I first grown rice and planted coffee later (FGD, Dong village, 25 June 2016).

After the end of war in 1975, I migrated to Setkhod village because the land was more available in this region, I could get about 9-10 hectares because not many people were living here (A Yrou woman FGD, Setkhod village, Laongam, 18 May 2015).  

Chapchong land tenure has gone through many different procedures to be fully legalized as land use ownership.  After the establishment of the Lao PDR, land tax collection was administered by canton authority (Taseng), who was also responsible for issuing primary land titles to tenants. In 1978, the Government of Laos (GoL) inaugurated an agricultural collectivization programme forcing farmers to cease their private properties rights. The aim was to redistribute the land based on egalitarian basis in a bid of increasing productivity; however, the programme failed to fulfill its goal. By mid-1980s, only about 40% of farmers joined the programme.  By the late 1980s, the system was abolished from collective system to individual land use rights and individual family production. Even though most land was owned by families already before the collectivization, it is hard to determine accurate ownership because the official documentation which was under the control of the kingdom was destroyed in 1975 after the war. By the mid-1990s, in order to clarify property rights and tenure security and modernize land administration, the GoL started land titling project in urban areas and allocating land in rural areas (Lastarria-Cornhiel, 2007b; Vandergeest, 2003). Thus between 1994 and 1995, land use rights were specified in land law. Between 1997 and 2000, forest land allocation project was launched with the aim to allocate forest land for community management. In theory, according to the Constitution (Article 17, 2015) and Land Law (Article 3, 2003), land is the property of the State, who control land use rights and the right to transfer. In practice, however, selling of land use rights are widely practiced among villagers.


Coffee plantation in Paksong District. S.Phommavong

From informal Chapchong land tenure to formal land ownership  

The GoL stated that Chapchong is illegal if one does not get land use permission from the government (MAF, 2004, Lao PDR, 2003). After informal Chapchong land tenure, the land user declared the occupied right to village authority. The initial state of granting formal land title is then receiving land tax paper from the authority. The Chapchong is transformed into formal land use ownership when a permanent land title is granted to a land holder. The land title is an evidence of permanent land-use right, and in practice look like private property rights. A plot of land with permanent land title can be bought and sold, mortgaged or bequeathed (Lastarria-Cornhiel, 2007a) as a private property.


Coffee plantation in Paksong District. S.Phommavong

The chapchong land tenure, as informal land use rights, was converted into legal land ownership and subsequently the rights can be bequeathed or sold. It is often the case that parents allocate plots of land to their newly wed children, particularly who decided to separate from the families. The occupancy of land is also inherited from previous generation to next generation. Land is transferred through selling the right of using to new owners after they can deal with the price and condition of the negotiation. The table below shows the chronology of land tenure in southern Laos.

Period of time Land tenure evolution
1973~ Free Chapchong land
1975-1976 Land tax collection by canton authorities (Taseng)
1978~ Collective land ownership
1980 Village land use titles issued
1994-1995 Land law to legalize land use rights
1997-2000 Forest-land use allocation project
2000 Land use rights have been exchanged on the market
2007-2008 Conservation forest and land for village communal use
2011 No communal land allocation

Expansion Chapchong land tenure to commercialized agriculture

The Boloven Plateau has a long history as a center of coffee production in Southern Laos, covering the areas of three districts in three provinces including: Paksong in Champasak province, Thateng in Sekong province, and Lao Ngam in Salavanh province. It is located at latitude of 15° N, which engenders a strong seasonality with hot summer and relatively cold winter. Altitudes range from 400 to 1,400 m with a strong vertical agro-ecological differentiation. Its excellent agro-ecologic environment is suit for planting East-Africa species (Galindo et al., 2007).


Coffee farmer. S.Phommavong

The Bolaven plateau has a hundred years history of coffee production. Coffee is one of the main sources of income for farmers, who are living there, so land is regarded as farmers’ valuable asset for producing coffee to earn a living. As the coffee sector is growing, well-off farmers manage to accumulate capital, purchase additional land to expand their coffee plantation in order to increase their income. Chapchong land tenure is a primary form of land ownership for local farmer prior to formal land ownership certification. Coffee has been planted by villagers in Chapchong land areas before they were legalized. Nevertheless, the majority of coffee farmlands are not yet certified by land titling by government. In such case, only land tax papers are certified by village authority in most of Chapchong land. However, they are playing important roles in producing coffee value for local people to sustain their lives, accumulate assets, and contribute to national economy.

How about patterns of land use in other FATE research projects countries of Bolivia, Nepal and Rwanda, please share, I would like to learn from you.


Galindo, J., Sallée, B., Manivong, P., Mahavong, P., David, A., Homevongsa, V., . . . Guitet, C. (2007). Participative analysis of coffee supply chain in Lao PDR.

Keosiphandone, P. (2014). Connecting Upland Peasants to Markets and Socio-Cultural Change in Bolaven Plateau, Southern Part of Laos. IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science, 19(10), 15-24.

Lao PDR. (2003). Land Law. Vientiane Capital, National Assembly.

Lao PDR. (2015). Constitution. Vientiane Capital, National Assembly.

Lastarria-Cornhiel, S. (2007a). Who Benefits from Land Titling? Lessons from Bolivia and Laos.

Lastarria-Cornhiel, S. (2007b). Who Benefits from Land Titling?: Lessons from Bolivia and Laos.

MAF. (2004). Land Law. Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Lao PDR.

Vandergeest, P. (2003). Land to some tillers: development-induced displacement in Laos. International Social Science Journal, 55(175), 47–56.


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