Land Acquisition, Investment, and Development in the Lao Coffee Sector

Successes and Failures

Author: Oliver Schönweger and Peter Messerli


Despite the increasing acknowledgment of scholars and practitioners that many large-scale agricultural land acquisitions in developing countries fail or never materialize, empirical evidence about how and why they fail to date is still scarce. Too often, land deals are portrayed as straightforward investments and their success is taken for granted. Looking at the coffee sector in Laos, the authors of this article explore dimensions of the land grab debate that have not yet been sufficiently examined. Coffee concessionaires in southern Laos often fail to use all of the land granted them and fail to produce high yields on the land they do use. Thus, the authors challenge the often-assumed superiority and effectiveness of large-scale versus small-scale production, specifically the argument that they modernize agricultural production and optimize land use. They argue that examining failed investments is as important as studying successful ones for understanding the implications of the land grabbing phenomenon for social, economic, and environmental outcomes. Knowledge about the scale of “failed land deals” provides important motivation for national governments to close the gap between intentions and actual outcomes. This article engages with the current debate on quality of investment and challenges the approach of employing land concessions as a vehicle for economic development in the Lao coffee sector and in other sectors and countries.

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© Arthur Jones, PhD