The University of Arizona

Claiming and re-claiming the Ayeyarwady Delta, time and again: the case of Nyaungdone Island, Myanmar

Benoit Ivars, Jean-Philippe Venot


Since 2011 and the transition to civilian government, Myanmar and the Ayeyarwady Delta in particular are witnessing swift and dramatic changes in the modalities of access and use of natural resources. Drawing from political ecology, and on the basis of ethnographic work conducted in Yeinek village tract in the Nyaungdone Township of the Ayeyarwady Delta, this article places recent resources dynamics in a historical perspective. Rather than seeing natural resources as a 'given', we see them as resulting from socially embedded strategies of resource-making. These strategies contribute to a constant redefinition of the "resource-frontier" the delta has historically been for multiple actors. Notably, we show how land for rice cultivation, and water for capture fisheries and aquaculture, have been made into key resources over time, often in an exclusionary way. Post-2011 land and fishery reforms are the most recent examples of resource-making dynamics; they have certainly triggered significant resource re-allocation, but existing cross-scale patronage networks still largely shape how this takes place in practice. Finally, in this deltaic environment where resources are part water, part land, part rice, part fish, and the legitimacy of one's claims often hinges on proving prior use of a specific resource, it is the nature of the resource to be reallocated that is contested. In the newly politicized context of Myanmar, resources and institutional fluidity is in itself a frontier to navigate.

Keywords: Ayeyarwady Delta; Myanmar; fisheries; land; resource making; frontier; exclusion

Full Text:



Adas, M. 1974. The Burma Delta: economic development and social change on an Asian rice frontier, 1852–1941. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Aung Zaw. 2008. Operation Delta. The Irrawaddy, June 2008 [accessed November 18th, 2019].

Bakker, K. and G. Bridge. 2006. Material worlds? Resource geographies and the 'matter of nature'. Progress in Human Geography 30(1): 1-23.

Barnett, C.G. 1913. Note on protective embankment in the Delta 1862-1912. Rangoon, Burma: Office of the superintendent, Government printing.

Barney, K. 2009. Laos and the making of a 'relational' resource frontier. The Geographical Journal 175(2): 146-159.

Belton, B., A. Hein, K. Htoo, L.S. Kham, U. Nischan, T. Reardon and D. Boughton. 2015. Aquaculture in transition: value chain transformation, fish and food security in Myanmar. International Development Working Paper 139. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University.

Biggs, D. 2011. Quagmire: nation-building and nature in the Mekong Delta. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Boutry, M., C. Allaverdian, M. Mellac, S. Huard, San Thein, Tin Myo Win and Khin Pyae Sone. 2017. Land tenure in rural lowland Myanmar: from historical perspectives to contemporary realities in the Dry Zone and the Delta. Yangon, Myanmar: GRET Research Report, Of Lives of Land Myanmar Research Series.

Bridge, G. 2009. Material worlds: natural resources, resource geography and the material economy. Geography Compass 3(3): 1217-1244.

Campbell, S. 2019. Reading Myanmar's inland fisheries: postcolonial literature as theoretical lens. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 20(1): 2-18.

Cons, J. and M. Eilenberg. 2019. Frontier assemblages: the emergent politics of resource frontiers in Asia. London: Wiley.

England, F.S.E. 1939. Report on flood conditions and levels in the Irrawaddy Delta. Rangoon, Burma: Government Printing.

Ferguson, J.M. 2014. The scramble for the waste lands: tracking colonial legacies, counterinsurgency and international investment through the lens of land laws in Burma/Myanmar. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 35(3): 295-311.

Filipski, M. and B. Belton. 2018. Give a man a fishpond: modeling the impacts of aquaculture in the rural economy. World Development 110: 205-223.

Fold, N. and P. Hirsch. 2009. Re-thinking frontiers in Southeast Asia. Geographical Journal 175(2): 95-97.

Gelbort, J. 2018. Implementation of Burma's Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law: at odds with the nationwide ceasefire agreement and peace negotiations. Amsterdam: Transnational Institute (TNI).

Government of British Burma (GoBB). 1923. Collection of reports of the Yandoon Island Colonisation Scheme in the Maubin District during the years 1912 to 1922. Rangoon, Burma: Office of the Superintendent, Government Printing.

Hall, D., P. Hirsch and T.M. Li. 2011. Powers of exclusion: land dilemmas in Southeast Asia. Singapore and Honolulu: National University of Singapore Press/University of Hawaii Press.

Hein Ko Soe. 2018. Fishy business in Ayeyarwady as industry reforms scuppered. Frontier Myanmar, 19 February 2018 [accessed May 05th, 2019].

Hong, E. 2017. Scaling struggles over land and law: autonomy, investment and interlegality in Myanmar's borderlands. Geoforum 82: 225-236.

Htwe Myint, U. 1990. Nyaungdone Polder Rehabilitation Project feasibility report. Irrigation Department. Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation. Government of Myanmar. (in Burmese)

Hudson-Rodd, N. and Sein Htay. 2008. Arbitrary confiscation of farmers' land by the state peace and development council military regime in Burma. Rockville, MD: The Burma Fund.

Information Department. 1962. The Burmese way to socialism (No. 48), Towards socialism in our Burmese way. Rangoon, Burma: Ministry of Information, Government of Burma.

Irrigation Department. 1988. Land survey report on Nyaungdone Island reclamation project. Paddyland II. Rangoon, Burma: Government of Burma. (in Burmese)

Ivars, B. and J-P Venot. 2019. Grounded and global: water infrastructures development and policy in the Ayeyarwady Delta, Myanmar. Water Alternatives 19(3): 1038-1063.

Khin, U. 1948. Fisheries in Burma. Rangoon, Burma: Office of the Superintendent, Government Printing.

Kopytoff, I. 1987. The internal African frontier: the making of African political culture. In Kopytoff I. (ed.). The African frontier: the reproduction of traditional African societies. Bloomington-Indianapolis, Indiana: University Press.

Li, T.M. 2014a. What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39(4): 589–602.

Li, T.M. 2014b. Land's end: capitalist relations on an indigenous frontier. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lund, C. 2018. Predatory peace: dispossession at Aceh's oil palm frontier. Journal of Peasant Studies 45(2): 667-681.

Mark, S. 2016. Are the odds of justice 'stacked' against them? Challenges and opportunities for securing land claims by smallholder farmers in Myanmar. Critical Asian Studies 48(3): 443–460.

Mark, S. 2017. Fish farms and land confiscation in the Ayeyarwady Delta: history, impact and prospects for restitution. Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy Research Brief 44. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University.

Mark, S. and B. Belton. 2020. Breaking with the past? Land restitution and the limits to restitutive justice in Myanmar. Land Use Policy 94.

Maung Aung Myoe. 1999. The counterinsurgency in Myanmar: the government's response to the Burma Communist Party. PhD Dissertation. Canberra: Australian National University.

Maxwell, 1910. A fishery handbook. Rangoon, Burma: Office of the Superintendent, Government Printing.

Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation (MoAI). 2002. Nyaungdone Island Land Reclamation Project Ayeyarwady Division. Irrigation Department. Ministry of Agriculture & Irrigation. The Government of Myanmar.

Oberndorf, R. 2012. Legal review of recently enacted farmland law and vacant, fallow and virgin lands management law. Yangon, Myanmar: Land Core Group (LCG).

Peluso, N.L. 2012. What's nature got to do with it? A situated historical perspective on socio-natural commodities. Development and Change 43(1): 70-104.

Peluso, N.L. 2018. Entangled territories in small-scale gold mining frontiers: Labor practices, property, and secrets in Indonesian gold country. World Development 101: 400-416.

Peluso, N.L. and C. Lund. 2011. New frontiers of land control: introduction. Journal of Peasant Studies 38: 667-681.

Peluso, N.L. and P. Vandergeest. 2011. Political ecologies of war and forests: counterinsurgencies and the making of national natures. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101(3): 587-608.

Public Works Department (PWD). 1927. Report of the Floods Enquiry Committee 1924-1925. Rangoon, Burma: Office of the Superintendent, Government Printing and Stationery.

Radford, S. and V. Lamb. 2020. Work and struggle of fishing livelihoods in the Delta: development and 'new' change along the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, Myanmar. Asia Pacific Viewpoint

Rasmussen, M.B. and C. Lund. 2018. Reconfiguring frontier spaces: the territorialisation of resource control. World Development 101: 388-399.

Reeves, P., B. Pokrant and J. McGuire. 1999. The auction lease system in Lower Burma's fisheries, 1870-1904: implications for artisanal fishers and lessees. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 30(2): 249-262.

Ribot, J.C. and N.L. Peluso. 2003. A theory of access. Rural Sociology 68(2): 153-181.

Richardson, T. and G. Weszkalnys. 2014. Introduction: resource materialities. Anthropological Quarterly 87(1): 5-30.

Salai Thant Zin. 2017. Companies rush to use inactive lands after govt announces seizure. The Irrawaddy, 25 July 2017 [accessed June 26th, 2019].

Salai Thant Zin. 2019a. Irrawaddy Region farmers' hopes of reclaiming stolen land running thin. The Irrawaddy, 25 March 2019 [accessed March 29th, 2019].

Salai Thant Zin. 2019b. Court acquits 8 farmers sued by owner of unused land in Irrawaddy Region. The Irrawaddy, 7 January 2019 [accessed March 8th, 2019].

San Thein., J-C. Diepart, Hlwan Moe and C. Allaverdian. 2018. Large-scale land acquisitions for agricultural development in Myanmar: a review of past and current processes. Vientiane, Laos: Mekong Region Land Governance (MRLG).

San Thein, Khin Pyae Sone and J-C. Diepart. 2017. Transparency under scrutiny. information disclosure by the Parliamentary Land Investigation Commission in Myanmar. Vientiane, Laos: Mekong Region Land Governance (MRLG).

Scurrah, N., P. Hirsch and K. Woods. 2015. The political economy of land governance in Myanmar. Vientiane, Laos: Mekong Region Land Governance (MRLG).

Sir William Halcrow & Partners. 1982. Irrawaddy Delta hydrological investigations and delta survey. 5 volumes. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Smeaton, D.M. 1882. Note on inland fisheries by the Director of Agriculture, British Burma dated 17 July 1882. Government Printing.

Smith, M. 1999. Burma: insurgency and the politics of ethnic conflict. Second edition. London: Zed.

South, A. and M. Katsabanis. 2007. Displacement and dispossession: forced migration and land rights in Burma. Geneva: Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE).

Suhardiman, D., M. Kenney-Lazar, and R. Meinzen-Dick. 2019a. The contested terrain of land governance reform in Myanmar. Critical Asian Studies 51(3): 368-385.

Suhardiman, D., J. Bright and C. Palmano. 2019b. The politics of legal pluralism in the shaping of spatial power in Myanmar's land governance. The Journal of Peasant Studies.

Tezzo X., Y. Kura, E. Baran and Ziza Wah. 2016. Individual tenure and commercial management of Myanmar's inland fish resources. In Song A., S. Bower, S. Cooke, P. Onyango and R. Chuenpagdee. (eds). Inter-sectoral governance of inland fisheries: too big to ignore. St John's, NL: Global Partnership for Small-Scale Fisheries Research (TBTI).

Tezzo, X., B. Belton, G. Johnstone and M. Callow. 2018. Myanmar's fisheries in transition: current status and opportunities for policy reform. Marine Policy 97: 91-100.

Thawnghmung, A.M. 2003. The socio-economic impacts of rice policies implementation in rural Burma/Myanmar. Sojourn 18(2): 299-321.

Thawnghmung, A.M. 2004. Behind the teak curtain: authoritarianism, agricultural policies, and political legitimacy in rural Burma/Myanmar. London: Kegan Paul.

The New Light of Myanmar. 2003b. Ayeyarwady Division rapidly developing, due to prevalence of peace and stability and smooth transport. 1 August 2003. [accessed July 15th, 2019].

The New Light of Myanmar. 2003a. Lt-Gen Thura Shwe Mann, Secretary-2 Lt-Gen Soe Win meet with agriculture & livestock breeding entrepreneurs in Ayeyarwady Division. 6 July 2003 [accessed November 12th, 2019].

The New Light of Myanmar. National entrepreneurs urged to do large-scale farming and build agro-based industries and take lead in market economy in future. 27 January 1999 [accessed November 14th, 2019].

The New Light of Myanmar. 2001. Secretary-3 inspects preparations for prawn breeding, poultry farming and fish breeding. 26 March 2001 [accessed November 17th, 2019].

Tin Gyi, U. 1927. Note on the conflict of interests between cultivation and fisheries in the Maubin and Pyapon Districts of Lower Burma. Government Printing.

Tsing, A.L. 2011. Friction: an ethnography of global connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Turner, F.J. 1920. The frontier in American history. New York: Henry Holt.

van Schendel, W. 1991. Three deltas: accumulation and poverty in rural Burma, Bengal and South India. Indo-Dutch Studies on Development Alternatives No. 8. New Delhi, India: SAGE.

Volker, A. 1964. Surface hydrology of deltaic areas. In Proceedings of the Dacca Symposium on scientific problems of the humid tropical zone deltas and their implications. University of Dacca, Bangladesh: UNESCO Publications.

Warr, P.C. 2000. The failure of Myanmar's agricultural policies. Southeast Asian Affairs. ISEAS, Singapore: 219-238.

Watts, M.J. 2012. A tale of two gulfs: life, death, and dispossession along two oil frontiers. American Quarterly 64: 437-467.

Watts, M.J. 2018. Frontiers: authority, precarity, and insurgency at the edge of the state. World Development 101: 477-488.

Woods, K. 2011. Ceasefire capitalism: military–private partnerships, resource concessions and military–state building in the Burma–China borderlands. Journal of Peasant Studies 38(4): 747-770.

World Bank. 1976. Lower Burma Paddyland Development Project. Appraisal report. Washington, DC: World Bank.

World Bank. 1978. Paddyland Development II Project. Staff appraisal report. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Yin Nyein, B., R.G. Gregory and Aung Kyaw Thein. 2018. Confusion, uncertainty. Myanmar fisheries governance. Samudra Report No. 80.: 28-30.