The Moe Htet coffee plantation in Northern Shan State’s Naungcho township plans to take legal action against two government departments, alleging they have made no effort to resolve a land dispute with local farmers.

The plantation began in 2007 when the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation’s Department of Industrial Crops Development allocated it 500 acres of farmland with the approval of the Central Committee for the Management of Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands.

The 500 acres was part of a coffee plantation zone set up in 2001.

“We are working on authorised lands but nobody took responsibility once the farmland dispute happened. It hasn’t been resolved yet after a delay of one year,” said U Kyaw Win, the plantation’s project director.

“From the farmers’ side, they have demanded more and more – they’ve even threatened to remove us from here. Therefore we have planned to bring a suit against the two departments after taking advice from legal professionals,” he added.

Since March 2013, farmers have been trespassing on the plantation, he said, but legal action to date has been unsuccessful.

“Last year in April, the Farmer’s Union sent a notice to us to move from here within seven days. Since then they have occupied nearly half of our plantation and grown their own crops. So we applied directly to the township court and district court to file a lawsuit against them but we were dismissed after eight months for not holding negotiations,” U Kyaw Win said.

Earlier attempts at negotiation, he said, consisted of the farmers demanding work stop at the plantation and all the coffee plants be uprooted.

“We even considered paying them compensation but it is absolutely impossible for us to agree to their demands.”

Company and government officials insist most of the land was neither in use nor owned by local farmers when the government designated it as a coffee plantation zone in 2001.

However, as the government has relaxed controls on public protest and the media the farmers have become increasingly vocal in their demands for compensation.

Those farmers who received some compensation when their land was re-allocated by the government now argue it was insufficient, pointing to the sharp rise in land prices over the past decade.

Local farmers are also upset that much of the 3000-acre coffee plantation zone has since been used to grow other crops, such as sugarcane, cotton and jute.

U Soe Thein, who oversees the zone for the Department of Industrial Crops Development, said barely 10 percent of the zone was being used to grow coffee because the soil was not suitable.

“Land for growing coffee plants must 7 to 10 feet of fertile top-soil. But some land here has just 2 feet the companies substituted other crops,” he said.

He said the government has been unwilling to intervene to resolve the dispute and expressed frustration at the lack of response.

“Although we reported it to ministry officials many times nothing has been done. If this problem is not resolved there will be few investors in industrial crops. Although I’m in charge of the coffee plantation zone, I can’t help the plantation owners so if they want they can sue me and my department for their losses,” he said.

U Ko Gyi, vice chairman of Sein Lan Pyin Oo Lwin, an environmental conservation group, said the state government should ensure the speedy resolution of land disputes to avoid losses for investors.

In the case of the coffee plantations, he said it take years for plants to grow to the point they can produce a crop.

“It is not easy for these plants to thrive and these flourishing coffee plants shouldn’t be destroyed for no purpose. I was surprised that no authorities are taking this issue seriously,” he said.

“Farmers should also work according to the law if they can, such as by producing documents showing legal ownership, instead of trespassing.” – Translation by Zar Zar Soe