AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 312

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Session 312: Exploring Agrarian Transformations in Southeast Asia Session 2

Organizer: Peter Vandergeest, York University, Canada

Recent years have seen renewed interest in agrarian change, provoking debates about the directions and directionality of agrarian change. Rural areas of both Southeast Asia are being rapidly re-shaped by forces of economic and social change. Researchers are describing variously: rapid deagrarianization as young people seek to escape farm work; growing ‘pluriactivity’ that combines agrarian and non agrarian livelihoods; extensive displacement by extractive activities and boom crops like shrimp, oil palm, and rubber; decentralization in the administration of development funding and natural resource management; the remaking of gender and intergenerational relations; the urbanization of many rural areas; and finally a possible flexible ‘repeasantization’ through a revitalization of small farms, expanding rural market places, and a renewed emphasis on low-input agriculture. This panel explores the multiple pathways and directions that these transitions are taking in the diverse socio-ecological sites (forests, coasts, peri-urban, deltas, etc.) and distinct national contexts of Southeast Asia. We will examine the implications of these changes for livelihoods, development, space, the environment, and the remaking of rural places. Using conceptual lenses such as scale, livelihoods, spatiality, and collective actors we will explore processes of agricultural intensification, expansion, or de-intensification; market integration or de-integration; urbanization; industrialization; and ecological transformation.

Selena Ahmed, Tufts University, USA

Research will be presented on the persistence and change of traditional land-use patterns and knowledge in response to expanded commercialization of tea (Camellia sinensis var. assamica (L.) Kuntze Theaceae) in an indigenous Akha community in the mid-level montane forests of southwest Yunnan, China. Surveys were conducted in 2005 and 2008, over a period corresponding to a regional tea market boom and bust cycle, to compare the valuation smallholders attribute to land-use types and to determine the role that value systems play in shaping environmental behavior and knowledge. At the community level, increased market integration of tea agro-forests is associated with reconfiguration of land-use, intensified management, reorganization of labor structures, and generation of knowledge on tea resources. Local Akha have tapped into customary resources and forged new social networks with tea industry agents to take advantage of emerging market opportunities. They have resisted state reforms calling for the cultivation of high-intensity plantations and introduced cultivars. Consequently, they have benefited from price premiums through niche market networks for tea sourced from agroforests and proprietary landraces not available to other communities disempowered by market cycles. Subsistence agriculture, home gardening, and foraging persist for food security despite tea wealth. However, as traditional values are reoriented towards market-based ideologies, the community may risk a breakdown of the social institutions that support sustainability.

Securing Food Sovereignty
Elizabeth Louis, East-West Center, USA

Food sovereignty advocates argue that efforts to improve “food security” have led to the increasing dominance of major agro-food corporations. The food sovereignty movement therefore places a strong emphasis on reducing farmers’ dependence on commercial inputs. This paper draws on 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork to examine the ramifications of promoting food sovereignty amongst poor farmers in the Telengana region of southern India. Local food sovereignty NGOs have linked up with the transnational food sovereignty movement and adopted its overarching model for resisting the growing neoliberal agro-food regime, a plan that involves promoting local bio-diverse farming systems that intend to improve farmers’ capacity to subsist. This strategy, however, often assumes a subsistence livelihood and overlooks the evolving need of the peasant farmers to take advantage of diverse economic opportunities. For these farmers, participating in food sovereignty initiatives could paradoxically constrain their options for maintaining viable rural livelihoods. This paper argues that in order for farmers to exercise “food sovereignty”, they must first secure their livelihoods, which are determined NOT by their ability to opt out of the market economy, but rather by negotiating their position within the market economy.

Rural discontent and politics of the underclass in Northern Thailand
Chusak Wittayapak, Chiang Mai University, Thailand

Although it has been widely accepted that rural economic development and poverty reduction in Thailand is a successful story in developing countries, deprivation of people in the underclass remains an issue to reckon with. The discourses of inequality and social justice of the 1970-80 has returned to haunt debates over development and play a part in divisive politics and violence that recently shocked the nation and left Thai intellectuals speechless. This paper re-visits agrarian transformation using a re-study approach in a microcosmic community to examine life and livelihood of the rural poor. It aims to investigate how they have been left behind and how they connect their plight with the national politics of the urban elites. The research looks at the history of poverty and resource-based livelihood of the poor household amidst the induced agricultural and rural re-structuring intervention. It also looks at the situation of increased mobility in rural space that may create the new underclass and marginalize those disenfranchised groups leading to discontent and political ramification.

Deagrarianization and Reagrarianization: Making sense of a revitalization in agrarian livelihoods in Southern Thailand
Peter Vandergeest, York University, Canada

Agrarian change in Southeast Asia today is often described as involving in various combinations, the commodification of agriculture; de-agrarianization; pluriactivity; and urbanization of rural places. A restudy in a site where I conducted MA and PhD research on the Satingpra peninsula in Southern Thailand reveals all of these processes, especially when the research is set up as a comparison of two time periods. But more detailed research also reveals a recent pattern of ‘re-agrarianization’, as the number of people engaged in agrarian activities such as tapping palm sugar, market gardening, and small boats fisheries, has increased since the mid-1990s. The paper aims to make sense of this reversal in terms of both reasons given by villagers, and broader facilitating conditions. The recent revitalization of certain agrarian livelihood points to how we need to be careful about general perceptions and statistics demonstrating unidirectional de-agrarianization. This study leaves us with the question of whether this phenomenon is indicative of a more general pattern of what some observers are calling ‘repeasantization’: Rural people turning to less commercialized forms of agrarian production that minimize input costs and work through local marketplaces as a way of reducing exposure to agrarian price squeezes, ecological destruction, stagnating wage labour rates, and poor physical working conditions associated with non-agrarian work.