Powers of Exclusion: Land Dilemmas in Southeast Asia

By McElwee, Pamela | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Powers of Exclusion: Land Dilemmas in Southeast Asia


McElwee, Pamela, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Powers of exclusion: Land dilemmas in Southeast Asia By DEREK HALL, PHILIP HIRSCH and TANIA MURRAY LI Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2011. Pp. 257. Figures, Maps, Bibliography, Index.

This wide-ranging book looks at one of the greatest ongoing transformations in Southeast Asia: rapid processes of rural and agrarian change, which have led to land cover modification, transformations in the use of land, and land conflicts. This work, which comes out of the 'Challenges of the agrarian transition in Southeast Asia' programme led by several Canadian universities, and which fits squarely in the important field of research on agrarian differentiation, specifically 'focuses on the changing ways in which people are excluded from access to land' (p. 4). As the authors note, exclusion is a double-edged sword, as it is both a necessary condition for land use as well as a source of conflict; in this, 'exclusion creates both security and insecurity' (p. 8).

The authors choose to focus on four major factors that have led to land exclusions in Southeast Asia: regulations, force, the market, and legitimation. In the realm of regulation, the book points out the diffuse informal and formal rules that govern access to land, from traditional local usufruct rights to national zoning laws. Force is used to expropriate land from users, either in conjunction with or sometimes in violation of, regulations, although the book points out clearly that it is not always the state that is the wielder of force. The market is a dominant pressure as well, since 'most obviously, the price of land is a primary determinant of who can gain access to land and who cannot' (p. 17). Finally, legitimation is a process of justifying who has moral and social rights to land, and can be mobilised by actors claiming indigenous rights to land or by states asserting that modernising nations require large-scale land expropriation for hydropower development and other schemes. The challenge for those trying to manage land, whether states, local communities or individual families, is to deal with these competing claims and processes of exclusion. In other words, 'People want the right to exclude, but don't want to be excluded' themselves from claims on land (p. 188).

Each of the six main chapters explores a different practice of land transformation, often involving more than one of these processes of exclusion, ranging from formalisation of land rights through state land titling and redistribution, to the preservation of designated conservation areas, to shifts in landownership that have come about from boom crops such as coffee, rubber and shrimp, to urbanisation and deagrarianisation, to local exclusions between kin and between communities, often on the basis of ethnic differences. …

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