Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Agricultural Expansion as a Tool of Population Redistribution in Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Agricultural Expansion as a Tool of Population Redistribution in Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

Agricultural Expansion

Agricultural expansion has been closely linked to the history of mankind or, more specifically, to the history of agriculture. In fact the latter's basic itinerary has been one of nearly constant spatial spread, the rhythm of this expansion depending on climatic, cultural, political and overall historical conditions. But, whatever those conditions, feeding and clothing the growing number of humans and providing for their rising needs and expectations have always implied some form or other of agricultural encroachment on forests and grasslands. Of course, with the improvement of agricultural technology, intensification has also contributed to the increase in production, particularly since the middle of the twentieth century. In Southeast Asia, this intensification, the so-called Green Revolution, has in some specific areas, Java for example,(1) played an even more important role than land expansion or extensification.

But, even with the success of that Green Revolution in increasing tremendously both land and labour productivity, even with the reduction in land devoted to agriculture in most of the industrial countries, global expansion of agricultural land continues and is likely to do so for at least a few more decades.(2) More importantly, the dynamics of agricultural expansion have been and remain inherently linked to those of economic and political development, not the least of which is State territorial formation. These linkages may take several forms, including the following.

First, land colonization, whether planned or not, whether or not it involves spontaneous or monitored land opening, often acts as a safety valve against agrarian problems linked to inadequate or inequitable land distribution; it may even be used as a proxy for land reform or redistribution, or in conjunction with the latter. Second, the territorial spread of agriculture, particularly in contemporary Southeast Asia, often comes as a direct or indirect response to internal or external demand for agricultural produce, basically cash crops, in which case the demand emanates mostly from the industrial countries. This has been particularly obvious, from the late 1950s onwards, in Malaysia with the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) rubber and oil palm schemes,(3) and is even more apparent today with the New Economic Zones (N.E.Z.) developed in the Central Highlands of Vietnam for the cultivation of coffee, tea, mulberry, cashew nuts, etc.

Third, the expansion of land devoted to agriculture may also result from, or lead to a geopolitical strategy, in the fundamental sense of the word geopolitical. In fact, it would seem that: "Throughout history, in just about every major region of the world, the very formation of numerous States, the gathering of the pieces that comprise them and the colonization of their borderlands have relied at least partially on the peasantry, or on a process of peasantization. By "planting" or "sowing" peasants, and then "protecting" them, many States have secured their territory. By establishing its control, whether or not as a result of a planned process, over agriculturalists located on the frontiers of a coveted domain, as well as in the heart of the country, a State consolidates its very base."(4) This seems to be the case in several countries of Southeast Asia, notably in contemporary Indonesia and Vietnam.(5)

Fourth, in contributing to what is nowadays called regional development, the agricultural colonization of areas located on the margins of a country often entails a "taming" of nature and of people, a process linked to the above mentioned geopolitical strategy. Thus, in Southeast Asia, the establishment of pioneers - most from the dominant ethnic groups occupying the more densely settled lowland areas - in peripheral and generally mountainous regions, is done at the expense of forests and of forest people, both of which are thus "domesticated" and brought into the national mainstream. …

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