Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Frontier Capitalism and the Expansion of Rubber Plantations in Southern Laos

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Frontier Capitalism and the Expansion of Rubber Plantations in Southern Laos

Article excerpt

In May 2006 local district officials along with representatives from the Dak Lak Rubber Ltd Company of Vietnam arrived at Ban Samakkisai (Lak 19), Bachieng District, Champassak Province, and announced to the village head that the village land had been granted to Dak Lak as part of a concession area for a rubber plantation. The officials explained that the aim of giving the land concession was to bring prosperity to 'backward' and 'poor' areas of Bachieng. In all, 48 hectares of land owned and cultivated by 27 Brao households (1) were handed over to the company for this purpose. In February 2008, as the compensation negotiations were still underway, the district officials returned to the village again, this time with another group of Vietnamese investors, the Dau Tieng Rubber Company, requesting even more land for rubber plantations from the villagers. A similar rationale of poverty alleviation and the development of unproductive land were recited to justify the land expropriation and villagers had no choice but to allow the company to take over more of their land.

The case of Ban Samakkisai represents just one among hundreds of villages similarly affected by the national Lao strategy to 'turn land into capital' through the implementation of a land concession policy. Since the 1990s, granting land concessions has been seen by the government of Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) as an effective way of achieving at least three interrelated goals: to eradicate 'shifting cultivation', which is often regarded as a backward and damaging practice that underutilises the capacity of land; eliminate opium poppy cultivation; and to bring the upland ethnic minorities and their traditional ties with swidden livelihoods into 'civilisation'. (2) While land capitalisation has been seen as the key engine to reorient the country's economy from subsistence to market, it has been made possible by the conspicuous rise of China's industrialised economy and the rapid expansion in the demand for rubber by the Chinese automobile industry. Soaring Chinese demand for rubber has also driven growth in investment in the production and marketing of natural rubber in neighbouring countries such as Vietnam and Thailand, which in turn have looked to Laos with its lower land costs.

A newspaper report in 2009 stated that more than 1,000 companies, of which 398 were foreign owned, had received land concessions in Laos. (3) Up to 75 per cent of the investment in rubber in Laos has been made by foreign companies. A survey by the Ministry for Commerce in 2007 found that there were 40 foreign companies growing rubber in Laos in a total area of 182,900 hectares. (4) The largest rubber concessions are to be found on the southern border province of Champassak where swidden cultivation is widely practised (see Figure 1). Transnational investors in this province came from several countries, including Thailand, Vietnam, Korea and Japan.

Interestingly, the strategic location of land capitalisation often takes place at the 'frontier'. This is no coincidence. Anna Tsing, in her analysis of the complex processes of global connections, calls attention to the interstitial spaces of frontiers where the confusion of boundaries between law and theft, governance and violence, usage and destruction, public and private, and discipline and wildness facilitate capitalist proliferation--a situation Tsing defines as new 'resource frontiers'. (5) For Tsing, the frontier is not a place or even a process, but an imaginative project capable of moulding both places and processes, creating wildness so that some and not others may reap its rewards. Through such processes, 'resourcefulness' (6) is then turned into frontier. The expansion of resource frontiers throughout the world since the late 1990s thus represents the product of the growing power of and collaboration between corporate transnationalism and bureaucratic/army forces to turn local resources into industrial raw materials. …

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