Markets and Indigenous Peoples in Asia: Lessons from Development Projects

By Jha, Himanshu | Journal of Southeast Asian Economies, April 2014 | Go to article overview

Markets and Indigenous Peoples in Asia: Lessons from Development Projects


Jha, Himanshu, Journal of Southeast Asian Economies


Markets and Indigenous Peoples in Asia: Lessons from Development Projects. By Dev Nathan, Ganesh Thapa, Govind Kelkar with Antonella Cordone. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. 220.

The development agenda of a country has to constantly strike equilibrium between economic growth and social well-being. This presents a daunting challenge for policy-makers to formulate a comprehensive developmental plan that allows the fruits of growth to reach every nook and corner of society. However, not all sections of society benefit from growth; there are marginalized sections on the "periphery", which are excluded from the developmental chain. In this light, there is renewed focus on what has been termed "inclusive growth" with the aim of "including" the "excluded".

Keeping this policy compulsion in mind, one can observe the workings of Polanyi's "double movement" where, at a time when a laissez-faire free market was being propagated, a counter movement to protect the social rights of citizens from the dangers of a self-regulating market was also taking root (Polanyi 1944). "Indigenous people" are one such group often living in physical, social, economic, political and cultural isolation, excluded and marginalized from mainstream policy coverage. The authors of this book suggest that it is therefore necessary to engage with Polanyi's second movement. The book covers varied cases from Asian countries including India, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam. Divided into twelve chapters, it is organized thematically around market-mediated interventions effecting the lives and well-being of tribal people. A wide array of topics ranging from identity, infrastructure and communication, production, the role of tourism value chains, settlement of tribal communities, changes in norms and property systems, gender relations, indigenous knowledge and technology, biodiversity and local governance form the book's core agenda.

The authors try to make a meaningful intervention at the intersection of the challenges of "exclusion" and the state's push for neo-liberal economic policies. The dominant narrative on "exclusion" suggests that market forces displace excluded indigenous communities and adversely affect their livelihoods and subsistence. The authors present an alternative narrative by exploring this central question: do "market-facilitating and market based interventions lead to an increase in well-being for the indigenous peoples?" (pp. 6-7). In the context of indigenous communities, the development continuum is represented on one end by "influential forms" of indigenous norms, and by market-oriented development on the other. While indigenous norms help in protecting traditional cultural forms and resources, they may also constrain well-being, emergent aspirations and new forms of economic practices. Market-oriented development, on the other end of the development continuum, can positively impact indigenous communities by increasing specialization, economies of scale and introducing new methods of production. However, market interventions may also lead to inequality, and the depletion and dilution of resources and traditional culture. The authors carefully locate their argument at a mid-point along the development continuum where the positive effects of indigenous norms and market based interventions meet. They argue that their proposed market intervention model for the well-being of indigenous peoples can recreate the positive aspects of traditional cultural forms within the "new structures of [the] market economy" (p. 10).

This is demonstrated by evidence from selected International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) projects in Asian countries. For instance, improved communication through infrastructural development led to changes in the local political economy of the north Sayaboury region of Laos, bordering Thailand. Cloth traditionally weaved and embroidered by the local women for the domestic consumption has now become a commercial commodity for the Thai market. …

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