What is land good for?

It’s an old saw in Southeast Asian studies that since the dawn of time (by which academics really mean: since the rise of intensive agriculture), power in Southeast Asia has been dominated by concerns over labor power, not land. That is to say that in order to become – or stay – rich and powerful, you had to find a way to control people and get them to stay on the farm. Actually controlling land through ownership was relatively less important, and there was a sense that land was limitless.

That’s all changed.

As I’ve written before [1 2 3 4], and as an unsurprising phenomenon, struggles over land have become the dominant mechanism by which Cambodia is entering into the capitalism of the Modern World System. As Khmer and indigenous peasants, along with indigenous groups using other forms of cultivation, get shoved off their land, they need to find other ways to feed themselves. The only thing left is wage labor, of which there simply isn’t enough to go around. Furthermore, without any active industrialization, that situation isn’t going to change either. The garment factory don’t produce enough jobs and aren’t growing as a sector, and since they are only export-processing zones, there’s really no multiplier effect in the rest of the industry. Meanwhile, as I’ve written elsewhere, we are seeing an actual de-industrialization in many other aspects of agriculture – still the dominant industry.

Two new stories in the world press highlighted the situation in the last 24 hours. Rory Byrne, reporting for VOA in Phnom Penh, wrote of the situation. Kek Galabru of Licadho, made the point quite clearly:

“Eighty percent of Cambodian people, they live in the rural area and they rely on the land for agriculture, so if you take the land from them it means they have no way to solve the problem of living,” sadi Galabru. “Without land, you condemn them to a death.”

Erika Kinetz also wrote from Phnom Penh to the Washington Post. She quotes Yash Ghai of the UN. His analysis is also relatively bold for a member of the so-called “NGO Industrial Complex” (I love that phrase, having just found it yesterday):

“A wealthy and powerful social class has emerged on the back of the state — through the exploitation of the people and the country’s resources,” Yash Ghai, the U.N. secretary general’s special representative for human rights in Cambodia, said in prepared remarks to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Better still, Erika’s article starts out with a very stark image:

His grandmother’s bones went missing two years ago, not long after the rains stopped. “The grave is all rubber trees” now, said Sev Thveal, 23. Part of the Jarai minority, he can barely read and write and has worked the land so long that his toenails are a permanent shade of brown.

He and 11 villagers are alleging in court that a wealthy businesswoman named Keat Kolney, whose husband and brother are senior figures in the Cambodian government, has illegally taken land belonging to 70 rural families to make way for a rubber plantation.

The choice is clear: will the land be used to feed Cambodians, or to make profits? It can’t do both at this point in time. What is land good for?

UPDATE: Now that I have the ability to embed videos, I’m going a bit overboard. Here’s the first file of a documentary on land-grabbing evictions in Cambodia.


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