Yunnan paper praises Khmu for growing vegetables in Laos

In an article written by 赵汝碧 Zhao Rubi and 李曼曼 Li Manman, the Yunnan Daily praises the Khmu people (classified as a subgroup of the Bulang) of Nanqian, a border village in Mengla County, for the “great changes” in their “thinking and outlook” (思想观念发生了大转变) that are making them “blast a road to riches” (闯出了一条致富路) by “engaging in transnational development” (跨国搞开发).

Three years ago, Nanqian was a “backward and isolated” (封闭落后) village with yearly incomes around 1,000 yuan (under $200). In 2008, villagers started planting rubber and vegetables under a government-promoted scheme, which, according to article, “not only helped them leave poverty behind but changed their thinking and outlook, inducing them to aspire and enthusiastically plan for wealth 思富、谋富的愿望和热情”. They founded an agricultural cooperative, which first expanded farming to neighbouring villages and then organised villagers to rent 5,000 mu (330 ha) of land in Laos’ Phongsaly Province, just over ten kilometres away, and plant potatoes, beans, and gourds there to sell them to Chongqing and Shanghai. (In China, the cooperative farms on 600 mu.) In 2010, the cooperative realised sales of 2.3 million yuan, and villagers’ incomes increased to around 10 thousand yuan.

Although the article is dated 1 April, it is likely not a joke, as it fits into a trend of southwest Chinese borderland farmers crossing the border under contract arrangements for rubber (by now studied by a number of resderachers including Weiyi Shi, Antonella Diana, Janet Sturgeon, Li Yunxia, and Kevin Woods), banana (see the previous news item), and cassava. It also fits into a mode of reporting in which these “transnational farmers” — particularly if they are also members of “backward minorities” –are praised as modernisers of themselves and the other, the theme of a recent panel organised by Noel Salazar and myself at the Association for Asian Studies conference in Hawaii. As Antonella Diana reported earlier, and Janet Sturgeon in a paper at a different panel of the same conference, these  views are sometimes internalised by the farmers themselves.

Diana and Sturgeon have written cross-border farming arrangements based on ethnic kinship among Dai (Tai Lue) and Akha/Hani; this is the first time I come across a mention of the Khmu, which is notable because in Laos, the Khmu are one of the most marginalised highland groups. Their livelihoods have been greatly disrupted by the incursion of the cash economy and who, according to research by Chris Lyttleton, are overrepresented among prostitutes in northern Laos.

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