Yunnan paper praises Khmu for growing vegetables in Laos

April 8, 2011

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.

New studies of Chinese investment in the Mekong

February 24, 2011

As more substantial research is being done on the impact Chinese investment in northern mainland Southeast Asia (I think there are now half a dozen researchers working in northern Laos alone!), so the quality of analysis improves. I recently read several impressive pieces, including two articles by Danielle Tan, based on her dissertation research and published by IRASEC, and one by Kevin Woods on New Mandala. (Tan’s master’s thesis, on the Chinese in Cambodia, was published as a MqVU working paper.) A third new paper, by Mike Dwyer on northern Laos, emphasises the agency, and power gains, of local village elites in and from rubber planting, and criticizes views that interpret this process as erosion of sovereignty.

Tan and Woods agree with Dwyer that Chinese investment does not bring about a territoiral expansion of Chinese state sovereignty, but unlike him, they argue that it in fact reinforces the expansion of lowland (Lao/Burmese) state control. The thrust of the two papers is similar, but Tan elaborates the argument in much more detail. Chinese businessmen, she argues, have very nearly regained the status of tax farmers that they possessed under colonial rule. They provide farmers with seedlings (mostly of rubber palm, but also other cash crops), fertilizer, and access to markets they collect produce and take care of its passage through the Lao-Chinese border, including negotiating payment with customs officials. “By producing rent and new opportunities of redistribution among influential personalities, they contribute to the viability of the state. This alliance of networks thus constitutes a strategy [or the Lao state] to impede the emergence of a counter-elite” in the form of a native moneyed class (p. 16), the same function “middlemen minorities” played under colonialism or Chinese in Indonesia under Soeharto. Thus, Chinese investment and migration helps to render the highlands “legible,” governable and profitable for the lowland state while minimising the risk of new regional centres of power emerging.

A hardwood importer’s story

December 5, 2010

A story called 东阳商人境外上演“疯狂的木头”  (Dongyang merchants perform in “crazy wood” show abroad), from 金华新闻网 (17 November 2010) has been circulated on China-Wire. I thought it contained a number of interesting details.

The article profiles a furniture manufacturer in Dongyang, near Shanghai, who has invested in a 50-year lease of 150 thousand mu (10,000 ha) of forest in Cambodia via a Hong Kong intermediary, for logging and a subsequent rubber plantation. (The intermediary part is interesting: in my research in Cambodia, I too encountered Hong Kong businessmen, often of Cambodian Chinese origin, acting as brokers/gatekeepers for Chinese investors.)

Presumably, the concession was granted for rubber, but the manufacturer considers the rubber plantation a liability and is only interested in the tropical hardwood that, according to an estimate commissioned from a Shanghai expert, could make up 3% of all timber. Since 2002, prices of certain kinds of hardwood in China have risen 400 times.

The article explains that Dongyang furniture makers used to import hardwood from Vietnam, but the supply dried up both because of exhaustion of resources and a ban by Vietnamese authorities. Importers then shifted to Cambodia, but that supply too has been exhausted. Now 90% of hardwood comes from Africa, but prices are much higher both because of local government restrictions passed under environmentalist pressure and because of rising local wages. (Interesting detail!)

(As an aside, there is a complete ban on hardwood export in Madagascar as of this year, an interesting comment on the relationship between the new government, which came to power after a coup partly driven by opposition to commercial land concessions, and environmental organisations such as the WWF, which also have land concessions in Madagascar, but for conservation purposes.)

Because of these price increases, more manufacturers in Dongyang have sought to go directly to the source instead of buying timber from exporters. One of them secured a 70-year logging concession in Cambodia back in 1997. The one portrayed in the article is also planning to set up a processing factory in Cambodia since costs are lower than in Dongyang.

In sum, the article demonstrates how the desires of Chinese consumers and  environmental campaigners produce complex changes on two continents: trees disappear, wages go up, jobs are created, and plantations that perhaps no one really wants spread.

Highlights of final Rising Powers workshop

November 26, 2010

The last of a series of three workshops on China’s engagement in low-income countries under the UK Economic and Social Research Council’s Rising Powers research network programme is about to conclude at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in Brighton. This workshop focused on environmental issues. Topics included carbon emissions trading and China’s participation in environmental governance, as well as more down-to-earth issues such as dams and land leases. Some highlights:

Data shown by Yahia Mahmoud (Lund University) suggest that Chinese companies are second only to Korea in the area of land leases, but that most of these leases are in the Philippines. Andreas Wilkes of the International Forestry Research Council cited a figure of 6 million ha leased by Chinese forestry and agricultural companies in Africa, and talked about research conducted at the institute by Cerutti et al. that concluded that European forestry companies not certified for sustainability engage in practices quite similar to Chinese companies, and that locals often felt that their livelihoods were better under non-certified forestry regimes. I raised the point that the different types of new civil initiatives that are emerging in China concerning the environmental impact of China’s overseas engagement — organisations with direct overseas contacts but also looser formations like Minjian International that provide a discussion platform — would be an interesting subject for research.

The workshop were intended to result in the elaboration of cooperative research proposals.

A Chinese agriculture expert in Africa gives talk in Peking

October 22, 2010

Minjian International has circulated the announcement of a talk in Peking by Zhou Deyi 周德翼 on “The Economic and Social Conditions of Chinese-African Agricultural Development Cooperation” (中非农业发展与合作的经济及社会条件). The talk will be between 10—12 am at the following location: 北京朝阳区北辰西路69号院(路边两层灰色小楼内),亚丁湾商务酒店对面. It is organized by the Darwin Naturalist Society (达尔问自然求知社).

Zhou is a professor at Central China Agricultural University. He spent a year in Botswana between 2009 and 2010 as — according to the announcement — one of  100 high-level agriculture specialists dispatched by China to Africa as part of its aid programme.

What is interesting is that he received his PhD from Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands and subsequently did research in Thailand on food security. So his profile doesn’t fit in the usual picture of Chinese specialists in Africa who are often seen as highly qualified but isolated from international networks and going about their job in isolation.