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Re-making and Re-imagining the Southeast Asian Countryside


Jonathan Rigg
National University of Singapore

Jonathan Rigg
National University of Singapore

Jonathan Rigg
National University of Singapore


Rural Southeast Asia has been transformed over the last decades. This panel seeks to reveal and interpret the multiple ways in which the Southeast Asian countryside and its inhabitants have been reshaped under the pressures and opportunities afforded by socio-economic and environmental transformations. The panel will explore the new agrarian structures, relations and processes that have emerged in the region, the causalities of those changes, and the possible agrarian futures that present themselves.

Topics that pertain to the panel include:

• Ageing of the farm labour force
• Class transformations in the countryside
• Gender and generational relations
• Household formation and family structure
• Land use change
• Mechanisation
• Migration and mobility
• Occupational multiplicity and deagrarianisation
• Rural dispossession and dislocation
• Rural exit
• Rural identities and identifications
• The politics of the rural

While this list represents a highly diverse set of concerns, from issues of productivity to the politics of the rural, the crux of the panel is to illuminate this question: ‘How is rural Southeast Asia changing, why, and with what consequences for the human condition?’


Paper 1: The Puzzling Persistence of the Smallholder in Southeast Asia

Jonathan Rigg
National University of Singapore

With economic progress, it was expected that smallholders would fade into history. This has been the experience in much of the global North and it was expected to occur as development proceeded in the global South. In Southeast Asia, however, smallholders have often persisted in the face of rapid and profound social and economic transformation. This presents the core puzzle that the paper addresses: why has the farm-size transition not occurred in much of Southeast Asia? Why have smallholders stubbornly resisted the tide of economic history? The first half of the paper will define the smallholder and smallholding, set out the historical evolution of smallholdings in Southeast Asia, and explore the role of smallholders in national development. The second half of the paper explains the persistence of the smallholder through three explanatory lenses: the economics of smallholder farming; the role of farm policy; and the logics of smallholder-based livelihoods in a context of global integration. The paper concludes by setting out four rural futures for the Southeast Asian countryside and smallholder.


Paper 2: Commercial Crops and Rural Livelihoods in Southeast Asia: The Case of Cassava

Robert Cramb (and Jonathan Newby)
University of Queensland

Given the widespread smallholder impulse to engage in commodity booms in Southeast Asia and the potential for this engagement to offer a more inclusive development pathway than large-scale plantation production, this paper examines three issues: What are the agro-economic factors favouring or obstructing smallholder modes of commodity production relative to large-scale production entities? What are the incentives for agribusiness firms to contribute to smallholder commodity production through roles other than direct farm management? Can smallholder commodity production be broadly inclusive in the face of tendencies towards agrarian differentiation and the market imperatives of agribusiness firms? The paper explores these questions through an examination of the ways in which the cassava boom is reworking rural livelihoods in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia.


Paper 3: Evolving social and ethnic identity in contemporary rural Malaysia in a broad regional context

David Preston
Leeds University and Oxford University

The pace of change in rural Malaysia accelerates continually, particularly aided by improved transport and communication technology. Inevitably such changes vary according to the degree of exposure to market forces of people from different social and cultural backgrounds. These changes do not necessarily result in loss of local ethnic identity; some components of traditional knowledge and practices may indeed offer new economic opportunities although powerful economic and political forces may seek to acquire land for new plantation crops or even mineral extraction. Examples of the nature and pace of changes in rural Malaysia in recent literature identify factors that may influence changes in rural areas in peninsula Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. Particular attention in this paper will focus on Orang Asli (native people) and ways in which they have responded to change in comparison with other rural people. Work in several communities in different parts of Peninsular Malaysia to encourage rural communities to develop their own development plans and priorities has enabled the priorities of those villagers attending such meetings to be identified. The paper will also relate these changes in Malaysia to experiences from China and the Philippines and demonstrate the need for recognition of ethnic and social identity in any analysis of changes in the countryside of Southeast Asia.