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Seminar on “Shifting Plantations in the Mekong Borderlands: A Challenge of Chinese Economic Influence in Southeast Asia”

Friday, 13 October 2017 – Professor Yos Santasombat spoke at a Thailand Studies Programme seminar on the impact of China’s economic regionalism at the Mekong Delta region. In particular, he provided an ethnographic account of how a Chinese-driven banana boom has turned the farmland along the Thailand and Laos portion of the Mekong River into a site of intense local resource extraction for the Chinese market.

Professor Yos Santasombat during the presentation (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) 

Concentrating his observations and study on Houayxay in the Bokèo province of Laos, Professor Yos explained that the Chinese banana industry’s practice of ‘shifting plantations’ has transformed the Mekong borderlands into agricultural frontiers. Such practices involve the replace of subsistence crops with the lucrative banana crop on land acquired by Chinese banana plantation investors. Vast quantities of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are required to maintain the monoculture production of bananas in these acquired land, and this process poses serious health risks to workers and the surrounding environment. After six to ten years of producing fruit on cleared farmland, the company usually abandons it for another plot once factors such as soil depletion and pest infestation begin to lower yields.

In contrast to the large plantation system and family farm arrangements of the Latin American banana industry, Prof Yos pointed out that this method and feature of shifting plantations is prevalent in this region of Southeast Asia. Local farmers and lowland plantation workers have reported falling ill from the extensive use of chemicals in the industry, and it has been observed that migrant workers from highland Laos have come into the industry as replacement labour. Since 2016, the government of Laos has issued a ban on new banana plantations. However, the shifting plantation practices, according to Professor Yos, have spread to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, wreaking health and environment havoc along its path.

The case of Chinese banana plantations in Laos is a striking example of how Chinese economic influence has made different impacts on Laos as well as the region. Seemingly positive in terms of the availability of easy money for an impoverished country in the short term, Professor Yos argued that such collective small scale land acquisitions by Chinese small and medium-sized enterprises and businessmen have large scale repercussions for local Laotians. These repercussions include the exclusion of locals’ access to resources such as farmland, water, and animal grazing ground which they had enjoyed access in the past.

The audience during the presentation (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) 

In addition to the mining of sand, rare earth minerals, aluminium ore or bauxite, the case of the banana agriculture commodity adds yet another dimension and discussion point to how China’s economic influence is posing various challenges in Southeast Asia on land practices, people’s lives, and economic development. The seminar attracted a thought-provoking discussion between Professor Yos and the audience on the networks and linkages that facilitated Chinese capitalism in Laos, the importance of the ethnographic method in uncovering the type of data that was collected in the study, potential policy and consumer responses by Mainland Southeast Asia countries to the practice of shifting plantations, and the outlook and role of new Chinese migrants in such local settings in Southeast Asia.