Global Processes and Shifting Ecological Relations

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Processes of global change are not entirely new in Southeast Asia. It has long been cosmopolitan—as “the land below the winds” implies. Sea trade was an integral part of many of the early states of Southeast Asia. In addition, the upland areas of mainland Southeast Asia were sources of significant commodities for pre-modern states in South�east Asia and in China (Frank 1998). Nevertheless, recent history has brought modernization and an increasingly rapid pace of change. Local resources are now traded not just regionally but globally. Demand and the pace of trade have increased. Items once used in the subsistence economy have become commodities, items sold for profit. Globalization has generally resulted in great increases in wealth gaps; while once the poor could at least “eke out a living,” they now must find wage work or not eat at all. Commodification is also a feature of intimate human relations, as discussed by Chris Lyttleton (chapter 21) and Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons (chapter 23). In Part 7, we outline some of the local dynamics and consequences of globalization.  

A significant problem for many of the diverse peoples of Southeast Asia has been alienation of land. We have previously mentioned the role of colonial-era mapping in the formation of modern Southeast Asian states. Mapping is increasingly a vehicle for the control of indigenous populations. It entails the designation of ownership of property—particularly the designation of individual private property as an extension of state bureaucratic control. In many countries, the state declared itself the owner of any unused land, or land of certain characteristics (such as in Thailand’s uplands anything over thirty degrees in slope). Ultimately, what matters is not just the sys�tem of mapping, but who controls the maps (Fox 2002; Gillogly 2004). This has meant that local farmers who had farmed an area for hundreds of years might lose formal rights to their land by failing to register for title. Tribal peoples might not have been allowed to register their land at all. And people with extensive agricultural systems lost use of land that was left fallow for upwards of ten years as it was categorized as “unused” or “wasted” by state officials (swiddening entails a long fallow sys�tem, as discussed in Gillogly in chapter 6, and mentioned in Lyttleton, chapter 21; this underlies the issues raised by Jonsson in chapter 8). This is congruent with the lowland assessment of upland (tribal) land-use systems as irrational, uncivilized, unscientific, and unproductive. In some cases, states have attempted to manage land use through schemes of forced migration or resettlement. Lyttleton’s contribution discusses one such form of migration. While the Lao government might, at times, encourage or compel upland farmers to move to the lowlands in order to preserve upland resources, it is also clear that road building and towns draw people into the lowlands, despite the precarious economic existence they face. In other cases not discussed in this book, governments have moved lowland wet-rice farmers from crowded regions to “underpopulated” forested and mountainous areas. Vietnam has encouraged lowland ethnic Vietnamese farmers to move into the uplands to cultivate these areas. Similarly, the transmigration scheme of the Indonesian government is a well-known example of this policy and its effects. In these processes, a wealth of indigenous knowledge of how to manage the land can be lost; indigenous peoples are removed from ancestral lands and, when the migrants know little of how to manage soil on slopes, disastrous erosion and downstream flooding can follow.  

 Ford and Lyons’s chapter offers a fine-grained examination of a more widespread form of migration today, migrant labor and transnational interactions. Their interviews with women who migrate to the Riau Archipelago (a part of a growth triangle with Singapore and Indonesia that is a key site for large-scale manufacturing, tourism, transport, and service industries) movingly convey the choices and constraints these women experience. They may have started out as migrant domestic workers, but for varied reasons moved into working in the informal sector as sex workers. In some cases, they ended up as the wives of former clients. Through these women’s stories we gain glimpses of how those with few choices strive to “exercise agency within the structural bounds of their particular circumstances, and with varying degrees of success, at each life stage” (Ford and Lyons, chapter 23). Kathleen Gillogly has also observed the migration of ethnic minority people from Burma to Thailand as they flee war or seek ways to make a living. The life of an international migrant laborer is precarious. Without legal papers, the wages are low and workers are vulnerable to not even being paid at all; housing can also be difficult to find without residency papers. As Lyttleton points out, another element of labor migration is the increased use of certain drugs such as methamphetamines, which increase the worker’s ability to continue toiling past the body’s limits.  

Often states claim land for the purpose of taking over shared resources such as forests. The discourse of this control is often over management of national resources such as watersheds, rational harvesting of forest as timber for the national economy, road building in order to integrate minority peoples into the state economy and political body, and (economic) development in general. Fishing is a highly significant common pool resource for coastal and island people. Eder (2008) has discussed the shifting relationships of fisherpeople to that resource in Palawan (Philippines). There, fisheries have been stressed by commercial fishing, both large-scale corporate fishing and local fishing for the Philippine market. Many of the people he studies are migrants from other regions of the Philippines and do not follow local tradition-based management regimes. Their household economic strategies allow more severe exploitation of coastal resources. The use of modern technology for fishing (types of nets, boats, use of blasting and poisons) is discussed by Gene Amarell in chapter 24. One response to these more destructive technologies has been to establish a marine park to ensure that fish nurseries in coral reefs are not so depleted that fish populations are unable to regenerate.   

Use of natural resources can be distorted when items used for local subsistence are transformed into items that can be harvested and sold for cash. The teak industry of Britain and Thailand has already destroyed the forests of north�ern Thailand and Burma. To this day, Burma supplies huge quantities of timber to Thailand and China—countries that have destroyed much of their own forest and restricted access to what remains through the establishment of reserves and national parks. Burma’s military junta’s fight with upland minority groups is waged not just over democracy and representation, but also over control of natural resources—gold, silver, precious stones, and forests. The forcible education of Semang children in Malaysian state- run schools is also a means of extending state power over previous upland resources, as well as a form of disciplining the natives to labor (see Robert Knox Dentan, Juli Edo, and Anthony Williams-Hunt, chapter).   

Another element of shifting ecological relations is the damming of rivers. Damming allows control of water for irrigation for lowland rice, which increases production and enables selling of surplus on world markets. Much of today’s dam building, however, is for the purpose of generating hydroelectricity. In 2010, protests against damming became particularly sharp, as China opened up twelve new hydroelectric dams on the Upper Mekong River. News reports claim that farmers in Vietnam and Cambodia no longer have sufficient water for their rice crops. It remains to be seen if this can be scientifically verified (it had been a dry year at the point of the protests), but it does illustrate a key point about globalization and shifting ecological relations. As China industrializes and races to join the economic power houses of the world, it needs electricity. But state-level decisions affect an entire watershed that crosses national boundaries. While such expansion of resource use was a feature of state economics before the modern period, the levels of use appear to be far more intensive and far-reaching than ever before. We can see this in our own everyday lives. 

 

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