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Territorial Affairs: Turning Battlefields into Marketplaces in Postwar Laos

  • Author(s): Dwyer, Michael Benjamin
  • Advisor(s): Peluso, Nancy L
  • et al.

As agricultural land has become an increasing target of large-scale, export-oriented bilateral investment-cum-development projects, many have speculated that a neo-colonial "land grab" is underway. Spurred in large part by the food and financial crises of 2007-08, the proliferation of transnational land deals emerged as a topic of scholarly and civil society concern in 2008 and 2009, although details have proven difficult to gather due to the sensitive nature of many land deals, and the speculative nature of others. This dissertation examines the case of northwestern Laos, where large-scale land access by Chinese agribusiness firms (many of them state-backed) began in earnest in 2004, and attracted extensive scrutiny by civil society and government researchers over the half decade that followed. The research presented here is based on fieldwork conducted between 2004 and 2008, and concentrated between April 2006 and August 2008.

Based on ethnographic, interview, archival and historical research, the dissertation investigates the way that transnational land deals operate within the larger arena of territorial affairs that comprise Laos's ongoing postwar transition from "battlefield to marketplace." I argue that transnational land deals, while often framed as an erosion of domestic sovereignty and a cause of displacement, are actually far more complicated in both respects, even to the point of pointing in the opposite direction. I suggest, in short, that local authorities have been using transnational land deals in their efforts to manage Laos's upland population, and that in helping them anchor residents in particular livelihood configurations, transnational land deals have actually increased the effective sovereignty of local state authorities. The first part of the dissertation provides a historical-geographical analysis that frames the argument; the second part develops the argument using case-based research from Laos's northwestern and central regions; the third part considers the implications of the argument for regulatory politics at the national and international levels.

Part I introduces the uplands of northern Laos as a space where geopolitics and political economy have a long and dynamic interaction. In contrast to the common portrayal of the uplands as resource rich, under-populated, impoverished, or any other of a host of static characteristics that are often projected onto the uplands, the two chapters of Part I emphasize the political dynamism that has long been central there. Each chapter focuses on a key historical moment in the emergence of the uplands as a modern national space; together, the chapters focus two opposing themes - connectivity and fragmentation - that act in dynamic tension and figure importantly in the chapters to come. Chapter 2 examines the role that upland political dynamics played in France's consolidation of colonial Indochina, and begins my effort to construct a "history of the present" by framing upland geopolitics through the contemporary policy of "turning land into capital." Chapter 3 continues my exploration of upland geopolitics by looking at how the secret war waged by the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s rearranged upland political space and, in doing so, forged a link between upland population mobility and national insecurity that continues to haunt development efforts.

Part II focuses on Laos since 1975, and examines how these earlier histories of upland political dynamics articulated with the challenges and opportunities of postwar nation building. Chapter 4 examines the industrial forest landscape of the early 1980s, when resource extraction for national development began in earnest but had to contend with the lingering effects of the secret war as well as a new round of geopolitical conflict triggered by the Sino-Vietnamese conflict of the early 1980s. Chapter 5 examines the contemporary landscape of Chinese rubber investment in northwestern Laos, and shows how legacies of earlier conflict continue to shape the process of differential enclosure through practices of resettlement, zoning and the recruitment of foreign agribusiness. Together, the two chapters of Part II converge on the theme of population management work, a governmental praxis that was developed in the immediate postwar period of the 1970s and 1980s, and that remains fundamental to the way local authorities deal with upland social and resource issues. Part II thus develops and defends the argument that transnational land deals, despite being framed as erosions of state sovereignty, are in fact being used by local authorities to strengthen their capacity to govern local populations and resources.

Part III then examines the documents, and especially the maps, that have emerged from rubber projects like the one examined in chapter 5. While this "paper landscape" can be a distraction from the fine-scale historical and political details and events examined in Part II, it is in fact far more than this, and deserves scrutiny in its own right. The two chapters of Part III thus examine the politics of formal geography and geographic legibility as they apply to transnational farmland access in contemporary Laos. Together, they develop a parallel track of analysis to the population management work examined in Part II that focuses on resource politics within the state and that sits in productive tension with the analysis in Part II. Chapter 6 examines the Land and Forest Allocation program, which has been studied widely by scholars for its impacts on the rural population, but has less often been considered for its role in internal state resource politics. This analysis sets up chapter 7, which examines the way that Land and Forest Allocation maps have helped create geographies of legal land access for transnational investors in the present decade. My analysis highlights the limits of central regulatory control, but also shows that new, transnational legibilities are emerging between local authorities in the northwest and Chinese authorities responsible for channeling sovereign wealth into the Lao hinterland. This suggests that sovereignty, and the territorial affairs that comprise it, are more complicated than usually discussed in the emerging land grab literature; and that the shifting balance of politics within the state is perhaps a better way to interrogate the political effects of rising transnational access to land.

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