This international workshop (23-25 May – Halle/Saale, Germany) was organized by the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology and McGill University. During this programme, Christophe Gironde presented a paper entitled “Losing land, losing ground? Dispossession and resilience in Northeaster Cambodia”.
Since the 1990s, northeaster Cambodia has been undergoing a rapid and radical agrarian transition, driven by new actors who have acquired large areas of agricultural land and forest, some of which were farmed or used by smallholders. These land acquisitions went hand in hand with a strong development of new crops, mainly cashew nut, rubber and cassava. These processes have disrupted the social organization and economic activities of people who have been dispossessed of part of their land and denied access to natural resources that were essential to their livelihood. The situation sounds like a perfect case of defenseless, dispossessed and ultimately disappearing peasantries, especially as smallholders are indigenous people who are deemed particularly disadvantaged and vulnerable in their relationships with the government and Khmer actors.
What is the extent of land acquisitions and dispossession? To what extent were smallholders able to adapt to the new economy characterized by competition from large-scale farms, a massive influx of migrants from other provinces of Cambodia, the development of commercial relations, and increasing needs for cash? These are the central questions of this presentation which is based on the results of the author’s field research conducted in the province of Ratanakiri between 2012 and 2016 by semi-structured interviews, and two questionnaire surveys conducted in 2013 and 2016.
The analysis of livelihoods transformation shows that in Ratanakiri it is not the land acquisitions per se, but rather the economic system that they induce, which undermined the livelihoods of indigenous populations: a more expensive agriculture in terms of inputs and investment, which is riskier and ultimately does not provide enough cash income to meet the growing economic and social needs. This new type of vulnerability is aggravated by competition from large farms as well as by immigrants who have more financial and social capital to acquire land, to access wage employment and to develop non-farming activities.
Ratanakiri’s peasants, which one might think are doomed to “disappear”, however, have shown surprising resilience. However, this resilience reveals an involutionary process characterized by the reduction of the available agricultural area, a mode of exploitation of the remaining lands which threatens the reproduction of fertility (elimination of fallow, repeated crops, especially cassava, without fertilizer consequent amendment), a de-capitalization in progress but not completed, and an increasing reliance on borrowing.