Indigeneity and the constitution of capitalist relations This theme is explored most intensively in Land’s End, where I examine why indigenous upland farmers moved from common access to customary land to exclusive, individual ownership and the emergence of landlessness in a period of just 16 years (1990-2006). The process was very intimate, as close kin and neighbours excluded each other from access to land by planting tree crops, and soon thereafter began to treat land as a commodity that could be bought, sold and accumulated. I was able to track how highlanders managed this transformation culturally, the idioms the new landowners used to justify their own advance, and the response of newly landless highlanders to their often desperate situation. De facto proletarians under conditions where there was little demand for their labour either on or off farm, their prospects were bleak.
Contra expectations that could be generated by readings of Polanyi, or by studies of “shared poverty” (Geertz) or “moral economies” (Scott), or by some of the advocacy literature promoting indigenous alternatives or the “peasant way,” I found that the landless did not dispute the legitimacy of the market processes through which they had become dispossessed, nor did they call for a return to previous, more inclusive principles of land access based on criteria of descent, residence and need. They still hoped to benefit from the boom crop that had brought new wealth to the hills. These observations led me to the conclusion that concepts of village, community, or household that assume solidarity are unhelpful points of entry for understanding contemporary agrarian relations, as they carry too much ideological freight. Shorn of assumptions about the “Asian village” – or family – or indigenous community – I could reopen a series of fundamental ethnographic questions: what specific sets of social relations enable or disallow a decent life for my interlocutors, and how are those relations formed, sustained, and altered? More specifically, a) under what conditions do indigenous smallholders abandon food production, crop diversity and other strategies previously used to minimize risk, in order to concentrate on commodities that promise high returns? b) when do households, kingroups and communities mobilize to provide protection for their members, and when do relations of mutual security or patronage attenuate, leaving individuals exposed? c) what is the fate of people who exit from the rural economy with very limited social networks, and minimal assets?
Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier
Winner of the American Ethnological Society Senior Book Prize, 2016
Winner of the George T McKahin Prize, Association for Asian Studies, 2016
Drawing on two decades of ethnographic research in Sulawesi, Indonesia, Tania Murray Li offers an intimate account of the emergence of capitalist relations among indigenous highlanders who privatized their common land to plant a boom crop, cacao. Spurred by the hope of ending their poverty and isolation, some prospered, while others lost their land and struggled to sustain their families. Yet the winners and losers in this transition were not strangers—they were kin and neighbors. Li’s richly peopled account takes the reader into the highlanders’ world, exploring the dilemmas they faced as sharp inequalities emerged among them.
The book challenges complacent, modernization narratives promoted by development agencies that assume inefficient farmers who lose out in the shift to high-value export crops can find jobs elsewhere. Decades of uneven and often jobless growth in Indonesia meant that for newly landless highlanders, land’s end was a dead end. The book also has implications for social movement activists, who seldom attend to instances where enclosure is initiated by farmers rather than coerced by the state or agribusiness corporations. Li’s attention to the historical, cultural, and ecological dimensions of this conjuncture demonstrates the power of the ethnographic method and its relevance to theory and practice today.
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Li, T. (2008). Reflections on Indonesian violence: two tales and three silences. In Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (Eds.) 2009 Socialist Register VIOLENCE TODAY: Actually existing barbarism Pontypool: Merlin Press, pp163-180.