The persistence of plantation rubber production in Southeast Asia’s new regions of rubber expansion

Authors: Juliet Lu*, University of California - Berkeley
Topics: Economic Geography, Asia, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: plantation, rubber, political economy, smallholder, Southeast Asia, China
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: 8217, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In the last two decades, rubber production has shifted from Malaysia and Indonesia into montane mainland Southeast Asia (Fox & Castella 2013). As it expands north, economic and political logics around rubber are transplanted into new contexts. This paper examines the persistence of – indeed the preference many states have for – the large-scale commercial plantation model over smallholder production. The promotion of plantation rubber is often framed as apolitical, based on the assumption that large-scale monoculture plantations are inherently more productive than smallholder systems (Hayami 2000, 1996). But the geography and political economy of rubber production has long been intertwined with projects of state territorialization – with integrating minority populations in the national periphery, taming the frontier, and making remote landscapes more legible to government and capital (Stoler 1995; Tsing 2003; Ong 2000; Sturgeon 2007). Rubber expansion in Laos through foreign agribusiness investment has transplanted both the material inputs and the political logics of colonial and socialist era plantation rubber into new contexts. Though foreign investors successfully established vast rubber plantations in Laos, their plantations have been circumscribed in terms of the scale and degree of exclusive land control they obtained. Many of these obstacles are products of special forms of landscape illegibility and local resistance specific to the uplands of Southeast Asia. I use the Lao case to show that the production logics of plantation rubber do not always translate into new contexts and function differently when pursued by agribusiness investors instead of colonial or socialist state.

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