Unwritten Rule(s): Uncertain Statemaking on Cambodia's Land Frontier
Beban, Alice Bridget
As global tensions over the rapid increase of large scale land acquisitions reached a fever pitch in 2012, Cambodia—an epicenter of “land grabbing”—announced a bold new initiative to develop post-conflict land registration and redistribution efforts inside agribusiness concessions. This “leopard skin” land reform imagined farmers’ fields and agribusiness plantations co-existing like animal spots on the landscape, with companies gaining a stable local labor force and farmers gaining tenure security, access to credit, and employment. My research focuses on the leopard skin reform as a lens through which to understand the nature of democracy in Cambodia. Based on two years of research, including an ethnographic account of Cambodia’s largest agribusiness concession, a survey of 270 land recipients in two provinces, and a participatory action research component, my research connects global, national and local scales to show how the politics of life on the land shapes the politics of state formation in Cambodia. I argue that the leopard skin land reform was first and foremost a political campaign that aimed to secure the loyalty of rural voters, produce ‘modern’ farmers, and wrest control over land distribution from local officials, while maintaining flows of domestic and international capital that are central to state power. Ambiguous legal directives and ‘unwritten rules’ guided the allocation of land, fostering uncertainty and fear within communities in ways that is typical of Cambodian state rule. This gives pause to broad claims that land reform will enable land tenure security. Cambodia’s project of land reform—and the longer trajectory of donor and state supported land management of which it is a part—reproduces gendered racialized forms of insecurity in rural areas by valuing economic production over ecological and social reproduction, and reinforcing patriarchal patronage networks over more horizontal mechanisms of land management. The land reform buttressed the personal power of the Prime Minister in the short term as it gave people hope that he may protect their foothold in rural areas, while, in the long term, the land reform intensified the erosion of rural people’s capacity for social reproduction by enclosing communal resources and undermining collective claims, with lasting effects on community solidarity. Furthermore, in the Cambodian context, communal land title is itself a weak advocacy tool, because any resistance strategy based on claims for state recognition is dependent on the state authorities who control (and can subvert) legal process. Theoretically, my work furthers scholarship that considers the relationship between life on the land, property and state power. I show how practices of state formation enacted through land reform draw on both the legal/sovereign realm of political power and the biopolitical realm of governing populations to produce state subjects, and I consider the various ways in which people struggle to appropriate and subvert these practices. More broadly, this study helps scholars to understand the central importance of land in post-conflict state formation.
Asian studies; Sociology; Geography; Agrarian Studies; Anthropology of the state; Cambodia; Feminist political ecology; Land reform; property rights
Wolford, Wendy W.
Williams, Linda Brooks; McMichael, Philip David; Mertha, Andrew
Ph. D., Development Sociology
Doctor of Philosophy
dissertation or thesis