Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Resisting with the State: The Authoritarian Governance of Land in Laos
by Kenney-Lazar, Miles, Ph.D., Clark University, 2016, 183; 10246657
Abstract (Summary)

Over the past decade, the government of Laos has granted extensive tracts of land to plantation, mining, and hydropower investors across the country, constituting five percent of the national territory. Such projects have transformed rural livelihoods and environments, particularly via the dispossession of the lands, fields, and forests that Lao peasants rely upon for daily subsistence and cash income. While large-scale land acquisitions, or land grabs, across the Global South have been countered by social protest and movements in many countries, organized and vocal social mobilization is largely absent in Laos due to authoritarian state repression of dissident activity perceived to be anti-government. Lao peasants, however, have increasingly crafted politically creative methods of resistance that have enabled some communities and households to maintain access to land that had been allocated to investors. In this dissertation, I examine how effective resistance materializes within the Lao political landscape, by resisting with the state, shaping how industrial tree plantations are governed and their geographies of agrarian-environmental transformation.

The overarching argument of the dissertation is that in authoritarian contexts, like Laos, peasants are able to maintain access to land by taking advantage of political relations among state, corporate, and community actors that provide politically feasible means of refusal. Peasants find ways to resist that tread a middle path, that do not challenge state hegemonic power nor engage in under-the-radar acts of everyday resistance. Instead, they exploit and refashion established lines and relations of power among communities, state agencies, and plantation managers. They resist within the bounds of state power. Political relations between resource companies and the state vary, affecting how state sovereignty is mobilized to dispossess peasants of their land. Communities targeted by companies with weak relations with the state are afforded greater opportunities to contest such projects as they are not developed with the heavy coercion afforded to companies with better state relations. Communities that have powerful political connections with the state are also in a better position to resist. They are able to more effectively lodge their claims with the state when they have the political links to do so, particularly ethnic and kinship ties developed during the Second Indochina War. Communities more effectively resist the acquisition of lands that are afforded greater value by the state, particularly lowland paddy rice fields and state conservation areas. Finally, internal community relations, particularly democratic decision-making and solidarity, shape how effectively they mobilize against unjust land dispossession.

These arguments draw upon 20 months of in-country, ethnographic fieldwork during which I studied the operations of two plantation companies in 10 villages of Phin and Xepon districts, eastern Savannakhet province, southern Laos. One company is a state-owned Vietnamese rubber enterprise while the other is a private Chinese paper and pulp company planting eucalyptus and acacia trees. The bulk of the data comes from semi-structured one-on-one and focus group interviews with government officials at all administrative levels, civil society organizations, plantation company managers, village leaders, village households, and village women. The study is also deeply informed by participant observation – particularly with Lao government officials, civil society organizations, and rural communities – and by participatory mapping exercises and collected investment project documents.

The dissertation makes novel contributions to the discipline of geography. First, I demonstrate the importance of contested political ethnography, a methodological approach through which immersion in uncomfortable and oppositional political situations provides insights that would otherwise go unnoticed. Second, I contribute to understandings of how nature-society transformations occur in under-studied, authoritarian political contexts where neoliberal reforms are integrated with a heavy-handed role of the state in the economy. Third, I theorize how resistance can materialize and be effective in such contexts, despite its heavy repression. Fourth, I contribute to understandings of how dispossession actually occurs in practice and is governed by varying political relationships, leading to geographically variegated agrarian-environmental transformations.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Emel, Jacque Jody
Commitee: Bebbington, Anthony, Glassman, Jim, McCarthy, James
School: Clark University
Department: Geography
School Location: United States -- Massachusetts
Source: DAI-A 78/06(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Asian Studies, Geography, Forestry
Keywords: Dispossession, Environmental governance, Land grabbing, Laos, Resistance
Publication Number: 10246657
ISBN: 978-1-369-40485-2
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