Peter Vandergeest and Laura Schoenberger’s special issue of Journal of Peasant Studies

Over the last ten years, activists, scholars and development agencies have been discussing large scale land grabs—a major wave of cross-border land acquisitions set off by the 2007/08 food price crisis and financial crisis. Co-edited by York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR) Associates, Peter Vandergeest and Laura Schoenberger (Geography), a special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies, “Southeast Asian Perspectives on Agrarian-Environmental Transformations,” asks how useful the concept of the Global Land Grab has been for understanding agrarian and environmental transformations in Southeast Asia.

The introductory essay of the special issue, authored by Laura Schoenberger, Derek Hall, and Peter Vandergeest, grapples with this question. They suggest that the concept of a global land grab, with its origins in multiple crises in 2007/08, did not add much to our understanding of the Southeast Asian boom in plantations for oil palm, rubber and many other crops at the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century.

“We asked the contributors to consider how complex multi-scale dynamics that drive agrarian-environment transformation (AET) in Southeast Asia may be brought more clearly into focus by decentring land grabbing,” said Schoenberger.

“The contributors’ responses broaden the entry points of land grab studies,” said Vandergeest. “The papers consider how plantations interact with other forms of land enclosures for mining, conservation, hydropower, and smallholder production and argue for attention to cross-sectoral relations as AET processes”.

The collection represents a selection of research presented at the 2015 Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI) conference held in Chiangmai, Thailand, Land Grabbing, Conflict and Agrarian-Environmental Transformations: Perspectives from East and Southeast Asia. The papers take up a range of empirical examples from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam, to demonstrate the nuances of AET in the region.

By making links across sectors, contributors complicate how we understand agrarian livelihoods and displacements. Nancy Peluso’s article, for instance, shifts the conventional singular focus on oil palm production in Indonesia to the impact of small-scale gold mining. She suggests that in the study of AET in Indonesia, normative definitions of “agrarian” lead to the centralization of oil palm production at the expense of a nuanced understanding of the multiple interconnected activities that take place on the same landscape.

Ian Baird and York alumnus, Keith Barney (Geography) examine research on environmental governance of hydropower dams and plantations in Laos and Cambodia. They argue that environmental assessments need to account for how land and water interact. AETs in the region, according to Baird and Barney, are shaped by double displacements due to hydropower and plantation developments and the biophysical and environmental changes that accumulate across sectors.

Complex forms of resistance and negotiation in large-scale land deals reveal another aspect of the AET story in Southeast Asia. Radjwali et al describe the outcomes of an action research project where Indonesian communities used drones to generate maps accurate enough to be submitted as evidence in court to secure land rights. Schoenberger’s contribution focuses on one community in Cambodia that won back land from a large land deal by holding a land titling campaign accountable to smallholding citizens.

Rosanne Rutten et al write about the capacity of smallholders to influence key decisions in land deals in the Philippines and Indonesia. Using examples of interdependency and strategic relationships between smallholders, the state, and civil society, the authors map out how smallholders are able to produce bargaining power and have some influence on decision-making.

The special issue also includes contributions that debunk the idea that smallholders will eventually be replaced by large industrial farms. Jean-Francois Bissonette and Rodolphe De Koninck interrogate the claim that recent large-scale land deals have heralded the return of the plantation and the displacement of small farms. They suggest that a closer look at nationwide trends in oil and rubber production in Malaysia and Indonesia reveal the growing importance of smallholders.

The collection as a whole preserves the tradition of working across the academic-practitioner-institutional-activist divides. Schoenberger and Vandergeest said that they put together this special issue to push the field of land grab studies in new directions using new and innovative research on Southeast Asia.

The special issue is available open-access for the remainder of 2017. Find the issue at

Featured artwork is by Filipino painter Boy Dominguez (2017), commissioned and used by the Journal of Peasant Studiesfor the special issue on “Southeast Asian Agrarian-Environmental Transformations”