#AsiaNow Speaks with Tania Murray Li

Tania Murray Li is Canada Research Chair in the Political-Economy and Culture of Asia and the Director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. Dr. Li is author of Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier, published by Duke University Press and winner of the 2017 AAS George McT. Kahin Book Prize (SE Asia).

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

Drawing on two decades of ethnographic research in Sulawesi, Indonesia, the book 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, increasingly caught up in a set of competitive, capitalist relations that imposed a stringent market discipline. My account takes the reader into the highlanders’ world, exploring the dilemmas they faced as sharp inequalities emerged among them.

The most significant shift I charted over twenty years of revisiting the highlands was the closing of the land frontier. By 2009 landlessness—a condition that was unthinkable when I began the study in 1990—had set in. The highlanders’ customary practices for sharing and caring, forged during centuries of land abundance, were ill equipped to handle the new situation. Ethnographic methods enabled me to track how this shift was experienced, and to explain why there was no push-back—no attempt to resist the path of commodification or restore old ways which fell gradually into disuse.

What inspired you to research this topic?

My goal was twofold. On one hand, I wanted to bring rural lives and livelihoods back into focus. Urbanization, globalization, and migration have been the topics of choice for Asia scholars over the past two decades, but at least half of Asia’s people still live in the countryside and depend partly or wholly on agriculture. I wanted to explore this changing rural world, and bring it alive for contemporary readers. At the same time, I wanted to challenge two problematic narratives that dominate in this field. One is the complacent, modernization narrative 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 and other parts of the global south mean that rural people who come to “land’s end” may actually face a dead end, with no way back, and no way out.

The second narrative I wanted to challenge is the one that sees capitalist relations as an alien form that is imposed coercively by the state or agribusiness corporations. Coercion sometimes happens, but there is another kind of transition that is generated from below, when rural people transform their own land and farming systems in the attempt to secure a better life. In so doing, they set in motion a whole series of social, cultural and economic transformations. Smallholder-driven commodity booms have a long history in Southeast Asia; the difference today is that farmers on land frontiers must now compete with plantations, forest concessions, conservation areas and many other land uses. Across the region, land is coming to an end. I wanted to tell this big story on an intimate scale.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better or easier than you expected it would?

I started this project on a post-doc in 1990, and never expected that I would continue visiting these remote highlands for the next twenty years. I was drawn to return because I could see that a major transformation was taking place, and I had a unique opportunity to track it, but how to keep it up? Physical stamina was one challenge: each time I went back I had to retrain myself, to switch from rather-sedentary professor to mountain goat. Language was another challenge. I speak fluent Indonesian, but not the highlanders’ language, so I had to find an interpreter from the coast who was willing to hike with me. Given the regional hierarchy in which coastal people see highlanders as hopelessly backward, and possibly dangerous, this was not easy, but I was fortunate to meet a very smart, flexible, and friendly woman market seller who helped me with language. She also maintained relations with the highlanders in my absence, since they would stop by her market stall.

If you want to get a visual sense of the rugged landscape and the conditions of life in the highlands, and to hear a bit more about my research method and the writing process, check out my book website.

What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Maybe this was the result of my anti-malarial medications, but I had a vivid dream about hiking right to the center of the peninsula, where I came across a city with buses and people but there was something strange about the people—they wore no clothes. Highlanders used to tell me stories about the naked people they would meet on the trail in the dense interior forests, as a way of informing me that they were civilized folk, while the real primitives were further inland. These stories were not actually original—there are colonial versions of the same tales. Imagining a city may have been about my loneliness or desire for some comfort (a mattress, a shower, a bus …), or maybe it came from reflecting on James Scott’s ideas about proudly autonomous highlanders who do their own thing in the hills, and resist state control. Maybe there was a city up there, I just never made it that far!

I was also stuck by dislocations in the other direction. One highland woman told a story about how New Tribes missionaries airlifted her by helicopter to the provincial capital city to take care of her friend who had a horribly infected wound. In her limited Indonesian, she had to explain to the nurses that she had no idea what to do in a hospital—how to use the bathroom, how to turn on an electric light, what to do with a thermos flask, and so much more. She was very plucky and resourceful, so it was a tale of triumph, but it was also a reflection of her new recognition of her place in a wider world: “I told the nurses we are from the sticks” she said, “we know nothing at all so you have to help us and teach us what to do.”

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you would recommend be read in tandem with your own?

There are a few books it would be interesting to read alongside Land’s End. One is Conceiving Spirits (Smithsonian, 1999) by anthropologist Jennifer Nourse. She is writing about the same highland place I describe in Land’s End, but she focuses on different topics, namely shamanism and birth rituals. Reading the two books together shows how different styles of ethnographic inquiry produce very different, though not incompatible accounts. Another useful pairing is with Anna Tsing’s book Friction (Princeton, 2005) or maybe her latest book, The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton, 2015). She is writing about similar remote places, and also trying to make sense of varied engagements with capitalism and with social movements. I report the challenges faced by rural people who reach “land’s end,” while she highlights “the possibility of life in capitalist ruins.” Her conclusions are generally more optimistic than mine, so it is useful to reflect on how each of us comes to our conclusions, and what that means in terms of where we go from here.

What are you working on now?

My current research is on the expansion of oil palm plantations, another form of capitalist agriculture, this time at the massive corporate end of the spectrum. Together with Dr. Pujo Semedi of Gadjah Mada University and about a hundred students from our two universities, I have been conducting ethnographic research in Kalimantan’s plantation zone. In the activist and scholarly literature a lot of attention is paid to what plantations take away (customary land, forests, clean rivers); our focus is on what plantations put in place—on the specific kinds of social, political, and economic relations that are being installed together with the palms. There are some echoes of colonial plantation regimes, but also some novel features, especially concerning labor. For colonial plantations, land was abundant, labor was scarce. Now, we argue, land is scarce—or more hotly contested—but labor is relatively abundant, as migrants travel to plantation zones from across the archipelago seeking work. Indeed, some of them are city folk, so we’re seeing urban-to-rural migration flows, and many other gendered and racialized permutations. Watch this space!