President’s Corner: A Prosperous Future for Rural Asia?

geoffrey-lawrenceThe Fifth International Conference of the Asian Rural Sociological Association was held in Vientiane, Laos, from 2-5 September 2014. I was invited to present a keynote which I had written with colleagues from Australia and Germany (click to access paper). The keynote dealt with the process of ‘financialisation’ and what this might mean for rural Asia. However, there were several other prominent themes which emerged from the conference.

There were some twelve sessions and numerous panels, open forums and discussions. I have identified the three main themes which were woven throughout the conference. The first was the structures and processes shaping rural development. An underlying concern, here, was with agricultural productivity. Speakers identified many of the problems that had arisen from the first green revolution in Asia (marginalization and displacement of small-holder farmers, dependence of farming upon external inputs, and environmental pollution and destruction) and noted the importance of not repeating these same mistakes at a time governments and farmers were seeking new, productive, means of expanding output. One speaker, Tadasu Tsuruta, considered that rather than a new green revolution what was required was a new ‘green economy’ – one in which environmental and sustainability concerns were as prominent as economic imperatives. A ‘green’ agricultural economy would be one where indigenous knowledge was utilized, where innovations could be introduced into traditional farming systems, and where development would foster – rather than undermine – environmental conservation. Another speaker, Rie Makita argued that the goals of poverty reduction and environmental conservation were best pursued through fair trade. Arihiro Minoo’s paper supported this sentiment, but argued that the transactions between the ‘middle’ operators and the farmers need to be more transparent and more farmer-friendly than they are at present. Retiring President of ARSA, Koichi Ikegami, suggested that apart from the five ‘capitals’ that need to be enhanced via rural development, a sixth – regional capital – should be added. Fair trade will, he suggests, be an important contributor to the growth of regional capital and this should be measured to gauge local improvements, alongside the existing five capitals.

The second theme was farmer and community empowerment. Many speakers were concerned with the lack of endogenous development, criticizing top-down exogenous decision-making as an inappropriate means of fostering social and economic progress in rural Asia. Two specific issues were prominent: the importance of empowering women as a first step in increasing local food security, and the significance of the food sovereignty movement in helping to focus attention upon the rights of subsistence and small-scale farmers. In relation to women’s participation, several case studies were presented on how women’s expanding role in farming and household production had been achieved. The key was to supplement farming income with other income-generating activities such as textile production. One case study, from Timor-Leste, demonstrated how matrilineality was an important contributor to the empowerment of rural women in that nation.

Given Asian governments’ concerns about, and experiences of, natural and human-generated environmental problems, it is perhaps no surprise that the third major theme was that of disaster management and resilience. A discussion panel dealt with the topics of community management of the tsunami after the Great East Japan Earthquake, post-tsunami experiences in Thailand, earthquakes in China, disaster management in Indonesia and the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. Papers later in the conference revisited many of these case study examples, providing additional insights into the ways local communities responded, along with the impacts of disasters on their lives. There was no ‘one’ finding to emerge. However, it was clear that local residents are often very unhappy with the level of support provided by governments, with many communities coming up with their own disaster management strategies. While this shows evidence of resilience, some of the community initiatives are unlikely to succeed if they are out of kilter with the ideas and demands of central government.

The paper which I felt provided the best summary of the challenges faced by rural Asia was presented by Mariko Hayashi, project manager for the Japan International Volunteer Centre. Mariko spoke of the changes occurring in rural regions of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. She spoke of a loss of natural resources (as timber was cut for sale to Thailand), changing land-use as rubber and eucalyptus plantations spread across the landscape, the debt that contract farmers were experiencing as they purchased inputs in an effort to improve income, and illegal logging of forests. With these land-use changes there was a subsequent decrease in the amount of food available. Those farmers displaced could not readily find work (it took years for rubber plantations to reach productive potential and to provide jobs). Yet, village authorities were leasing land to plantation developers and the government was granting ‘land concessions’ without consulting local farmers. Her concern was that the very people responsible for local food production and food security were being made redundant. Is this the sort of ‘rural development’ that will bring a prosperous future to rural Asia? she asked.

For those wanting to review the abstracts please visit:

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