restricted access Chapter 1: Introduction Towards a Political Ethnography of Desire
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Introduction   1 Introduction Towards a Political Ethnography of Desire This book is an ethnography of the desire that runs through the politics of poverty and development in Laos. I begin with the observation that among the rural Lao residents with whom I conducted fieldwork, disillusionment and suspicion were the dominant frames of reference for interpreting poverty reduction programmes. Yet, despite this, there was a persistent desiring return to these promises, leading people to engage with policy, the state and bureaucracy despite their doubts. Desire in the politics of poverty is the central concept and question of this book. The setting for this investigation is an island in the south west of Laos, Don Khiaw. Here, the Mekong River spreads wide and slips quietly through hundreds of small islands. I started research here in 2002, initially for 16 months. I continue to return there whenever possible, at least annually, and maintain contacts with residents, but the following chapters are based primarily on that initial fieldwork. This is Mekong valley heartland, ideal for wet rice cultivation. The fields of the islands and plains glow emerald green in the wet season, ripen to gold before harvest and then turn to dust during the wintery dry. From the point of view of rice, a successful colonization of this territory has been achieved via the domestication of human desires: people are settled in an area suited to rice’s needs and into a temporal cycle shaped by rice’s demands for them to tend to ploughing, transplanting the seedlings, water levels and preservation of seed. In return the rice offers a grain that is heavily symbolized by the people as life itself: it is the archetype of food, and through this, of the productive power of care and nurturance.1 The domestication of these people to rice is only partial, however, they have desires that lead them further afield. Livelihoods are supplemented by fishing, gathering Chap1 (1-23) 1 2/20/14 3:10:14 PM  Fields of Desire Figure 1.   A mother and three of her sons transplant rice seedlings. Figure 2.   The Sii Phan Don area of the Mekong River is peppered with many islands. Chap1 (1-23) 2 2/20/14 3:10:20 PM Introduction  and alternative crops, and many leave the area in the dry to take up seasonal labour in the coffee fields, or more permanently to work in urban centres (construction, garment factories) and Thailand (domestic service, commercial fisheries, factories). All of these migrations, I will argue, are fuelled by significant and sometimes surprising desires. Historically, the Mekong River has been a centre for trade, settlement and cultural exchange. Through the course of the 20th century, however, the river and its plains became an international border between Thailand and Laos. Today, linguistic, political, economic and kinship ties continue to link the Lao parts of the Mekong valley to those parts that now fall in Thailand. Many of the residents of Don Khiaw that I met were themselves returned refugees who had originally fled to Thailand after the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) came to power in late 1975. Many others had wanted to flee, or were relatives of those who had and were now settled in Thailand, the USA, Australia, France and Canada. This area was both the target of and recruiting area for a long-running counter-revolutionary movement that aimed to overthrow the LPRP, a movement that weakened in the 1980s and sputtered to an end in the 1990s. By the time I arrived most locals eyed the current LPRP-backed state and its programmes with suspicion, but they were no longer openly rebellious. When it came to poverty alleviation and development, this made for a particularly doubtful set of recipients. The people I came to know in my fieldwork rarely took a development or poverty reduction programme at its word, but rather read it in terms of possible exploitation, corruption or futility. This world-weary view of the development industry and its efforts is echoed among academics, development industry workers and bureaucrats in Laos. In the literature—both academic and bureaucratic—it is now not uncommon to see the phrase “development-induced poverty”: development programmes themselves are described as harmful and destructive (see Rigg 2006 for an overview). Anthropologists are now used to reading exposés of development: its “anti-politics” (Ferguson 1994), the “rendering technical” of what are essentially political problems (Li 2007), the persistent “logic” of bureaucracies where good policy may be...