- Gambling with the Land: The Contemporary Evolution of Southeast Asian Agriculture by Rodolphe De Koninck and Jean-François Rousseau
A learned, stimulating and yet puzzling book, Gambling with the Land comprises nine chapters. All but its introductory and concluding [End Page 491] chapters consist of odd pages featuring graphs and tables facing even pages discussing those graphs and tables. These graphs and tables present country-level data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, complemented in some cases with data from other UN agencies, from the World Bank and from additional sources. In Chapter Six, on the “Expansion and Intensification of Food Crops and Increase in Livestock Production”, for example, page 87 holds graphs showing trends in “Rice exports in selected countries (with prices), 1961–2007”, “Rice export ratio in selected countries, 1961–2007” and “Rice imports in selected countries, 1961–2007” above tables providing quantitative measures of these same indicators for 1961–63, 1971–73, 1981–83, 1991–93, 2001–3 and 2007. Page 86 offers a discussion of these data. Sixty-six similar pairs of facing pages — addressing topics ranging from “Estimated global population growth and cropland expansion, 1700–2007” and “Estimated cropland expansion in selected regions and countries, 1700–2007” (Plate 1, pp. 12–13) to “CO2 emissions in total and per capita by country, 1960–2007” (Plate 67, pp. 156–57) — make up Chapters Two through Eight of this book.
The discussion appearing on the even pages facing the charts and graphs in these chapters is often fascinating and informative. One expects nothing less from Professor De Koninck, who has over the past four and a half decades carved out a unique place in the study of Southeast Asian agriculture. Few will be the readers who do not find in this discussion fresh and thoughtful observations on topics ranging from Thailand’s emergence as a diversified food exporter to the state of the region’s oft-forgotten coconut sector or the broad ramifications of the rapid increase during the past half-century in the cultivation in Southeast Asia of “cash crops” such as oil palm, rubber, sugar cane and, again, coconut.
On a more general level, this book embodies De Koninck’s and Rousseau’s effort to analyse “some of the essential macro-level trends ongoing in Southeast Asian agriculture since the 1960s in every one of the eight major agricultural countries in the region” (p. 6). It treats, that is, each of the ASEAN countries save Singapore and Brunei. These trends, or “fundamental processes” include what [End Page 492] the authors term the “commodization” and “externalization” of the region’s agriculture and the “agriculturization … basically at the expense of its forests” of its landscape (p. 162). At a time when Southeast Asia is more generally understood as an urbanizing region defined by its industrial and service sectors, the volume emphasizes with great effectiveness the “remarkable resilience” (p. 160) of its agricultural sector. Indeed, De Koninck and Rousseau point out that the region’s share in global agricultural output increased from 4.2 to 7.3 per cent between the early 1960s and 2008, while its agricultural exports increased fortyfold, to US$95 billion, in roughly the same period.
The impact of such data, the book’s effective focus on the simultaneous intensification and physical expansion of Southeast Asian agriculture and its many other virtues notwithstanding, Gambling with the Land remains a puzzling publication. The disconnect between its title and its structure make what is so puzzling clear. That title suggests an argument. And the volume’s introductory chapter does, after noting that agricultural land remains “a locus of activity, investment and competition” (p. 6) in Southeast Asia, refer to something that the authors “call gambling with the land or even gambling or betting on the land” (ibid.). Yet the chapter offers no explanation of what the authors mean by these terms, of why the development of Southeast Asian agriculture in the decades since 1960 may represent a “gamble...