- Rent Capitalism and Shifting Plantations in the Mekong Borderlands
This chapter documents the impact of Chinese capitalism on the Mekong region's agricultural sector in Laos based on a survey of the Chinese-owned banana plantations near the Laotian border town of Houy Xai.1 It will demonstrate how the high demand for bananas in China and unregulated rent capitalism have made it possible for small and medium Chinese banana plantations operating in the Thai-Lao border areas to compete successfully with larger companies. However, the small-scale and short-term land acquisitions and the practice of shifting plantation by the Chinese companies have resulted in large-scale, long-term environmental and health impacts on local lives and livelihoods.2
The "Shifting Plantation" System
In her study of the banana industry in the Caribbean, Barbara Welch divides the global banana trade into four independent subsystems, in the North Atlantic, the Western Pacific, Southern Africa and Southeastern South America.3 In terms of production, however, there are three identifiable forms: the large plantation system, the family farm, and the small shifting plantation system.
The banana is highly perishable, with a short period of time between its edible maturation and time of spoilage. While most major markets lie in the [End Page 177] temperate zones, cultivation is confined to tropical areas. The banana industry — in terms of production, logistics and marketing — requires high levels of efficient business organization. The geography of the banana industry contributed to the emergence of the large plantation system in Latin America or what James Wiley calls the "Banana Empire".4 This type of organization began with the founding of the United Fruit Company in 1899. Since then, the banana industry in Latin America has been controlled by trans-national companies such as United Fruit, Del Monte, Dole, and Chiquita, among others. From the beginning, land acquisition was one of the paramount goals of these companies. The empire-building task of setting up plantations required huge investments in forest clearing, irrigation techniques, labour management and logistics. During the industry's incipient stage, the capital required to accomplish these herculean tasks was only available in the North. Consequently, control over the banana industry — land, railroad and shipping — resided in the consuming regions rather than the producing regions.
The "family farm" banana production system used in the Caribbean is different from the large plantations in Latin America. It differs in scale, landscape, land-tenure systems and the labour that tends to the farms. This type of production system is based on independent smallholders who are members of cooperative associations. The banana growers associations (BGAs) purchase bananas directly from their members and perform shipping arrangements. Inputs including fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, blue vinyl covers, boxes, and other items are sold to members on credit and deducted from the payments due to the farmers once their fruit has been delivered. Small-scale family farms are however vulnerable to weather, disease and price fluctuations, over which farmers have very little control. Nevertheless, they can be relatively assured of being able to generate a regular income each year.
The Chinese-owned banana plantations in the Mekong region, however, represent a new form of banana production system unique to the region. In this "shifting plantation" production system, plots of land are cultivated temporarily through the short-term rental of land. Small and medium-sized Chinese fruit enterprises have adopted this form of agricultural production and become migratory. After six to ten years of producing a particular fruit on a rented farm plot, the company usually abandons it for another plot once soil depletion and pest infestation begin to lower the yield. This is especially true of banana production, which requires large amounts of pesticides and chemicals to keep the bananas beautiful and uniform looking. With the high level of contamination and waste, it is not unusual that the productivity of yield decreases over time. [End Page 178]
The shifting plantation system allows smaller companies to compete with larger competitors. Since production is invested on a smaller scale and is highly mobile, the entire production process from cultivation to packing and transportation can be done entirely in the field, without having to set...