To fight or to embrace? Divergent responses to the expansion of Southern China’s industrial tree plantation sector by Yunan Xu

The industrial tree plantation sector has been expanding rapidly and massively in Southern China, affecting the livelihoods of the local population residing in the region. But is change resisted or embraced? A recent study on the political economy of Southern China’s industrial tree plantation sector shows that differentiated positions of villagers in their communities lead to distinct political responses to the expansion of the sector.

In the past two decades, the industrial tree plantation (ITP) sector has been expanding rapidly and massively in Southern China, and especially in Guangxi Province. ITPs refer to monocultures of fast-growing tree crops (such as eucalyptus, pine and acacia) mainly used for inedible industrial raw materials. The rise of the ITP sector, involving both foreign and domestic actors, has led to extensive changes in land use and land control, as well as in labour conditions and livelihoods of the villagers in this region. These changes and the resulting encroachment by the ITP sector have led to diverse political reactions by affected villagers residing in this region.

A recent study analysed the dynamics of the ITP boom in Southern China. The main finding of the study is that, contrary to what has been observed in many other places around the world where a crop boom has taken place, the local population in Guangxi Province did not necessarily lose and thus did not always resist the expansion. It shows a more complicated trajectory of the livelihood change and political reaction from below in the course of the crop boom, which is beyond “resistance against expulsion”.

Beyond expulsion

In this case of Guangxi Province, interviewed villagers’ livelihoods were not fully threatened even when some of their collectively owned forest land was appropriated due to their diverse livelihood sources and their ability to retain of their farmland owing to certain institutional settings in China (e.g. the household responsibility system). As a result, when part of their land was leased out, they remained capable of maintaining their subsistence. Hence, when studying the local population’s livelihood change during the massive changes of land use and land control, examining what and how much is left to the villagers is just as important as analysing what and how much has been taken from them.

Moreover, affected villagers are not a homogeneous group, but have varying interests and resource endowments, including land control, labour conditions, financial resources and social relations, and were thus affected differentially during the crop boom. Those villagers who controlled little (or even no) means of production and had little (or even no) access to alternative livelihoods became more vulnerable, whereas those with privileged access to livelihood resources were able to benefit from the sector.

In a few cases, some villagers gained control over the land from local or nearby village collectives and became owners of ITPs. Over the course of these practices, grabbers were not outsiders, but local villagers themselves. They were then able to accumulate land and the associated benefits at the expense of their fellow villagers, rather than simply being victims or resisters in a land deal. Such relatively small-scale land grabbing dominated by local villagers is called intimate land grabbing.

These are critical reminders to go beyond the dichotomies of “small vs. large”, “outsider vs. local actors” and “victims vs. grabbers”, and to focus, instead, on the dynamics of social relationships around land and production processes. 

Beyond resistance

Because of their distinct positions and diverse degrees of dispossession (or no dispossession), villagers had varying perspectives and diverse political responses towards the expansion of the sector. When villagers were able to get actively incorporated into the crop boom, benefiting from the crop boom, they tended to embrace these changes. When the villagers were passively excluded and had lost out, they were more likely to resist. Thus, the villagers’ concerns were mainly centred on their subsistence and economic gains/losses, which are closely associated with the terms of the villagers’ inclusion/exclusion and their access to the alternative livelihood opportunities. Hence, to understand the trajectory of political reactions, the villagers’ differentiated interests and wins and losses should be the key focus of future analyses.

About the author:

Yunan XuYunan Xu is a recent PhD graduate of Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague. She has published several  journal articles, reports and conference papers. Her research interests include: land politics and policies, rural livelihood, rural politics, agrarian transformation, crop booms, flex crops and food politics, with the geographic areas both in China and beyond (Southeast Asia and Latin America).



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