• Announcement

Asian Rice-Scapes: Topographies, Tastes and Technologies

6 January 2018

A number of HaB partners will be participating in a double panel titled Asian Rice-Scapes: Topographies, Tastes and Technologies - I and II in the conference, Borderland Spaces: Ruins, Revival(s) and Resources at the American University of Central Asia, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on the 13-15th August 2018.


The abstract of this double panel is available further down. The panel was proposed by Surajit Sarkar, Dharitri Narzary and Erik de Maaker. This panel takes the territoriality and sociology of rice as a starting point to explore how these define ethnic, economic and political spaces. As the prime staple of Asia, rice is an essential resource and commodity, and its control wields political power. Cultivating rice requires dedicated knowledge, skill and experience, whereas it also induces specific economies of production, taxation, and consumption. Rice also provides a foundation for tangible heritage, and is a source of cultural identity for communities in the rice-growing world. The panel intends to ‘think with’ rice to explore rice related legacies, resiliencies and revivals. The sustained academic questioning of methodological nationalism (Wimmer & Glick-Schiller 2002) has produced alternative approaches to territory and people that question states and their borders. This panel focuses on how rice cultivation creates what might be called rice-scapes: spaces that are defined by specific modalities of rice cultivation, distribution, and consumption. Wet rice cultivation, typically practiced on fertile clay in densely populated riverine plains and deltas has historically been conditional to the emergence of cities and states in Asia. Inducing trade and migration across territories, rice related knowledge and transactions have always exceeded specific polities. The high population density of wet rice cultivating areas is in sharp contrast with uplands that are used for the cultivation of dry rice, typically located at the sparsely populated peripheries of states. Dry rice harvests are comparatively meager, but the produce is locally highly appreciated if not revered for its taste and texture. Throughout Asia, the disparities between different modalities of rice cultivation have given rise to ethnic and indigenous boundaries. In fact, rice related topography frequently legitimizes political borders with wet rice and dry rice cultivators located on opposite sides. These boundaries have frequently obtained such permanence that they obscure cultural, social and religious linkages. Focusing on the production, economy and culture of rice, the panel intends to rethink divisions and interconnections between hill communities and plains dwellers. In what respects can histories, migrations and utilizations of rice techniques, but also the economic and religious symbolism of rice, contribute to the development of new perspectives on the emergence of cultural, social and political boundaries in Asia?

  1. Rice as a Political Commodity: The Construction of “Food Security” in Vietnam and its Transnational Implications

Timothy Gorman, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University This paper expands on Timmer and Falcon’s (1975) characterization of rice as a “political commodity,” the production, distribution, and consumption of which constitutes a central problem of political rule and thus an object of governance by developing a case study of Vietnamese food security policy and its transnational implications. The first section of the paper draws on Vietnamese government documents to trace the way in which “food security” (an ninh lương thực) has been conceptualized and pursued as a political project in contemporary Vietnam, arguing that the state’s central focus on rice and rice output as the key to national food security has led to the increased adoption of high-yielding varieties and reliance on chemical inputs in rice production. The second section draws on fieldwork and surveys conducted in Vietnam’s main rice-growing region, the Mekong Delta, to examine how the changing nature of rice farming has impacted both the livelihoods of rice farmers and their household consumption patterns, arguing that while increased reliance on intensive rice monocultures has boosted production in the aggregate, it has endangered both the economic position and food security of farmers themselves. The third looks at these trends from a transnational perspective, drawing on quantitative and qualitative data to argue that the consequence of Vietnamese food security policies has been a growing surplus of cheap, low-quality rice, which is then exported to other markets in the Global South, namely China and Africa, to the detriment of agrarian livelihoods and traditional foodways in those contexts. Citations: Timmer, C.P, and W.P Falcon. 1975. "The political economy of rice production and trade in Asia." in Agriculture in Development Theory, edited by L.G. Reynolds. New Haven: Yale University Press.  

  1. Rice: Currency of Justice in Burma/Myanmar?

Tharaphi Than Burmese vernacular newspapers often feature cartoons that represent people’s understanding of everyday justice, and such understanding is often symbolized in rice and farmlands.  The impact of the great depression in the 1930s on the Burmese economy, the arrival of Indian coolies and money lenders or Chettiars in the Burmese delta at the turn of the century, the hardship of Burmese farmers at the hands of the Chettiars and other ‘exploiters’ from the 1920s through the 1950s and even today in democratic Burma have all been depicted in cartoons with the central theme of ‘rice’.  From subsistence economy during the British Raj through the Socialist era to the experiments with capitalism in the 2000s, who has an easy access to rice in terms of production and consumption and who has not, drafts and fixes racial and economic boundaries as well as social relationships between locals and migrant workers. It explains many waves of social unrest, some of which bear the name ‘san lu pweh’ or ‘rice raids’, and influences governments’ policies over rice and nationalization of businesses owned by foreigners.  This paper explores through cartoons how the ubiquity of rice in everyday survival and struggle of the Burmese helps shape and harden social and racial identit(ies), how it becomes a currency to think about and demand justice.  The paper also raises important questions about the extent to which rice takes on meaning in relation to struggle, prosperity, exploitation, punishment, social unrest and justice in the context of the broader production and distribution models prescribed by successive governments.  

  1. Blurring Boundaries: Narratives of rice cultures and transformation

Surajit Sarkar, Ambedkar University Delhi. Swidden or dry cultivation of rice marks a mobile people or community, and the shift towards terrace farming (part-wet) marks a shift towards a permanent settlement. In the highlands of North East India, conversations with Chakesang rice cultivators in Phek district, Nagaland indicate how settled villages and local population pressures made cultivators from the 1950s and 1960s increasingly adopt terrace farming. Over decades of trial and error, these communities have developed a unique cultivation system suited to their local environment. In a practice borrowed from the earlier dry rice system, cultivators change the local rice varieties every few years to keep the yields up. The paddy field has become a symbol of wealth and social status because of the high and stable yield of paddy rice and increasing land prices. However, communities usually continue some aspects of swidden cultivation, because only a limited amount of land is suitable for paddy rice, people need non-rice crops, or because older people prefer the taste of upland rice. In the Brahmaputra valley, despite the increasing use of hybrid high yielding varieties in lowland wet-rice cultivation, Tai-Ahom stories of the rice varieties introduced in the 13th century for wet rice cultivation can still be seen and heard. Conversations with millowners in the wet-rice zone of the Upper Brahmaputra valley led to insights about disappearing rice varieties, based on their un/suitability for processing in the mill. The increasing focus on rice for sale through local market-commercial networks indicates a redefinition of the rice grain as economic commodity, and a threat to local nuances and understandings of many varieties, even across lowland-highland boundaries. This paper uses oral narratives of lives and livelihoods around rice, a cultural core of communities across Asia, to examine the place of Diversity, Cultivation and Homogenity in the transforming borderlands.  

  1. Asia to Africa: Mapping Seed Depletion in the West African Basins

Mohomodou Houssouba, University of Basel, Switzerland Abdourhamane Seck, Gaston Berger University, Saint-Louis, Senegal This paper examines narratives around seed conservation and circulation among traditional rice-growing communities in West Africa. Indeed, only a half century ago, scores of local varieties of paddy rice were cultivated along the Senegal and Niger rivers. Today, at best six varieties are grown. Two varieties that have recently been imported from Asia now dominate irrigated surfaces as cash crops. This shift is the result of a transformation driven by fundamental changes related to climate and taste, if not fashion, with regard to rice production and consumption. Along the Niger Bend, for example, traditional rice used to be grown over an extended cycle culminating in a harvest season spread over five to six months, corresponding to three crop periods ending the early, medium and long maturation cycles. A drastic shrinking of cultivation and harvest cycles triggers a parallel decline in resiliency among rice growers. As a matter of fact, farmers now limit the cycle, and have at best a single month of harvest. Moreover, they tend to privilege the Asian varieties that yield the sort of thin grain that is now in high demand on the market. In contrast, local red rice is now considered too labor-intensive and heavy for the favorite rice-based meals of the growing urban population. Although local varieties are recognized as more nutritious and in some cases higher yielding, white rice is by far the preferred product of contemporary consumers. In exploring multiple facets of the long-standing practice of conserving rice seeds and the consequences of its looming demise this paper explores questions such as:  To what extent is dwindling seed diversity in the region an irreversible process that should be allowed to run its course? And what does the current trend teach us about the African-Asian connection in rice production?  

  1. Maintaining Autonomy through Shifting Cultivation among the Karen of Northern Thailand

Malee Sitthikriengkrai, Center for Ethnic Studies and Development, Chiang Mai University This paper analyzes the upland rice shifting-cultivation system traditionally practiced by ethnic Karen people in the Thai highlands. The system consists of a short period of cultivation followed by a long fallow period, allowing the land to regenerate. Karen people and academics agree that this type of cultivation is environmental friendly as it naturally improves the quality of the soil. However, the Thai State rejects this perspective claiming that it causes deforestation and large-scale forest destruction. The government promotes the replacement of swidden farming by permanent cultivation in the lowlands. This often leads to policies that separate   people from the forests. Whereas the government policy, which initiates wet rice cultivation in the lowlands yields only a single product suitable for marketing and trade, many Karen groups request to maintain their traditional farming techniques as each cultivation cycle not only provides them with rice, but also with diverse agricultural products. Most ethnic Karen people, however, practice their traditional farming methods to maintain their self-sufficiency. Nonetheless, the cultivation of upland rice and the wet rice cultivation in lowland fields do not exist in a dichotomous relationship.  This article analyses the combination of the two cultivation systems in Huay Hin Lad Nai village, Waing Pa Pao district, Chiang Rai, where a Karen group has integrated both systems within an intermountain valley. The co-existence of both systems can be seen as the community bargaining with the authorities who are trying to restrict their shifting cultivation. Along these lines, the paper emphasizes that shifting cultivation is not only a system that provides food security but also food sovereignty to strengthen the autonomy of Karen communities. In a broader sense, it aims is to illustrate that the Karen, in particular and humans in general, can harmoniously co-exist with nature.  

  1. Shifting Cultivation and Shifting Power of Traditional Leaders (samang) in the Highlands of Northern Thailand

Chayan Vaddhanaphuti and Pitchaya Tanoy, Center for Ethnic Studies and Development, Chiang Mai University Rice cultivation has been seen as social identity of peoples of Thailand.  Highlanders largely engage in hill rice cultivation whereas lowlanders practice wet rice cultivation. This dichotomy mirrors the asymmetric power relation between ethnic highlanders and lowland Thai people: the savage and the civilized. This paper will discuss the way the Lua, an indigenous people of Northern Thailand, practice their traditional rotational shifting cultivation and how their rice growing practice has gradually being marginalized by lowland civilization.  It specifically describes the role of “samang”, a traditional leader who regulates the use of forest land for rice production, blesses the newly married couple, settles disputes, and performs community’s ritual ceremony after harvesting season. Samang’s role has diminished since the coming of Christianity in the community and state development projects. However, his role has recently been revived and re-invented in the process of local quest for Lua identity.  

  1. Rice in the Border Areas of Assam and Bhutan: A comparative perspective

Dharitri Narzary, Ambedkar University Delhi The Bodos settled along the Bhutan foothills of the eastern Himalayas have had a long history of interaction with the Bhutanese with whom they share multidimensional spaces. Spatially, this proximity meant co-existence and economic interdependence. Politically, there are records of the Bodos living along the border under the Bijni king paying tribute and taxes to the Bhutanese king. However, the Bhutanese are represented in Bodo folklore as plunderers of grain and other resources. On the other hand, Bodos tend to consider the Bhutanese as culturally backward. The Bodos continue to identify themselves as farmers of rice, though a large section of the society has taken to other modes of livelihood. While rice is staple for both the Bhutanese and the Bodos, it is notably central to the traditional life ways of the Bodos. This paper seeks to enquire how rice helps the Bodo community to articulate its identity vis-à-vis the upland Bhutanese. Is it because of the specific social and religious significances and meanings of rice for the Bodo? Or is it due to topographical differences, and their implications for people’s lifestyle, that the Bhutanese as hills people are perceived differently by the Bodo? This paper focuses on the rice culture of the Bodos: How rice is a commodity, as a family resource, as an object with higher spiritual meaning, a metaphor as goddess of wealth (Mainao) and a lifeline of the common peasants? I will discuss the traditional practice of community farming, resource sharing (community produce), rice cultivation techniques, social customs as well as cultural and religious rituals where rice plays important role. In exploring the socio-cultural and economic contexts of rice, my paper will try to answer the question: Does the rice culture of the Bodos explain how they perceive themselves as distinct from the Bhutanese?  

  1. Rice as a Cultural Resource: Symbolism, Distinction and the Rethinking of Ethnic Boundaries

Erik de Maaker, Leiden University  Ethno-nationalist movements tend to derive their rationale from primordialist interpretations of ethnicity and indigeneity that suppose an idiosyncrasy of people, language, culture and territory (Gutpta & Ferguson 1997). This perception of ethnic communities as ‘islands’ is rooted in colonial state making, and continues to inspire political mobilization (Karlsson 2003). These movements consistently advocate the institutionalization of ethnic boundaries that delineate these imagined communities, be it in the drafting of new ‘self-governing’ administrative units, or the imposition of legal boundaries that define group membership (VandeKerckhove 2009). Yet beyond this strategic relevance, exploring cultural difference does require us to consider what Barth (1969) referred to as the ‘cultural stuff’, the ideas, practices, tastes and knowledge that people share, which do not necessarily operate along clearly defined communal boundaries. Over the last half a century or more politics in North East India has been dominated by movements organized along ethnic lines. One of the (many) ethnicities that this pertains to are the Garo. In my paper I move beyond the focus on ethnic boundaries, to explore a main trope of Garo ethnicity, which is the cultural significance of rice. Archetypically, Garo are perceived as an upland people who are particularly engrossed with swidden rice. Indeed, the Garo community religion perceives rice as a source of life, the cultivation and harvest of which at once demands sacrifice and sacrilege. As economic reorientation and religious conversion, among others, redefine and transform people’s ideas about, economic access to, and technical engagement with rice, to what degree does it continue to act as a cultural resource? In what respects do these cultural practices, knowledges and ideas create a Garo cultural sphere that is distinct, or continues to be distinct from that of ‘neighbouring’ ethnicities?