Dr. Kevin Woods, Visiting Scholar, East-West Center, Honolulu, HI
Room: Saunders 443
In this presentation I speak to the particular politics in commodifying nature, in this case privatizing land and rubber, and its situated political effects in armed ethnic conflict territories. I draw from field research in northern Myanmar (Burma) along the China border from 2010-2015 and in Tanintharyi Region in the southeast of Myanmar in the Thailand borderlands from 2014-2016. The two field sites provide a generative comparative on the intersection of natures, territoriality and political violence in processes of capital accumulation. In northern Myanmar, para-military leaders who arose out of war, counterinsurgency and the illicit drugs economy have established private rubber concessions in ex-poppy smallholders’ swidden fields. Mainland Chinese agribusiness investors supported by China’s opium substitution program work through these narco-militia leaders as only they have the territorial authority and power to “fix” rubber in these rebel landscapes. Rubber production in northern Tanintharyi, by contrast, expands into ethnic Karen rebel territory by way of ethnic Mon “large-holders” from Mon state, oftentimes who are ex-rebel leaders from the Mon rebel group. Mon large-holder rubber plantations erase Karen villagers’ historical land claims and foreclose their right to return during peace. These two in-depth field case studies showcase different ecological landscapes, armed groups and dynamics, forms of investment, and models of production. Yet in both places vulnerable ethnic minorities have been dispossessed of their land and livelihoods and their historical claims to land erased. The production of rubber in these two sites in effect expanded the territorial control, authority and political legitimacy of the military-state—inclusive of ex-rebel and militia leaders—at the expense of ethnic minority populations and rebel groups who resist the state. These data findings and analysis on the political ecology of violence in rubber production challenge normative understandings of the virtues of post-conflict development, economic growth and peace-building.
Kevin Woods recently completed his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley on the politics of contemporary land and resource reforms in ethnic conflict areas in Myanmar. He has fifteen years of applied research experience in the country. His academic publications include an article in JPS on “ceasefire capitalism,” a forthcoming article in Territory, Politics, Governance on Chinese agribusiness investment with narco-militias in Myanmar, and a forthcoming edited book volume with Philip Hirsch on “turning land into capital” in the Mekong Region with the University of Washington Press. He is senior policy analyst for Forest Trends in Washington DC, where he manages the Myanmar program on resource governance decentralization and peace building. He is currently a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi.