Juliet Lu

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Department:
ESPM
Term:
AY 2016-17

In the early 2000s, the Chinese and Lao governments heralded rubber as a silver bullet for development for Laos. The Lao state welcomed foreign direct investments in cash crops, granting over 130,000 ha of concessions for rubber alone, primarily to Chinese companies. The Chinese state also provided financial and bureaucratic support to Chinese companies investing in agriculture in Laos as a form of development cooperation. These projects were expected to replicate China’s domestic successes by facilitating the transfer of Chinese technology and agricultural management approaches. But global rubber prices plummeted in 2011, dashing optimism about the crop and making rubber tapping unprofitable. In response, companies may now exit plantation production, leave rubber trees untapped to wait out the price drop, or shift their focus to other activities. Due to the vast extent of land converted to rubber, these decisions will shape land use and access regimes, labor markets, and the welfare of countless Lao farmers. China’s spectacular economic rise presents an alternative to the Western industrial story of development. The case of rubber’s boom and bust in Laos is an important harbinger for the long-term consequences of Chinese development cooperation. It leads me to ask: what challenges arise in the logic of applying China’s within-country development experience to other countries? How do Chinese state discourses of development translate into plantation managerial practices and company decision-making on the ground in Laos? Do companies change their discourses and practices in a context of shrinking profits, and with what implications for resource management and land access systems in Laos?