White gold: the commercialisation of rice farming in the lower mekong basin
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The development story told of Southeast Asia usually focuses on processes of urbanisation, industrialisation, and rapid sectoral change, which have propelled economic growth and thus delivered rising incomes, improving standards of living, and declining poverty. Where, however, does farming and agriculture, and in particular, the region’s signature crop, rice, fit into this story? It is not a simple one, because many of the trends anticipated by scholars and policy-makers have not materialised, while others have worked out far more rapidly than anyone expected. Indeed, some of the trends, or the absence of them, appear on first sight to be puzzlingly at odds. Landholdings have not—generally—amalgamated into larger units of production, which might drive labour productivity increases. Mechanisation of some aspects of rice agriculture has proceeded rapidly, even in countries that remain poor and seemingly in rural labour surplus. Questions and concerns regarding food security stand alongside the disintensification of some aspects of production, even land abandonment. Most rice farms are sub-livelihood in size, but living standards in the countryside continue to improve and poverty to decline. Parents make huge sacrifices to educate their children so that they can escape the drudgery of rice farming, but nonetheless stay rooted in—and to—their natal lands. Production is increasingly commercialised, but farmers in some areas seem to adopt semi-subsistence mindsets in their approach to rice farming.
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