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On the Geopolitics of Land Colonization: Order and Disorder on the Frontiers of Vietnam and Indonesia

Rodolphe De Koninck
p. 33-59

Texte intégral

The author wishes to thank Jean-Philippe Leblond, Bruno Thibert and Pham Thanh Hai, as well as the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, for its support to the project entitled “The Challenges of the Agrarian Transition in Southeast Asia”.

  • 1L’État est panoptique: il aime voir ceux qu’il aime et encore plus ceux qui ne l’aiment pas. L’Éta (...)

“The state is panoptic. It likes to see those that it likes
and even more those who do not like him.
The state likes to mark out the land and regroup people.”
(Translated from Brunet 1990: 63.)1

A Question of Territory


  • 2 For an elaborate definition of “géopolitique”, see John Agnew in Lévy & Lussault 2003: 408-411.
  • 3 See his recent De la géopolitique aux paysages, 2003: 192.

1Although the term geopolitics generally refers to contest over space between nations2, it is employed here in a more limited but closely related sense. As forcefully argued by Lacoste3, contest over space, over territories, frequently occurs within the borders of a given country and as such it should be the object of geopolitics. Geopolitical strategies can very well be devised by actors competing for territorial control inside a country, a competition which will generally involve the state apparatus itself. Internal geopolitical strategies may also be related to the broader international environment, to the extent that any state needs to define itself territorially and as such it has to send a message to its neighbours and to the world at large, about its capacity to manage its domain, including its borderlands.

2This is evident in a number of Third World countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, where development policies definitely incorporate land use strategies, which in turn involve population migrations or vice versa. In Vietnam and Indonesia, two countries characterized by complex ethnic composition, very uneven population distribution and marked contrasts between lowlands and uplands, current development policies appear to have definite geopolitical undertones and consequences, some of them particularly dramatic.

Territory, Territoriality and Territorialization

  • 4Le territoire, dans cette perspective, est un espace dans lequel on a projeté du travail, soit de (...)

3According to Raffestin, “Territory […] is a portion of space in which work has been invested, either as energy or information, and which, consequently, exposes relations deeply marked by power. Space is the ‘original prison’, territory is the prison that men give themselves” (Raffestin, 1980: 129)4. The resultant territoriality—the relation that men entertain with constructed space—is therefore the object of permanent interaction and contest.

4From this perspective, the modern state needs to reaffirm its own territoriality by establishing tighter control over people’s activities as well as movement, which in turn means establishing landmarks, “baliser le territoire” as Brunet would say. This is particularly relevant with reference to agriculture and agriculturalists who tend to occupy so much of the territory over which the state purports to rule. “A state mainly concerned with appropriation and control will find sedentary agriculture preferable to pastoralism or shifting agriculture” (Scott 1998: 338).

5As Scott points out, throughout the colonial world, during the colonial era itself, as well and even more since its demise, central “planners” have had to cope with “… local cultivation practices, which were regarded as deplorable customs for which modern, scientific farming were the corrective” (ibid.: 279). This has been particularly true with shifting cultivation, which “… is an exceptionally complex and hence quite illegible form of agriculture from the perspective of a sovereign state and its extension agents” (ibid.: 282). With regard to agricultural land use, this will lead to the state “consolidating the power of central institutions and diminishing the autonomy of cultivators and their communities vis-à-vis those institutions” (Scott 1998: 286). This in turn will necessitate and at the same time allow for bringing into the fold of the central state’s institutions all those cultivators who have hitherto remained outside of it.

6Throughout Southeast Asia, a privileged method for achieving this goal has been agricultural expansion. Since the 1960s and 1970s, in both Indonesia and Vietnam, it has occurred on a massive scale. In both cases, the State has been heavily involved in promoting and financing the opening of the frontier to new settlers and the development of so-called marginal lands, with the explicit aim of better integrating them into the national territory.

Problematic Categories

Uplands, Forests, Minorities, Swidden Agriculture

7Mountains and hilly terrain are prevalent in Southeast Asia. As much as two thirds of the region rise 200 metres above sea level and nearly half rises 500 meters and over. This applies both to Vietnam and Indonesia where these proportions are even slightly higher (De Koninck 1994: 14). These uplands are largely forested although it would be wrong to equate too closely uplands with forests, to the extent that large tracts of the so-called forested uplands are in fact covered with plantations crops and, particularly in Indonesia, have been in that state for a long time (Li 1999b). In addition, largely denuded upland areas are an increasingly frequent occurrence in the region, where overall forest cover has been receding at the rate of more than one percent per annum since the late 1960s (Bernard & De Koninck 1996; FAO, 2001). Nevertheless, much of the remaining forest is located in upland areas, particularly the more remote ones.

8In most countries of the region, indigenous ethnic minorities are predominantly located in upland areas. But, it would be erroneous to fully equate uplands and forests with ethnic minorities, since many such minorities do not live in upland areas, for example in Kalimantan, where their domain are large tracts of forested lowlands.

9Finally the forested areas of Southeast Asia have for a long time been a privileged domain for swidden agriculture, more precisely rotational swidden agriculture. The latter has been a characteristic agricultural practice of a number of indigenous minority groups. In fact, until the early 1960s, it represented a predominant form of land use throughout Southeast Asia (Spencer 1966). It is still commonly practiced, essentially by indigenous people, notably in Indonesia (Sunderlin et al., 2000) and in the uplands of continental Southeast Asia (Michaud 2000), although much confusion reigns as to what forms of shifting agriculture are practiced and by which groups.

  • 5 The terms used to designate collectively the inhabitants of the uplands of Southeast Asia vary a lo (...)

10Overall it can still be said that many upland as well as forested lowland areas are indeed predominantly inhabited by indigenous minorities5. This is particularly true of the so-called Central Highlands of Vietnam, although, as we shall see, this predominance is increasingly challenged by migrations involving Viet people and non-indigenous minority groups.

A Question of Discourse

11A fundamental planning tool of any state lies in its discourse about the people over which it rules as well as the land under its control. This discourse and the definitions and categories associated with it have the general tendency to be simple, when not simplistic. However simple, these categories also have a tendency to become common knowledge—one does not dare say received wisdom—among the societies and communities concerned, even its more educated members. The key categories or magic words include development and (versus) tradition.

12Development is indeed a magic word and a very big one at that, since it is used to designate just about anything, from the World Bank’s activities, down to development awareness among “marginal” communities, marginality being another one of those socially constructed concepts often used to refer to upland versus lowlands areas, as Li has very aptly shown (Li 1999b).

13Although neither Vietnam nor Indonesia are considered developed countries, within both of them there is a widespread conception of an opposition between more developed cores or centres and less developed, marginal regions, many of which correspond to upland areas. These outlying and upland regions, particularly those inhabited by ethnic minorities, which by definition are less known by those living in the centre, whether Java or the Red River delta, are deemed traditional, marginal, immobile, in need of change. “What is perceived as ‘old’ and unchanged is reflexively categorized as undeveloped” (Hoey 2003: 112).

14On the other hand, the very attribute traditional may occasionally be claimed as a prerogative, an asset. Thus, in cases of contests over space, land rights will be claimed on the basis of tradition and tradition itself will be advocated as a rampart against the more questionable aspects of development, and even against any form of encroachment from outside. Outsiders wanting access to the margins will be questioned on the basis of their presumed incapacity to follow traditional customs and to protect the environment as those already in place are presumed to do “by tradition”.

15It is true that, according to a number of development indices—such as communication, education and health facilities and standards, average per capita income and contribution to GDP—outlying regions of both Vietnam and Indonesia fare less well than the core areas. But the latter are not devoid of problems, whether economic or social… nor of tradition! Nor are some of the so-called marginal and upland areas devoid of resources: in fact, some of these areas are rich in resources such as timber, minerals, agricultural commodities or simply land, space, often already appropriated and territorialized. So we are back to this crucial word, this crucial asset: territory and contest over it, between development advocates and advocates of tradition.

  • 6 The prevailing colonial viewpoint, illustrated in the following statement: “Les Moi ont une culture (...)

16Finally, territorialization also refers to forested upland areas inhabited by indigenous minorities practicing shifting cultivation, a form of agriculture continuously criticized by the authorities since colonial times. The fundamental discourse, over and beyond solid recurrent refutations, has been that these minorities were in need of development, that they had to be modernized, brought into the fold of the central state6. In both Vietnam and Indonesia, this meant colonising the “margins”, through state sponsored agricultural expansion. The latter was to rely on lowland peasants, to be used as the territorial spearhead of the state. For behind the discourse lies a need to control more land, more resources and people, all of which generally means opening a frontier.

The Need for a Frontier

“On the one hand, there are the deliberate objectives of the state
to create and maintain an imagined community, on a national scale,
of unified Indonesians drawn together into a single model of citizenship.”
(Hoey 2003: 109.)

Government Programmes and National Integration: General Background


17In Indonesia, dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, when it was called kolonisatie, the programme consisted in assisting peasants in moving from Java to settle in the Outer islands. It became much more important after Independence and particularly under Suharto’s New Order regime (1967-1998), for which it became a key tool of national integration.

18Between the official launch of the first Indonesian development plan in 1969 and the end of the seventh plan in the year 2000, by which time the official transmigration programme had been interrupted, the total number of officially sponsored settlers had reached at least seven million. To this must be added non-sponsored migrants, so-called spontaneous, whose number can be estimated to surpass five million (Benoit et al. 1989; World Bank 1990; Charras & Pain 1993; Pain 1998; Adriana & Asmin 2001). Most of these settlers came from Java, Madura, Bali and Lombok and were moved to the so-called Outer Islands, at first essentially Southern Sumatra but also Sulawesi and, more recently, Kalimantan and Irian Jaya. Over the years, an undisclosed number of these settlers have returned to their home island.


  • 7 Although the term Central Highlands is more commonly used, Central Plateaus seems more appropriate (...)

19On the Indochinese side, the genesis of the expansion also dates back to colonial days. During the first decades of the twentieth century, the French colonial administrators attempted, essentially through the development of plantation agriculture, to encourage the settlement of Viet people in the so-called Central Highlands or Central Plateaus7 provinces and to sedentarize the minorities practicing itinerant agriculture (Hickey 1982a: 309). Although this met with limited success, it did give an impetus to the internal colonization movement of the uplands by initially reluctant Viet settlers (Condominas 1951). After the 1954 partition, in Southern Vietnam, it was the turn of the Diem administration (1955-1963) to attempt to settle in the Central Plateaus (Tay Nguyen) thousands of families, mostly refugees from the North, predominantly Viet, but also representatives of Northern ethnic minorities (Hickey 1967: 81). The official goal of this resettlement programme was to reduce population pressure in the lowlands and to “develop” the highlands, but it was closely associated with a security strategy, involving attempts to create population centres and strategic hamlets (id.; Déry 1999: 126) But by 1965, the programme had been interrupted, following clashes between Viet settlers and representatives of indigenous minorities, and the overall failure of the population relocation strategy.

20In Northern Vietnam however, numbers were more impressive. During the early 1960s, about one million people were resettled from the Red River delta provinces to sparsely populated upland areas. These were located in nearby Bac Thai but also Son La and Lai Chau provinces, near the Laotian and Chinese borders (Jones & Fraser 1982: 115). The official goal was “to reduce population pressure in the delta areas and to populate upland areas previously uncultivated or worked under shifting cultivation regimes” (ibid.: 117), through the establishment of New Economic Zones (NEZ). These “… were planned as a two-way movement of both delta people and highlanders into intermediate upland areas. Mutual benefits would result...” (id.). However, “[t]here was also some hostility on the part of various ethnic minorities, who had not been fully prepared for the intrusion on a mass scale of delta Vietnamese peasants” (id.).

  • 8 For figures on the various types of migrations, see Jones & Fraser 1982, Déry 1999, Tran 2002, Hard (...)

21After the 1975-76 reunification of North and South Vietnam, the colonisation movement was concentrated in the South, towards the Mekong delta but even more the Central Highlands. Figures concerning the number of people resettled in these highlands, since 1976 and the late 1980s, vary considerably, for a number of reasons, including the following two. First, as in Indonesia, to the official state-sponsored migrants must be added the so-called free or spontaneous migrants, whose numbers are actually officially tabulated, these “official” figures being however unreliable. Second, a large proportion of the migrants, perhaps as much as half of them during the initial years, returned home. Whatever the case, since 1976, the total number of migrants to the four provinces of the Central Highlands and surrounding areas, particularly the southern slopes, has probably surpassed four million, with more than half of them having settled definitely on the “frontier”.8

National Security as Reason and Pretext


  • 9 By using agricultural pioneers as its territorial spearhead, somewhat like unarmed soldiers, the In (...)

22Behind the development of the frontier has been the need to foster national identity among marginal populations—real or claimed to be—and to consolidate the nation, including through improved security. Thus, in Indonesia, “[u]nder Suharto, transmigration was used—alongside military repression—as a means of strengthening national defence and security. Placing transmigrants in areas where independence movements were strong—such as West Papua, Aceh and East Timor—was a tool of Jakarta’s ‘internal colonialism’” (Adriana & Armin 2001: 9)9.

23In these regions, the security issue was obviously prevalent as it had been along the Kalimantan border with the newly formed Federation of Malaysia, during the Confrontation of 1963-65 (Fassbender & Erbe 1990: 30), as well as during the 1980s along Irian Jaya’s border with Papua New Guinea, in a context where goals of cultural dilution and strategic control were evident (Colchester 1986: 99-110).

  • 10 This being said, in the early 1950s, some of the settlers sent to Lampung province were demobilized (...)

24But much of Indonesia’s transmigration programme was not solely motivated by security issues. For example, the major receiving provinces, in Southern Sumatra and Kalimantan, much closer to the Javanese core, and where the vast majority of migrants have settled, cannot be perceived primarily as security areas, stricto sensu.10 Here the initial goals of the kolonisatie programme have generally remained prevalent: reduction of demographic and social pressure in Java, land development with increased agricultural production and contribution to overall national integration. By the 1990s, the role of the programme in placing labour at the disposal of the fast expanding plantation agriculture, particularly oil palm, became increasingly prominent.


25In Vietnam, from the outset, the relationship between agricultural expansion and security components of frontier development was obvious. This applies to land colonization in the North during the American war but also to current expansion in the Central Highlands. Just after the 1975 reunification, as already mentioned, these highlands became the major agricultural frontier area. They have remained so ever since, for at least four major reasons.

  • 11 FULRO stands for Front Unifié pour la Libération des Races Opprimées. On this, see Hickey 1982b: ch (...)

26First, the Tay Nguyen was predominantly inhabited by indigenous minority groups, some of which had worked with the Americans during the war. One of the specific goals behind the initial development of the post-war Tay Nguyen frontier was the perceived need by the Vietnamese authorities to establish greater security in the region sharing a border with Cambodia and Laos. They feared the revival or the development of autonomous or even “separatist” movements, related to the remnants of the FULRO insurgents, which were made up of representative of indigenous minorities and which had actually taken up arms against the communists after reunification. These collaborated with the Khmers Rouges who allowed them to take sanctuary in Cambodian territory.11

  • 12 During both of the Indochinese wars, the Central Plateaus region had great strategic importance, bo (...)

27Consequently, the initial NEZ established in the region regrouped armed settlers, many of them demobilized soldiers. The presence in the border area of Khmer Rouge troops, collaborating with the minority insurgents, exacerbated the tension and vindicated the Vietnamese authorities’ insistence on forming village militia and self defence teams. “Settlers were frightened of insurgents but also posed a threat to them” (Hardy 2003: 238). A 1982 report from the Ministry of agriculture stated: “… the organization and mobilization of people to move and open up agricultural and forestry land over the last five years has a very deep meaning, not only in economic terms but also in terms of politics, society and defence” (quoted by Hardy 2003: 238). In fact, settling the Central Plateaus also meant “mending” them, that is repairing the damage done by the war, for example in the copiously bombed Khe Sanh area.12 “The new economic zone migrants were given the task of repairing the damage” (ibid.: 223). Since then, particularly the early 1980s, when the FULRO movement collapsed completely, the security issue has become less prominent. Nevertheless, whenever a problem arises with the indigenous minorities, such as when some of their representatives rise in protest over the appropriation of their land by Viet settlers, articles in the state-sponsored press hint at foreign intervention and manipulation, and even at the FULRO.

  • 13 See in particular Dumont 1935 : 32; Gourou 1947 : 210, 1953 : 296; Robequain 1958: 440.
  • 14 On this, see Hardy, in particular chapters 2 and 3, pp.?69-130.
  • 15 Although the quality of the so-called “terres rouges” of the Tay Nguyen had been assessed somewhat (...)

28A second and equally important reason behind the choice of the Central Plateaus as a frontier area was and remains land availability and quality. During colonial times and even well into the 1970s, the population density in the Central plateaus was noticeably low. In this regard, it had more in common with the relatively empty neighbouring areas across the border in Cambodia and Laos (De Koninck et al. 2003). Not surprisingly, the region was designated as “empty”, available for colonization by a land-hungry peasantry, and in fact in need of being colonized… Prominent French geographers and rural specialists, such as Pierre Gourou, Charles Robequain and René Dumont, while acknowledging (Gourou in particular) the traditional reluctance of the Viet to move into the mountainous and forested interior, all pointed to the need to expand settlements into the less densely populated areas. In Vietnam, that meant the Central Plateaus.13 As stated earlier, during the colonial period, the recognition of the need and possibility to colonize the Central Plateaus did not lead very far in terms of actual migrations,14 but the argument became prominent once Vietnam was reunified in 1975. To the security argument, was therefore added the one according to which the Tay Nguyen provinces were under-populated, that the land was inadequately and wastefully cultivated by the indigenous minorities, which had to be taught how to properly till the rich soil of the Red Hills.15

29As often happens with agricultural frontiers, the success of some settlers, particularly when a “golden crop” is found, tends to attract others. This is what has happened in the Central Plateaus with the success of coffee cultivation, which, from the early 1980s onwards, made the region look like a “promised land”, a third reason behind the overall dynamism of the frontier (Guérin et al. 2003: 131). The same argument can be made for Indonesia, where the oil palm boom of the 1980s contributed heavily to the continued dynamism of agricultural expansion and related migrations.

30In Vietnam, to this third reason was added a fourth and only partially related one. In the uplands of Northern Vietnam, poverty and environmental degradation have, since the late 1980s, fuelled the migration of large contingents of representatives of ethnic minorities towards the relatively less densely and more prosperous Central Highlands.

Market Integration

31In both Vietnam and Indonesia, the development of the frontier has been closely associated with the territorial expansion of a number of cash crops, such as rubber, oil palm, cocoa and coffee.


  • 16 On the specific nature of the cocoa boom and land pioneering in the forests of Sulawesi, see Ruf 20 (...)

32In Indonesia, this has come relatively late in the development of the transmigration programme, which, for a large part, was initially associated with food crop expansion, particularly rice. But since the 1980s and even more the 1990s, the further expansion of frontier agriculture has been fuelled primarily by commercial crops, the forefront of which has been occupied by oil palm. Since the 1960s, the area devoted to crops such as rubber, coffee, and cocoa has expanded substantially (see Fig. 1 to 3). In the case of rubber, this has occurred without any significant improvement in yields. The same has applied to coffee, at least until the 1990s, when yields began to rise significantly. As for cocoa, a smallholder crop, it has been the object of a spectacular boom of its own, with strong increases in yields as well as in area harvested, particularly since the late 1970s.16 By the year 2000, the combined yearly export value for these three crops had reached some $1.6 billion, a sum equivalent to that of palm oil exports alone.

Fig. 1: Rubber in Indonesia. Area, Production, Yield and Exports (1961-2003)

Triennal Average

Area harvested (ha)

Production (tonne)

Yield (kg/ha)

Export Value
(1 000US$)


1 357 667

694 133


284 128


1 542 000

808 430


267 664


1 582 205

956 477


757 948


1 969 669

1 400 686


993 062


2 500 000

1 622 423


904 128*

Source: FAOSTAT data, 2004

*2000-2002 average

Fig. 2: Coffee in Indonesia. Area, Production, Yield and Exports (1961-2003)

Triennal Average

Area harvested (ha)

Production (tonne)

Yield (kg/ha)

Export Value
(1 000US$)


205 667

116 467


14 889


302 000

169 938


70 056


527 275

300 599


373 769


787 769

434 701


323 272


887 333

622 362


261 012*

Source: FAOSTAT data, 2004

*2000-2002 average

Fig. 3: Cocoa in Indonesia. Area, Production, Yield and Exports (1961-2003)

Triennal Average

Area harvested (ha)

Production (tonne)

Yield (kg/ha)

Export Value

(1 000US$)


6 908





9 271

1 874




24 833

16 679


36 369


224 366

213 368


174 164


400 000

426 967


475 497*

Source: FAOSTAT data, 2004

*2000-2002 average

33For, by far, the most spectacular expansion has been that of oil palm (see Fig. 4). Covering some 70,000 hectares in 1961, the area devoted to the cultivation of oil palm trees has been multiplied by forty over the next four decades, reaching some 2.8 million hectares in 2003, surpassing even rubber cultivation, for long the dominant cash crop in Indonesia (see Fig. 1, 4, 5 and 6). The fact remains, however, that rubber is still very much present and even though its expansion has not been as spectacular as that of oil palm, it has been quite steady, despite and beyond the strong price fluctuations which characterize these agricultural commodities (see Fig. 5 and 6). In fact, even if the price fetched by rubber increased from 2000 to 2003, it was still below its level of the early 1960s. As for palm oil, its price in 2001 and 2002 was only marginally higher than in the early 1960s. This says much about the reliance on massive growth of production, which itself has relied primarily on territorial expansion rather than on improved yields (see Fig. 2). Regarding expansion, the figures quoted and represented here refer only to mature oil palm (see Fig. 1 and 5). If areas covered with immature trees are taken into account, the actual total reached 4.1 million ha in 2002 (Casson 2003: 8).

Fig. 4: Oil Palm in Indonesia. Area, Production, Yield and Exports (1961-2003)

Triennal Average

Area harvested (ha)

Production (tonne)

Yield (kg/ha)

Export Value
(1 000US$)


71 667

908 333

12 692

23 082


98 333

1 616 667

16 430

57 880


241 667

4 233 333

17 493

127 553


856 115

14 169 260

16 483

595 209


2 466 667

42 766 667

17 390

1 665 551*

Source: FAOSTAT data, 2004

*Refers to oil palm fruit; 2000-2002 average

Fig. 5: Oil Palm in Indonesia. Cultivated Area, Production and Price (1961-2003)

Fig. 5: Oil Palm in Indonesia. Cultivated Area, Production and Price (1961-2003)

Fig. 6: Rubber in Indonesia. Cultivated Area, Production and Price (1961-2003)

Fig. 6: Rubber in Indonesia. Cultivated Area, Production and Price (1961-2003)

34In Indonesia, oil palm is predominantly a plantation crop, the share of smallholders being somewhat marginal. In 1997, smallholders accounted for nearly a third of the area harvested and less than a quarter of production (Casson 2000: 5). While less than twenty percent of land cultivated was under government plantations, these were responsible for a third of the total production of palm oil. This was a much more impressive performance than that of the private plantation sector which, although managing nearly half of the land under oil palm, accounted for just over forty percent of production. In other words, according to Casson (id.), the yield on government estates, at four tons of palm oil per hectare, was more than double that obtained by private estates, which in turn was only marginally higher than the smallholders’ average yield (see Fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Oil Palm in Indonesia. Production by sector. 1997

Area Cultivated









813 175


1 292 829



Government Estates

448 735


1 800 252



Private Estates

1 254 169


2 287 366




2 516 079


5 380 447



Source: Tabulated from Casson, 2000, page 5, table 1.

*Refers to palm oil

35Notwithstanding their rather poor performance, particularly in comparison with their counterparts in Malaysia, private estates in Indonesia had and still have a free hand to expand. In terms of access to land, the Indonesian private plantation sector is dominated by the “ten large conglomerates which in 1997 owned land banks totalling approximately 2.9 million hectares […], 400,000 hectares more than the total planted area of oil palm plantations in Indonesia” (Casson 2000: 5). That was the situation on the eve on the financial crisis, during and since which expansion has even accelerated, notwithstanding the sharp drop in prices that occurred in 1998-2000 (see Fig. 5).

  • 17 In 1997, according to Casson, just over half of the national production of some five million tons o (...)
  • 18 The reference year for these figures is not clear. It does however correspond rather closely to the (...)

36Heavily supported by the World Bank and the IMF, agricultural expansion, particularly that of oil palm, remains a controversial issue in Indonesia. Its proponents point to the substantial benefits that oil palm cultivation brings to the country. Not only does it answer a very strong local demand for low cost cooking oil,17 but it also represents Indonesia’s number one agricultural export and, perhaps more important, a major employer. “Some 400,000 rural workers are permanently employed by the estates […] A further 500,000 farmers derive a significant income from estate-linked smallholder schemes. With downstream processing and service industries added, the total number of people (workers and immediate families) that rely on the success of the oil palm estates in Indonesia is at least 4.5 million” (Sargeant 2001: vi). Sargeant adds: “Palm oil currently contributes $1.7 billion to the Indonesian economy […] These figures are expected to rise sharply as prices recover […]”.18 The same author also emphasizes that the world demand for oil palm is expected to double between the years 2000 and 2020 and that the increase will have to be met largely by Indonesia, which will need to continue to expand massively the cultivation of oil palm… (id.).

  • 19 These somewhat surprising figures were calculated from Table 1 (p. 5) in Casson 2000 (see Fig.12).
  • 20 Indonesia is the world’s second largest producer and exporter of oil palm, behind Malaysia, where m (...)

37In 1997, most of the land devoted to oil palm cultivation was still predominantly located on the island of Sumatra (~78%) and in Kalimantan (~16%),19 with a noticeable concentration in the provinces bordering the Malacca and Karimata Straits, the latter separating the two large islands of Sumatra and Borneo (see Fig. 3).20 Since then, expansion has continued on both islands, particularly in Kalimantan, with some noticeable increase also in West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya).

38Three additional key points must be made here. First, neither here, in Indonesia’s “Far East”, nor anywhere else in the Indonesian archipelago is the frontier fully related to transmigration. This being said, the links between the two are generally quite strong, the labour force necessary for the continuing expansion being provided primarily by transmigrants or by state-sponsored programmes, which are a proxy to transmigration programmes, to the extent that they necessitate migrations into the frontier areas, including in West Papua. In fact, the logic works both ways, since transmigrant communities, whether long established or not, are frequently in need of employment opportunities, often provided by the opening of additional agricultural land, either by themselves or large private enterprises. Second, agricultural expansion did not and does not always take place in upland areas, In fact, as far as oil palm cultivation is concerned, much of its recent expansion has occurred in lowland areas. Third this expansion has not always occurred in areas inhabited by “indigenous” minorities, although rarely has it occurred or is it likely to occur without some people being displaced and fully or partially dispossessed of their land use rights, as well as of their access to resources.

39Of course, as we will see further on, agricultural expansion and related transmigration in Indonesia have been and still are the object of ample criticism.


40In Vietnam, commercial agriculture has been closely associated with the development of French control, particularly from the early 20th century onwards. That included not only rice estates in the Mekong delta but also rubber, predominantly in Cochinchina, and coffee. In the case of the latter, originally present in several regions of Indochina, its cultivation was gradually concentrated in the Central Plateaus in the 1920s and 1930s, the French considering, for good reasons, the basaltic soils and the cool climate more favourable (Fortunel 2003: 167-170). On the plateaus, it has since remained a “local” crop, to paraphrase Fortunel who refers to the “indigenous” character of coffee trees in Dak Lak province (2003: 169). But, given the vicissitudes of Vietnam’s history, particularly the wars, it was not until the 1980s, with Doi Moi and related policy decisions, that coffee became the frontier crop par excellence (see Fig. 8 and 10). Although a number of other cash crops, such as pepper, cashew nuts and even mulberry trees (for the breeding of silk worms) were developed in the New Economic Zones, coffee has gradually become the undisputed leading crop, its cultivation spreading in all four of the Central Highland provinces and even in two of the provinces on the southern slopes of the Tay Nguyen, Dong Nai and Binh Phuoc. Although not as spectacularly as coffee, rubber cultivation has also been expanding very rapidly, particularly in the 1990s, yields increasing equally fast, with the result that it now covers nearly as much land as coffee (see Fig. 9). But its value as an export crop and particularly as a source of employment and income is very much lower than that of coffee. Not only has coffee cultivation been expanding territorially at an exceptionally rapid pace, but yields have shot up: more than twice as high as those obtained in Indonesia, they are among the highest in the world. As a consequence, Vietnam is now the second most important coffee exporter in the world, yet well behind Brazil.

Fig. 8: Coffee in Vietnam. Area, Production, Yield and Exports (1961-2003)

Triennal Average

Area harvested (ha)

Production (tonne)

Yield (kg/ha)

Export Value
(1 000US$)


23 537

4 207




16 667

6 700


1 846


10 803

5 433


4 267


65 967

118 433

1 789

4 267


473 333

734 433

1 560

394 592*

Source: FAOSTAT data, 2004

*2000-2002 average

Fig. 9: Rubber in Vietnam. Area, Production, Yield and Exports (1961-2003)

Triennal Average

Area harvested (ha)

Production (tonne)

Yield (kg/ha)

Export Value
(1 000US$)


124 300

80 717


38 839


98 500

27 031


9 816


98 200

45 604


27 667


225 142

76 148


63 832


450 267

345 000


186 997*

Source: FAOSTAT data, 2004

*2000-2002 average

Fig. 10: Coffee in Vietnam. Cultivated Area, Production, and Price (1984-2003)

41A fundamental characteristic of this rapid expansion has been its concentration in the Tay Nguyen and neighbouring southern provinces (see Fig. 11). This territorial expansion has been closely linked to migrations, not only from lowland areas of the country, but also from the northern highlands. In the case of coffee, by the early 1990s, when migrations to the Central Plateaus were already in full swing, sharp increases in the price of coffee provided added incentives to migration and additional land opening, whether legal or not. As in Indonesia, government sponsored migration programmes were increasingly by-passed by private “spontaneous” migration networks, which gradually replaced them as the major source of migrations. At the same time, serious environmental problems, linked to the rapid expansion of the frontier, became increasingly apparent and could not be denied nor hidden anymore, as was the case at least until the early 1990s. In the face of mounting evidence, this “confession” had become inevitable (Tran 2001).

42But coffee had become a golden crop for migrants, as well as for the burgeoning agribusiness sector and the government (Fortunel 2000, Tan 2000).

Fig. 11: Proportion of Total Coffee Cultivated Area in Vietnam, by Province in 2001

Fig. 11: Proportion of Total Coffee Cultivated Area in Vietnam, by Province in 2001

Source: Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association, 2001

Environmental Degradation


  • 21 For example, “Coffee costs Darlak its forests”, Vietnam News, 3 June 1995.

43In Vietnam, the relationship between agricultural expansion and deforestation has for some time been well documented, particularly regarding the Central Plateaus (De Koninck 1997, 1999). Surprisingly, it was not until the very late 1990s that the central government officially recognized this relationship, at least to the extent of actually reducing, to the point of near interruption, its support to the migration of Viet people from the lowlands. Frequent outcries in the local press, which were taken up by the English language press,21 had perhaps something to do with it. More fundamentally, a convergence of scientific evidence, provided by government bodies such as FIPI (Forest Inventory and Planning Institute) (Tran 2001: 97) and studies carried out by Vietnamese researchers in collaboration with foreign researchers did the job. This evidence was that, contrary to the prevailing discourse, at the time still frequently heard in Vietnamese government and academic circles (Nguyen 1995), deforestation in the Tay Nguyen did not result primarily from the slash-and-burn cultivation techniques of the Montagnards, but essentially from land clearance for coffee planting and associated forms of land use. (De Koninck 1997, 1999). It was made abundantly clear in the case of Lam Dong province and, since then in Dak Lak, the major coffee producing province and the one where the “ethnic question” has become the most problematic (Fortunel 2003).

  • 22 Ambiguity prevails with reference to the real nature of reforestation in Vietnam. The so-called rep (...)

44Notwithstanding the existence of a number of reforestation programmes,22 which the Vietnamese government claims are contributing to a slowdown in the deforestation rate of the country, coffee cultivation expansion, as well as that of other crops, including cashew nuts, continues unabated, almost always at the expense of upland forests (Anon. 2001 a/b).


  • 23 FAO statistics are somewhat misleading, since plantation crops such as rubber, but not oil palm, ar (...)

45According to FAO figures for the year 2000, forests in Indonesia covered about 54% of the national territory compared to nearly 30% for Vietnam. But in Indonesia, on average much less densely populated than Vietnam (~120 versus ~250 inh./, since the early 1990s forests have been receding more rapidly, at the rate of 1,8% per annum, a pace likely to be currently increasing, according to Piketty and Karsenty (2001: 93). In Vietnam, it seems to be closer to about one percent per annum, a rate comparable, as mentioned earlier, to the one prevailing in the Southeast Asian region since the 1960s (Bernard & De Koninck 1996; FAO 2001).23

46In Indonesia, although a number of factors are responsible for such a high rate of forest depletion, a central articulating factor, by most observers’ reckoning, is agricultural expansion, in particular that of oil palm cultivation. This expansion includes a number of processes, among which the following five.

471) Most new agricultural land opening is indeed carried out at the expense of forests. This has been acknowledged in a number of studies, including recent ones. Deforestation is linked to expansion carried out in the context of transmigration programmes as well as through private large scale enterprise initiatives. “Transmigration was shown to be the single most important cause of the country’s forest loss, estimated at 1,2 million hectares per annum in 1991” (DTE 2001: 4). “According to the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry, close to 70% of the oil palm plantations located in Indonesia had been planted on forest land by 1999. This constitutes close to 2.2 million ha of forest land. Overall, the total forest land area converted to oil palm is likely to be much higher…” (Casson 2003: 8). In addition, “Map data and anecdotal evidence strongly suggest that oil palm plantations have been developed within a number of national park zones” (id.).

  • 24 “Sur l’ensemble de Sumatra et Kalimantan, il est apparu enfin que les acteurs principaux des feux é (...)

482) Methods of forest clearance frequently cause massive environmental devastation, notably through forest fires, which contribute to a rapid loss of natural habitat and biodiversity, both in upland and lowland forests. Already in 1982-1983, violent blazes erupted, when fires used to clear land for agricultural expansion got out of hand, destroying as much as 3.5 million ha of forests in East-Kalimantan (Laumonier & Legg 1998: 6). Other major fires occurred in 1986, 1991, 1994 and 1997, when destruction was nearly as severe as in 1982-83, with devastation occurring in southern Sumatran provinces as well as in East, Central and South Kalimantan and even, although to a lesser extent in Sulawesi and Irian Jaya (now West Papua) (ibid.: 10-11). Not only were large tracts of forest destroyed, but also agricultural fields and crops (ibid.: 14). As Laumonier and Legg clearly state, the major culprits were large plantation companies.24 And, contrary to popular belief, the fluctuations of El Niño per se had little to do with the fires, most of which were simply lit to expedite matters, to save money, against all acquired local wisdom (id.; Durand 1998; Harwell 2000). Other forms of disaster may occur, as in the case of the so-called Central Kalimantan Mega Project. “One of the biggest failures of the transmigration scheme happened on the eve of Suharto’s fall from power, when the government plan to convert one million ha of peat wetland in Central Kalimantan into a major rice growing area collapsed, leaving a trail of destruction over a vast area” (Adriana & Asmin 2001: 6).

493) Third, as mentioned earlier, forest industry cartels have close interests in the oil palm industry. This applies in particular to two of the very largest ones, the Raja Garuda and the Sinar Mas groups (Voituriez 2001: 71). Even in areas where legislation prohibits forest access to the pulp and paper industry, large expanses of forests have been clear cut, to make way for plantation development and to the benefit of the paper industry which then gets easy access to the wood, before disappearing from the scene (ibid.: 72). All this of this has been facilitated, is still being facilitated, by corruption, notably in the granting of forest concessions to cronies of the regime or army cadres.

504) Large-scale oil palm plantations often displace local people who may then migrate to forested areas to obtain land and forest products (Casson 2003: 8). On the other hand, plantation development often attracts labourers whose families may settle at the periphery of the large estates and nibble at the remaining forest, gathering resources or even clearing additional land for cultivation. Such a phenomenon is common on the Vietnamese Central Plateaus frontier (De Koninck 1999: 85-89).

515) This form of expansion, proceeding by a kind of domino effect, also operates on a much broader scale, as land availability decreases in some areas with the frontier thus moving on. “The release of large areas of forest land in Sumatra will almost certainly result in the extinction of Sumatra’s remaining lowland forests unless there are immediate policy interventions. The world Bank has already predicted that Sumatra’s lowland forests will become extinct by 2005. […] Oil palm investors are more likely to establish large-scale oil palm plantations in Kalimantan and West Papua as land resources become limited in Sumatra (Holmes 2002)” (Casson 2003: 11).

52These dynamic processes have in turn been greatly influenced by the economic crisis of 1997 and its aftermath, including the pressure on the agricultural sector to provide employment and generate more exports, at all costs (DTE 2001, 2002; Sunderlin 1999a, 1999b; Sunderlin et al. 2000); and, second, by attempts at reform, including reduction of corruption and decentralisation. While the latter has been occurring, there is little evidence that it has contributed to any great length to the reduction of the former (Harwell 2000: 335).

Disorder on the Frontier: Ethnic Dilution, Exclusion, Confusion

  • 25En mêlant étroitement identité et territoire, l’époque coloniale est marquée par l’application d’u (...)

By closely associating identity and territory, the colonial era is characterized
by the implementation of a territorial model, which has been reproduced in its
principles by those who pride themselves in having overthrown its inventors
(Fortunel 2003 : 187).25

Order along the frontier is not guaranteed, however, as the processes of
settlement and expanding state territorial control themselves routinely
reproduce conditions for conflict (Li 1999: 17).


53As a result of government sponsored as well as spontaneous migrations, the latter essentially since the 1980s, the indigenous population of the region has lost its preeminence. Hickey estimated that in 1936 there were some 32,000 Viet and more than 350,000 Montagnards living in the Central Highlands (1982b: 303). By 1976, the population of the region had reached 1.2 million, with the indigenous population accounting for about half of it. “Between 1976 and 2001, the population of the four provinces in the Central Highlands more than tripled from 1.2 to over 4 million, with the indigenous population growing from 600,000 to approximately one million” (Anon. 2002: 14). In other words, from 1936 to 1976 to 2001, the indigenous population went from over 90% to 50% to 25%. In Dak Lak province, the current centre of the coffee frontier and the largest province in the country, between 1976 and 1999, the share of the indigenous population (mostly Ede and Mnong), was reduced from 50% to 17%, the Viet accounting in 1999 for 70% of the 1,780,000 inhabitants of the province (Fortunel 2003: 292 and Annex 11).

54Not only Viet people have been migrating to the Tay Nguyen. In increasing numbers since the late 1980s, representatives of ethnic minorities from northern provinces, essentially the six bordering on China, particularly Cao Bang, have also been heading for the region. Most of these move south to escape from the vicious circle of poverty, inadequate agricultural practices, and environmental deterioration that prevails in much of the Northern Highlands. This takes the form of non-sponsored, spontaneous migrations, the long journey to the Central plateaus leading Hmong and various Tai-Nung groups to occupy the remaining forested hills and mountainous areas, on the margins of established pioneer settlements. Once there, the Northerners are frequently enrolled by Viet settlers to clear illegally forest land on their behalf (De Koninck 1999: 81); and, more and more frequently, with the intention of cultivating it themselves. Hence an ambiguous situation where slash-and-burn cultivation practices of ethnic minorities are said to be responsible for deforestation. In fact, the groups involved are not the indigenous ones but those recently arrived from the north. As Fortunel points out, after the Dak Lak authorities had tried for some twenty years to sedentarize indigenous minorities, new groups of swidden agriculture practitioners have appeared on the scene in great numbers (Fortunel 2003: 305).

55On the whole, as the proportion of spontaneous migrants among the newly arrived settlers increases, so does the proportion of representatives of northern ethnic minorities. Guérin et al. refer to a recent study indicating that the Viet account for 88% of government sponsored migrants against 53% of spontaneous ones (Guérin et al. 2003: 133). In fact, the origin of migrants to the Tay Nguyen is particularly diverse and complex, with perhaps half of the country’s provinces being involved (Fortunel 2003: 297). The Central Highlands are becoming a true “melting pot”, with more than 40 of the 54 national ethnic groups present in Dak Lak in 2000 (Fortunel 2003: 301).

56Not surprisingly, the Central Highlands indigenous groups appear to be the main losers on the dynamic frontier, where their numbers and their very identity are being gradually diluted, in a context where issues of land tenure and religion appear crucial (Anon. 2002; Salemink 2000a, 2003).

57For example, among the Ede, who are induced to sedentarize and to get involved in coffee cultivation, communal ownership is abandoned as it gives way to individual land use rights and social stratification (Dang 2003: 82). The Ede gradually abandon or reduce drastically their subsistence crop production and take up coffee cultivation, at which they are not always successful, many of them having gone bankrupt following the sharp drop in coffee prices which began in January 1999 (Anon. 2002: 14). Some of their land, when not all of it, then falls in the hands of the more adept Viet settlers (Dang 2002: 117; Dang 2003: 80; Fortunel 2003: 134).

58Many of these indigenous people, familiar with the forest environment, refuse to participate in government programmes, including so-called reforestation programmes, and instead decide “to move away to remote areas to continue swidden farming outside of the control of the authorities” (Anon. 2002: 15). Overall, with the abandonment of traditional practices and rites, Ede identity is rapidly eroded away (id., Evans 1992). Ironically, in this context, the authorities recommend reliance on the development of tourist attractions as a source of income (Fortunel 2003: 134). This is reminiscent of idealized forms of cultural representation—such as “staged authenticity” (MacCannell 1976), “selective cultural representation” (Evans 1992) or “selective preservation” (Salemink 2000b)—to which minority cultures are often reduced, in the context of their integration and assimilation to the broader nation.

59In view of the increasing migration pressure and the ensuing problems of land tenure, it is therefore not too surprising that protest movements have occasionally disrupted the smooth development of the centrally planned frontier, which in many ways has gotten out of hand. “On Friday, 2 February 2001, 3,000 to 4,000 Jarai people marched on Pleiku, the provincial capital of Gia Lai, and staged a protest before the provincial headquarters of the Communist Party and the government. The next day, thousands of mostly Ede people marched on Buon Me Thuot, the capital of Dac Lac province, from various directions” (Anon. 2002: 19). Since those protest marches were reported in the press, the Vietnamese authorities have both cracked down on those identified as leaders and attempted to find solutions to land disputes. It has even allocated “land to ethnic minority households that do not have sufficient land, thus addressing directly one of the main grievances that sparked the unrest” (ibid.: 23).


60In Indonesia, the demographic and cultural impact of transmigration and overall land development appears even more complex, given the sheer dimension of the country and the great variety of ecological domains involved, from coastal swamps to forested uplands, from already settled areas to remote and relatively sparsely inhabited ones. Although in Vietnam, land colonization or “recolonization” is taking place in several regions, including in the Mekong delta, there is one prevalent frontier: the Tay Nguyen and its southern approaches.

61In Indonesia, there are many frontiers, several of which cannot really be considered frontiers stricto sensu, given the presence of pre-established, more or less sedentary populations. Consequently, there are also many forms of cultural encounters, with substantial differences between the ones occurring in Southern Sumatra and Riau, North Sumatra and Aceh, West and East Kalimantan, Sulawesi and West Papua, to name only the broader regions involved, or between Javanese and Acehnese or Javanese and Papuans, Madurese and Dayak… In addition, such encounters or intercultural contact zones, or even tension and conflict zones, are not all the result of land colonization initiatives as such, although the majority seem to be related to them.

62Many are the product of deliberate colonial policies to utilize some people to neutralize others. This is what the Dutch did in Central Sulawesi when they pressured “the Pamona to abandon swidden agriculture in favour of wet rice agriculture” and then converted them to the Protestant religion, “further isolating them from the Muslim coastal populations and providing them with distinctive government treatment…” (Aragon 2001: 52). Thus was laid some of the ground for the ethnic clashes that occurred much later, in December 1999, between, on one side, Pamona and other indigenous Protestant groups of highlanders, and on the other, Bugis migrants who had moved into the region after the financial crisis of 1997, “entering ‘ancestral’ forests with chainsaws to clear fields for cocoa and other cash crop plantations” (ibid.: 56).

  • 26 This includes Aragon 2001; DTE 2001; ICG 2001; Peluso & Harwell 2001; Vel 2001; Davidson & Kanmen 2 (...)

63In fact the complexity, frequency and magnitude of the communal and ethnic clashes that have occurred in Indonesia over the years, particularly but far from exclusively since the 1997 economic crisis, are such that they need to be analysed carefully before any generalisation can be drawn. A number of authors have attempted to do so and interpret the violent confrontations between Dayak and Madurese in West and Central Kalimantan (particularly in 1997, 1999 and 2001), the clashes in Central Sulawesi mentioned earlier, or those that occurred on Sumba island in late 1998, as well as the general climate of violence that has prevailed in Indonesia during and since the era of the New Order (1967-1998).26

  • 27 There is here an obvious parallel to be drawn with the Christianized Montagnards of the Central Hig (...)

64Several interesting points and insights can be drawn from this literature, including the following six. 1) The roots of these conflicts run very deep and often go back to colonial times and the Japanese occupation (1942-1945). 2) Among the problem-laden colonial legacies, the conversion of several ethnic minorities (generally highlanders) to Christian religions, along with the establishment of policies specifically addressed to them, has often contributed to exacerbate cultural differences and misunderstanding with the Muslim majority.27 3) The New Order regime bears a great deal of responsibility, having laid the ground for much of the violence, the military manipulating ethnic differences, interests and tensions (including resentment against the Chinese), and using it itself in a lot of instances. 4) Transmigration programmes—including an Army Transmigration programme in West Kalimantan during the 1950s and early 1960s (Davidson & Kanmen 2001: 78)—and various land colonization programmes, among which nucleus estates, did lay the ground for many of the eventual confrontations. 5) Many if not most of these confrontations occurred over issues of accessibility to land and other resources. 6) The 1997 financial crisis and its aftermath, including the decentralisation policies that have followed, by favouring the scramble for these resources, have exacerbated the tensions.

Conclusion: Questions

65In both Vietnam and Indonesia, the frontier or frontier-like areas, particularly but not exclusively in the uplands, are extremely dynamic as they are the object of a large spectrum of contests. The people, the groups, the agents involved in these contests—for space, for resources and forests, for land to till, for territorial control and territoriality—enter into a variety of alliances (frequently involving betrayals) and conflicts, some of which may involve the state as arbitrator, although in an increasing number of instances, the state disqualifies itself or at least seems to lose control, over and beyond its paternalistic discourse.

66Overall, there exist important similarities between Vietnam and Indonesia. These similarities also concern many of the consequences, including problematic ones, of overall territorial integration policies, particularly environmental degradation and loss of state control over the expansion of a frontier largely dependent on commodity price fluctuations on the world market.

67There are also significant differences between the two countries, particularly with regard to so-called ethnic violence. In Vietnam, there is virtually no inter-ethnic brutality, let alone massacres of the kind that have occurred with increasing frequency in Indonesia. Notwithstanding their still largely paternalistic attitude towards the “backward” Montagnards, the Vietnamese authorities seem to have managed to stay clear of systematic violent repression, nor have serious clashes occurred between migrants and indigenous groups.

68This makes the recurrent violence in Indonesia particularly disturbing since it seems increasingly related to the “[e]thnicisation of political and economic life [which] is proceeding at quite micro levels” (Li 2002: 367). Who was there first? Who is above the other? Who has a right to land and who is entitled to claim territorial links and territoriality? Who can decide to grant or deny access to the land and its resources. Who can exclude others? Who is indigenous? Where does indigenousness begin and where does it end? Given the state’s attempts to territorialize its entire domain on its own terms through multitudinous forms of frontier development and manipulations, it has put itself in a position where it must deal with these questions or else face the consequences of a disorderly frontier: disorderly, not only socially but also ecologically, economically and hence geopolitically, a threatening predicament, even for Vietnam, given the irreversible character of the frontier itself.

Fig. 12: Proportion of total oil palm cultivated area in Indonesia, by province in 1997

Fig. 12: Proportion of total oil palm cultivated area in Indonesia, by province in 1997

Source: Casson, 200, table 1, page 5

1. Aceh

8. Central Java

15. Maluku

22. North Sulawesi

2. Bali

9. East Java

16. Western Lesser Sunda

23. West Sumatra

3. Bengkulu

10. West Kalimantan

17. Easterm Lesser Sunda

24. South Sumatra

4. Irian Jaya (West Papua)

11. South Kalimantan

18. Riau

25. North Sumatra

5. Jakarta Raya

12. Central Kalimantan

19. South Sulawesi

26. East Timor

6. Jambi

13. East Kalimantan

20. Central Sulawesi

27. Yogyakarta

7. West Java

14. Lampung

21. Southeast Sulawesi

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1L’État est panoptique: il aime voir ceux qu’il aime et encore plus ceux qui ne l’aiment pas. L’État aime baliser et regrouper” (Brunet 1990 : 63).

2 For an elaborate definition of “géopolitique”, see John Agnew in Lévy & Lussault 2003: 408-411.

3 See his recent De la géopolitique aux paysages, 2003: 192.

4Le territoire, dans cette perspective, est un espace dans lequel on a projeté du travail, soit de l’énergie et de l’information, et qui, par conséquent, révèle des relations toutes marquées par le pouvoir. L’espace est la prison originelle, le territoire est la prison que les hommes se donnent” (Raffestin 1980: 129).

5 The terms used to designate collectively the inhabitants of the uplands of Southeast Asia vary a lot depending on the authors: they include highlanders, uplanders, upland people or the more classy montagnards, with specific reference to the Indochinese peninsula “highlanders”. On the montagnards, see Michaud 2004, McKinnon & Michaud 2000:5.

6 The prevailing colonial viewpoint, illustrated in the following statement: “Les Moi ont une culture primitive?: ils dévastent les forêts par les ‘ray’” (Bouault & Rozario 1930: 28), was inherited by the contemporary Vietnamese authorities, as evidenced also among the Vietnamese academic community: for an example, see Dang 1984. “Since the 1960s, the Vietnamese communist government has assumed that shifting cultivation is a primitive and backward agricultural technology which wastes rich forest resources” (Anon. 2002: 13). The most remarkable analysis of the wisdom of traditional shifting cultivation can be found in the writings of Jean Boulbet, in particular his Paysans de la forêt (1975). See, among others, the solid and often quoted articles by Dove (1983) or Thrupp et al. (1997)

7 Although the term Central Highlands is more commonly used, Central Plateaus seems more appropriate given the largely flat nature of the terrain, a feature that distinguishes these highlands form those of the north.

8 For figures on the various types of migrations, see Jones & Fraser 1982, Déry 1999, Tran 2002, Hardy 2003, in particular his “Statistical Essay” (pp.?290-320), and Fortunel 2003.

9 By using agricultural pioneers as its territorial spearhead, somewhat like unarmed soldiers, the Indonesian government was following an age-old method, frequently employed throughout history by empire builders (on this, see De Koninck 1993 and, for Vietnam, De Koninck 2000).

10 This being said, in the early 1950s, some of the settlers sent to Lampung province were demobilized soldiers of the republican army, having fought against the Dutch during the war on Independence (Benoit et al. 1989: 106).

11 FULRO stands for Front Unifié pour la Libération des Races Opprimées. On this, see Hickey 1982b: chapter 3, and 1993: 40; Guérin et al. 2003: 285; Salemink 2003.

12 During both of the Indochinese wars, the Central Plateaus region had great strategic importance, both as a “highland fortress” from which attacks could be launched on the lowlands and particularly on Saigon and as a central node for the various routes making up the Ho Chi Minh trail.

13 See in particular Dumont 1935 : 32; Gourou 1947 : 210, 1953 : 296; Robequain 1958: 440.

14 On this, see Hardy, in particular chapters 2 and 3, pp.?69-130.

15 Although the quality of the so-called “terres rouges” of the Tay Nguyen had been assessed somewhat critically by colonial observers, such as Henry (1931), it was generally acknowledged that they would be excellent for tree crops, an argument that has constantly been repeated by the Vietnamese press over the years.

16 On the specific nature of the cocoa boom and land pioneering in the forests of Sulawesi, see Ruf 2000, Ruf & Gérard 2001.

17 In 1997, according to Casson, just over half of the national production of some five million tons of palm oil was exported (Casson 2000: 3).

18 The reference year for these figures is not clear. It does however correspond rather closely to the average value, for the three years 2000 to 2002, of all exports of oil palm products (see Fig. 4). Casson reports that in 1997 the value of all oil palm exports alone reached $1.4 billion (Casson 2003: 3).

19 These somewhat surprising figures were calculated from Table 1 (p. 5) in Casson 2000 (see Fig.12).

20 Indonesia is the world’s second largest producer and exporter of oil palm, behind Malaysia, where most of the land devoted to oil palm cultivation is found on the western side of the Malayan peninsula and in Sabah, where massive expansion has also been occurring over the last decade. This makes for a striking concentration of a “strategic food” commodity on either side of the Malacca strait or in its vicinity.

21 For example, “Coffee costs Darlak its forests”, Vietnam News, 3 June 1995.

22 Ambiguity prevails with reference to the real nature of reforestation in Vietnam. The so-called replanted forests often turn out to be commercial plantations of rubber or coffee trees. Fortunel provides a vivid example by stating: “[…] le directeur de la ferme sylvicole […] désigne les surfaces plantées récemment en hévéa sur le territoire de sa ferme tout en s’exclamant ‘voici la forêt!’” (2003?: 316). See also Tran 2001: 100.

23 FAO statistics are somewhat misleading, since plantation crops such as rubber, but not oil palm, are classified as forests… Natural forest coverage in Indonesia is by now well under 50%, probably just above 40% of the national territory and in Vietnam not much above 20%. In Vietnamese official statistics, coffee plantations are sometimes considered as forests…

24 “Sur l’ensemble de Sumatra et Kalimantan, il est apparu enfin que les acteurs principaux des feux étaient avant tout les grandes compagnies de plantations industrielles” (Laumonier & Legg 1998: 15)

25En mêlant étroitement identité et territoire, l’époque coloniale est marquée par l’application d’un modèle territorial, d’autant que celui-ci est repris dans ses principes par ceux et celles qui tiendront à revendiquer le renversement de ceux qui l’ont importé” (Fortunel 2003: 187).

26 This includes Aragon 2001; DTE 2001; ICG 2001; Peluso & Harwell 2001; Vel 2001; Davidson & Kanmen 2002; Li 2002; Davidson 2003.

27 There is here an obvious parallel to be drawn with the Christianized Montagnards of the Central Highlands of Vietnam and elsewhere in the Indochinese peninsula (see Michaud 2000, Salemink 2003).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 5: Oil Palm in Indonesia. Cultivated Area, Production and Price (1961-2003)
Fichier image/png, 29k
Titre Fig. 6: Rubber in Indonesia. Cultivated Area, Production and Price (1961-2003)
Fichier image/png, 32k
Titre Fig. 11: Proportion of Total Coffee Cultivated Area in Vietnam, by Province in 2001
Crédits Source: Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association, 2001
Fichier image/png, 253k
Titre Fig. 12: Proportion of total oil palm cultivated area in Indonesia, by province in 1997
Crédits Source: Casson, 200, table 1, page 5
Fichier image/png, 370k
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Rodolphe De Koninck, « On the Geopolitics of Land Colonization: Order and Disorder on the Frontiers of Vietnam and Indonesia », Moussons, 9-10 | 2006, 33-59.

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Rodolphe De Koninck, « On the Geopolitics of Land Colonization: Order and Disorder on the Frontiers of Vietnam and Indonesia », Moussons [En ligne], 9-10 | 2006, mis en ligne le 29 janvier 2013, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/moussons.1977

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