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This article briefly considers how the integration of the biophysical world into our analyses of the past can enhance our understanding of the socio-economic inequalities of the modern world. Taking Ulbe Bosma's The Making of Periphery as its central reference point, it argues that the process of “peripheralization” – generally treated as an economic or social phenomenon – can also be usefully approached as an interaction between human and non-human forces. It uses the example of Southeast Asian rubber production to show how the different arrangements of people, plants, soil and water on European estates and indigenous smallholdings gave the latter distinct ecological advantages that boosted their oft-cited economic competitiveness, and that consequently forced plantations to extract even more value from cheap labour. In this sense, the environmental history of Southeast Asian rubber offers further evidence for Bosma's core theses about the heterogeneity of peripheralization processes and the importance of demography and labour relations in shaping them.
The Making of a Periphery makes three important claims. First, commodity export production does not necessarily result in peripheralization, which is defined as economic stagnation, depressed wages and impoverishment. Second, peripheralization is instead influenced by the specific mode of production of export commodities. Third, the mode of production is crucially determined by demographic growth and patron-client relationships. This essay investigates these claims using a variety of economic and demographic data on Southeast Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is shown that specialization in primary commodity exports does lower long-term economic growth rates and that indigenous institutions regarding family systems and property rights play an important role in the patterns of economic development.
With his latest book, The Making of a Periphery, Ulbe Bosma makes a successful attempt to “decompress history”. Apart from praising his work, I want to offer two critical comments and a suggestion for global comparison. First, I argue that the role of colonialism/imperialism is somewhat downplayed in the book. Second, although I am impressed by the vast body of literature cited, I believe that at several instances the book might have benefited from its arguments being underpinned by more solid empirical quantitative data. Finally, I raise the question how unique the “plantation economies” of Island South East Asia actually were, which also implies a suggestion for further research along the lines of Bosma's impressive monograph.
Cultural, discursive, and technological differences notwithstanding, the peripheralization effects of plantation agriculture-based development pathways seem to be as vibrant today as during the height of the modern era's imperialism. This, at least, is what Bosma suggests, and I fully agree with him. The plantation, that modern labour-expelling periphery-making machine, is alive and kicking hard amid convergent socioecological crises nowadays. And this is an analytically but also politically salient phenomenon. Most often, development models which rely on predatory extractivism not only leave the majority of the population behind the well-being bandwagon, thereby turning a deaf ear to the pledge of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to “leave no one behind”; they also erode the ecological base, socioeconomic fabric, and institutions that enable more just and environmentally sound life projects to blossom. Thus, the careful examination of the complex and generative interplay between the model and intensity of resource extractivism and the broader political economy, as developed by Bosma in The Making of a Periphery, calls into question any non-transformative climate stewardship and sustainable development efforts, like the “business as usual” one represented by the flex crops and commodities complexes of the twenty-first century.
This rejoinder is part of the round table discussion on the book The Making of a Periphery: How Island Southeast Asia Became a Mass Exporter of Labor. It pays tribute to the development economist and Nobel Prize winner Arthur W. Lewis, who studied the predicaments of plantation societies. The rejoinder addresses critical observations made about the above-mentioned book by Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, Pim de Zwart, Corey Ross, and Alberto Alonso-Fradejas. It underscores the importance of the role of demography and long histories of labour coercion to explain processes of peripheralization and mass emigration. It also points out the limits of classical development economics, namely a relative neglect of the ecological damage attending plantation exploitation. The commodity frontier approach is suggested as a way to address this shortcoming.