From Sapphires to Cassava
The Politics of Debt in Northwestern Cambodia
Microfinance has attracted increasing attention, not only for its goals to empower the poor but for its potential negative effects that can serve to undermine that core goal of empowerment. In this paper, we examine microfinance debt in the context of Cambodia’s cassava boom and its particular history of resource extraction. Focusing on cassava farmers in Pailin province, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold in northwestern Cambodia, we find that post-conflict Pailin cassava farming is linked with indebtedness to microfinance institutions. As the burden of debt erodes community life and heightens individual anxiety, our analysis of interviews conducted in 2018 shows that Pailin’s small-scale cassava farmers lose capacity to build the solidarity necessary to address problems collectively. Drawing on critical work on debt and historically-situated political ecology, we see a situation shaped—but not determined—by a history in which local elites have controlled significant portions of the local economy, extracting personal benefits. We argue that, in this context, microfinance initiatives extend this longer history of resource extraction as concentrations of power and wealth go unchallenged. Microfinance loans are thus better seen as part of a system of depriving marginalized farmers of choice, rather than empowering them, as part of what Silvia Federici terms the financialization of reproduction.
Baird, I. 2014. Principled engagement: Obstacles and opportunities in an increasingly consultancy dominated world. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 13(4): 497-507.
Banerjee, A., Karlan, D. and Zinman, J. 2015. Six randomized evaluations of microcredit. American Economic Journal 7(1): 1-21.
Bateman, M. 2010. Why Doesn’t Microfinance Work? The Destructive Rise of Local Neoliberalism. London: Zed Books.
Bateman M., N. Natarajan, K. Brickell, L. Parsons. 2019. Descending into Debt in Cambodia. Made in China Journal 4(1) ISSN 2206-9119.
Beban, A. and L. Schoenberger. 2019. Fieldwork Undone. ACME 18 (1): 77-103.
Bernstein, H., A. Haroon Akram-Lodhi, W. Wolford, T.M. Li. JPS review symposium on Land’s End. The Journal of Peasant Studies 43(4): 942-962.
Biddulph R. 2014. Can elite corruption be a legitimate Machiavellian tool in an unruly world? The case of post-conflict Cambodia. Third World Quarterly 35 (5): 872-887.
Blaikie, P. and H. Brookfield. 1987. Land Degradation and Society. London: Methuen.
Bylander M. 2017. Micro-Saturated: The Promises and Pitfalls of Microcredit as a Development Solution. The Handbook of Contemporary Cambodia, pp. 64-75. New York: Routledge.
Clark, H. 2006. When There Was No Money: Building ACLEDA Bank in Cambodia's Evolving Financial Sector. Berlin-Heidelberg: Springer.
Cramb, R., V. Manivong, J.C. Newby, K. Sothorn, P.S. Sibat. 2017. Alternatives to land grabbing. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44(4): 939-967.
DID. 2015. Why corruption matters: understanding causes, effects and how to address them. UK Evidence paper on corruption. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/406346/corruption-evidence-paper-why-corruption-matters.pdf
Diepart J. and T. Sem. 2018. Fragmented Territories: Incomplete Enclosures and Agrarian Change on the Agricultural Frontier of Samlaut District, North-West Cambodia. Journal of Agrarian Change 18(1): 156-177.
Ear S. 2016. Combatting Corruption in Cambodia. Asian Education and Development Studies, 5(2): 159-174.
Federici, S. 2004. Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia.
Federici S. 2014. From Commoning to Debt: Financialization, Microcredit, and the Changing Architecture of Capital Accumulation, The South Atlantic Quarterly 113(2):231-244.
Gonzalez A. 2010. Is Microfinance Growing Too Fast? MIX Data Brief No. 5. Accessed November 1, 2019: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1644948
Green N. and J. Estes. 2019. Precarious Debt: Microfinance Subjects and Intergenerational Dependency in Cambodia. Antipode 51(1): 129-147.
Green, N. and M. Bylander. forthcoming. The coercive power of debt: Microfinance and land dispossession in Cambodia. Sociology of Development (SI on Coerced Capitalism).
Hennings, A. 2018. With Soymilk to the Khmer Rouge: challenges of researching ex-combatants in post-war contexts. International Peacekeeping 25(5): 630-652.
Hennings, A. 2019. The dark underbelly of land struggles: the instrumentalization of female activism and emotional resistance in Cambodia. Critical Asian Studies 51(1): 103-119.
Hermes, N. and Lensink, R. 2011. Microfinance: its impact, outreach, and sustainability. World Development 39(6): 875-881.
Hirsch, P. 2014. The Politics of Engaged Geography on the Mekong. ACME 13 (4): 516-24.
Hughes, C. 2009. Dependent Communities: Aid and Politics in Cambodia and East Timor. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Hul, R. and Alex W. 2014. Cambodia Daily Scraping Out a Living in Pailin’s Spent Gem Mines’ Cambodia Daily, June 11.
Karim L. 2011. Microfinance and Its Discontents. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Khan A., A. Chowdhury, S. Bhattacharya. 2018. Hill of Gems, Gems of Labour–Mining in the Borderlands. Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia 23: https://kyotoreview.org/yav/gems-of-labour-mining-in-the-borderlands/
Kim, S. 2011. Reciprocity: Informal Patterns of Social Interaction in a Cambodian Village. In: Marston, J. (Ed), 219-238. Anthropology and Community in Cambodia. Caulfield: Monash University Press.
Lamb, V., Schoenberger, L., Middleton, C., Un, B., 2017. Gendered eviction, protest and recovery. The Journal of Peasant Studies 44(6): 1215-1234.
Le Billon, P. 2002. Logging in Muddy Waters: The Politics of Forest Exploitation in Cambodia. Critical Asian Studies 34(4): 563-586.
Li, T.M. 2014. Land’s End. Durham: Duke University Press.
Licadho and STT. 2019. Collateral Damage. Accessed October 15, 2019: https://www.licadho-cambodia.org/reports.php?perm=228
Liv, D. 2013. Study on the Drivers of Over-Indebtedness of Microfinance Borrowers in Cambodia. CIDA, Accessed November 1, 2019: https://sptf.info/images/oid-final-report.pdf
Maclean, K. 2010. Capitalizing on women's social capital? Women-targeted microfinance in Bolivia. Development and Change, 41(3): 495-515.
Mahanty, S. and Milne, S. 2016. Anatomy of a boom: Cassava as a ‘gateway’ crop in Cambodia's north eastern borderland. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 57(2): 180-193.
Milne, S. 2015. Cambodia's unofficial regime of extraction. Critical Asian Studies 47(2): 200-228.
MAFF. 2007. Statistics of General Crops, 1980-2006. Cambodia. Accessed October 15, 2019: http://www.maff.gov.kh/en/ statistics/ crops.html.
Nevins, K. and N.L. Peluso (eds). 2008. Taking Southeast Asia to Market. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Ovesen, J. and Trankell, IB. 2014. Symbiosis of microcredit and private moneylending in Cambodia. Asia Paciﬁc Journal of Anthropology, 15(2):178–196.
Peluso, N.L. 1992. Rich forests, poor people. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Peluso, N.L. 2012. What's nature got to do with it? A situated historical perspective on socio‐natural commodities. Development and change, 43(1): 79-104.
Peluso, N.L. and Vandergeest, P. 2001. Genealogies of the political forest and customary rights in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The Journal of Asian Studies, 60(3):761-812.
Peluso, N.L., Kelly, A.B. and Woods, K. 2012. Context in land matters. Center for International Forestry Research.
Scott, J.C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed. Hanover: Yale University Press.
Simanowitz A. and K. Knotts. 2015. Drowning in debt: the growing threat to Cambodia's poor? The Guardian, March 6.
Soenthrith, S. 2014. Y Chhien to Be Replaced as Pailin Governor. Cambodia Daily, May 30.
Springer S. 2010. Cambodia's neoliberal order. New York: Routledge.
Treesilvattanakul, K. 2016. Deterministic Factors of Thai Cassava Prices: Multi-Uses of Cassava from Food, Feed, and Fuel Affecting on Thai Cassava Price Volatility. KnE Life Sciences, 3:12-16.
Watts, M. 1983. Silent Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Yunus, M. 2003. Banker to the Poor. US: Ingram Publisher Services.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Authors agree to publish their articles in ACME under the Creative Commons "Attribution/Non-Commercial/No Derivative Works" Canada licence. To read and review the agreement, click here. In line with fair attribution and proper permissions, note any copyrights of materials cited in your paper. Do not use materials that are not fair use without express written consent.