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.
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