Upland Geopolitics: Postwar Laos and the Global Land Rush

Phill Wilcox

Long typified by its remote location and its poverty, whenever the global land rush is mentioned, countries such as Laos often spring to mind. Perhaps Laos particularly so, as its geographical positioning adds to a narrative of a weaker state, struggling to hold back the forces of a predatory China. For anyone wanting to delve into the dynamics and complexities of what is going on in Laos, beyond generalisations and broad-brush pictures, the five chapters plus introduction and conclusion of Upland Geopolitics is vital reading. 

Constructing space and the border

What, actually, is Laos, and where are its borders? These questions form the backbone of Dwyer’s study, which he labels as “an ethnography of upland governance” (p. 18). The book traces the contested, and unique, creation of the Lao nation, and how this is now called into question amidst concerns about land grabbing, a global land rush, and expansionist agendas of non-Lao actors. Dwyer is correct to note that what these things all have in common is the question of territorial integrity. One refreshing aspect of this book is the inclusion of a large amount of historical detail. This makes the contemporary detail much more vivid, as it is embedded within a broader historical context. In addition, the text is supported by numerous photos and maps. 

As Dwyer notes at the outset of the book, in an age of increasing awareness about land grabbing, this is not simply a story of predators and victims, or one could say winners and losers. The book begins with a fascinating puzzle dealing with who the various actors in Lao land deals are, and what sort of agency they have. This matters, as land-grabbing debates are often conducted at a macro level, which leaves little space for consideration on the ground, or for the actors at a very local level. 

This is particularly important, because as Lao studies scholars know very well, one way of thinking about the state is at the level of social relations.[i] Dwyer’s study – what he terms “the nexus of interaction between land, local populations, and the state” (p.19) – is an invitation to think through those local social connections concerning land and land deals. In so doing, he reveals the main contribution of the book, which is to think beyond macro narratives that paint Laos as “weak” and China as “bad”. In the first chapter, readers are encouraged to think about the role of Lao officials from the ground up. Who exactly is allowing these deals to happen, and to what ends? As Dwyer recognises, stories of land deals in Laos demonstrate what he terms an “authority gap” in that they focus on corruption, while obscuring or ignoring a myriad of social dynamics beneath. This forms the basis of the rest of the book. 


Going beyond the “bad China” narrative

When one takes the far more nuanced lens Dwyer calls for to the situation in Laos, a more complex picture emerges in which the stereotype or generalisation of a predatory China reveals as much as it obscures. In my opinion, this is the strongest aspect of the book and provides a welcome contribution that takes beyond simple discussions of whether China is or is not acting as a neo-colonising force across the Global South. As Dwyer recognises, land deals are a field of struggle, in which different agendas prevail over and above. While an explicit connection is not made, this made me think of earlier work by Phraxayavong (2009), in which he argued that aid itself can represent an arena or place where different struggles are enacted to the benefit of some parties and the detriment of others.[ii] As we are shown here, land deals are an extension of this, and the geopolitics involved are nothing new in substance, even if they have changed in form over time. 

In the conclusion of the book, Dwyer makes valuable and relevant links between the material discussed in the book and issues such as neoliberalism more broadly, and finally how the climate dimension is likely to become ever more relevant, especially in a country such as Laos. If I have one criticism of an otherwise excellent book, it would be that the conclusion is far too brief. It is a fraction of the size of the other chapters, and all the fascinating material in the conclusion would have benefitted from the same level of careful, detailed scholarship that Dwyer shows in the other chapters of the book. He recognises, rightly, that how Laos will be impacted by crises of climate change and changing land use and agricultural patterns is an emerging picture, but I am unconvinced that it is such an emerging picture that nothing more than a paragraph can be devoted to it. Similarly, living in neoliberalism and how people make sense of that is nothing new, and I would have very much appreciated hearing more on these points. That said, this provides an excellent basis for further scholarship by Dwyer and others on these issues. 

Overall, this is a rich, nuanced book that will appeal to Southeast Asian scholars and general readers alike.

[i] See, for example, High, Holly, and Pierre Petit. 2013. ‘Introduction: The Study of the State in Laos’. Asian Studies Review 37 (4): 417–32. https://doi.org/DOI: 10.1080/10357823.2013.833579.

[ii] Phraxayavong, Viliam. 2009. History of Aid to Laos: Motivations and Impacts. Chiang Mai: Mekong Press.