Commodification of Nature on the Plantation Frontier

  • Noboru IshikawaEmail author
  • Ryoji Soda
Part of the Advances in Asian Human-Environmental Research book series (AAHER)


The studies in this volume provide an ethnography of a plantation frontier located in the Kemena and Tatau river basin catchment in central Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Using a transdisciplinary approach that draws on the expertise of both natural scientists and social scientists, the key focus is on the commodification of nature that has turned the local landscape into anthropogenic forests. Looking into the interfaces between capitalism and the natural system, we document and analyse the transformation of a space of mixed landscapes and multiethnic and multispecies communities, for the most part driven by trade in forest products, logging and the cultivation of oil palm. How have new commodity chains emerged while older ones disappeared? What changes are associated with such shifts? How are material cycles and food webs altered as a result of large-scale land-use change? What are the relationships among these three elements—commodity chains, material cycles and food webs? Attempts to answer these questions lead us to go beyond the dichotomy of society and nature, and enable us to uncover complex relational entanglements of the two worlds abruptly and forcibly connected by human-induced changes.


Sarawak Plantation frontier Tropical biomass society Commodification Anthropogenic forests 


  1. Bevis, William W. 1995. Borneo log: The struggle for Sarawak’s forests. Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  2. Borneo Post. 2012. Research helps to improve well-being of local people—Professor. Accessed 29 Mar 2018.
  3. Bulan, Ramy, with Amy Locklear. 2009. Legal perspective on native customary land rights in Sarawak. Kuala Lumpur: Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Manusia.Google Scholar
  4. Cramb, R.A., and J. Dian. 1979. A social and economic survey of the Bintulu extension region—Report no. 8. Kuching: Planning Division, Department of Agriculture, Sarawak.Google Scholar
  5. Cramb, Rob, and John F. McCarthy. 2016. Characterising oil palm production in Indonesia and Malaysia. In The oil palm complex: Smallholders, agribusiness and the state in Indonesia and Malaysia, ed. Rob Cramb and John F. McCarthy, 27–77. Singapore: NUS Press.Google Scholar
  6. Edwards, David P., Ainhoa Magrach, Paul Woodcock, Yinqiu Ji, Norman T.-L. Lim, Felicity A. Edwards, Trond H. Larsen, Wayne W. Hsu, Suzan Benedick, Chey Vun Khen, Arthur Y.C. Chung, Glen Reynolds, Brendan Fisher, William F. Laurence, David S. Wilcove, Keith C. Hamer, and Douglas W. Yu. 2014. Selective-logging and oil palm: Multitaxon impacts, biodiversity indicators, and trade-offs for conservation planning. Ecological Applications 24 (8): 2029–2049.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Fitzherbert, Emily B., Matthew J. Struebig, Alexandra Morel, Finn Danielsen, Carsten A. Brühl, Paul F. Donald, and Ben Phalan. 2008. How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 23 (10): 528–545.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Fong, Hon Kah. 1996. A history of the development of Rajang basin in Sarawak. Sibu: Dewan Suarah.Google Scholar
  9. Haraway, Donna, Noboru Ishikawa, Scott F. Gilbert, Kenneth Olwig, Anna L. Tsing, and Nils Bubant. 2016. Anthropologists are talking—About the Anthropocene. Ethnos 81 (3): 535–564.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Harvey, David. 2003. The new imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Ishikawa, Noboru. 2010. Between frontiers: Nation and identity in a Southeast Asian borderland. Singapore: NUS Press.Google Scholar
  12. ———, ed. 2011. Flows and movements in Southeast Asia: New approaches to transnationalism. Kyoto: Kyoto University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Ishikawa, Noboru, Ryoji Soda, and Hiromitsu Samejima. 2013. The complex system of tropical biomass society: Nature’s time and human time. In Chikyuken seimeiken no senzairyoku: nettaichiikishakai no seizonkiban [Potential of the geosphere and biosphere: Sustainable foundations for the tropical region], ed. Masayuki Yanagisawa, Yasuyuki Kono, Osamu Kozan, and Mamoru Kanzaki, 283–315. Kyoto: Kyoto University PressGoogle Scholar
  14. King, Victor T. 1996. Environmental change in Malaysian Borneo: Fire, drought and rain. In Environmental change in South-East Asia: People, politics and sustainable development, ed. Michael J.G. Parnwell and Raymond L. Bryant, 165–189. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  15. Langub, Jayl, and Noboru Ishikawa. 2017. Community, river and basin: Watersheds in northern Sarawak as a social linkage. In Borneo studies in history, society and culture, ed. Victor T. King, Zawawi Ibrahim, and Noor Hasharina Hassan, 365–384. Singapore: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Mintz, Sidney W. 1959. The plantation as a socio-cultural type. In Plantation systems of the New World, ed. Research Institute for the Study of Man and Pan American Union, 42–50. Washington, DC: Pan American Union.Google Scholar
  17. Mizuno, Kosuke, Motoko S. Fujita, and Shuichi Kawai, eds. 2016. Catastrophe and regeneration in Indonesia’s peatlands: Ecology, economy and society. Singapore: NUS Press.Google Scholar
  18. Morrison, Philip S. 1993. Transitions in rural Sarawak: Off-farm employment in the Kemena basin. Pacific Viewpoint 34 (1): 45–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Okamoto, Masaaki, and Hideki Hayashida. 2018. Aburayashi nōen kakudai no seiji keizaigaku: akutā, gensetsu, seido no shiten kara [The political economy of oil palm expansion: Actors, narratives and institutions]. Tounanaja Kenkyu [Journal of Southeast Asian Studies] 55 (2): 169–399.Google Scholar
  20. Owen, Donald A. 1909. Sarawak Gazette, 1 April.Google Scholar
  21. Parnwell, Michael J.G., and David M. Taylor. 1996. Environmental degradation, non-timber forest products and Iban communities in Sarawak: Impact, response and future prospects. In Environmental change in South-East Asia: People, politics and sustainable development, ed. Michael J.G. Parnwell and Raymond L. Bryant, 269–300. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Pye, Oliver, and Jayati Bhattacharya, eds. 2013. The palm oil controversy in Southeast Asia: A transnational perspective. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.Google Scholar
  23. Raes, Niels, Saw Leng Guan, Peter C. van Welzen, and Tetsukazu Yahara. 2013. Legume diversity as indicator for botanical diversity on Sundaland, South East Asia. South African Journal of Botany 89: 265–272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Sahlins, Marshall. 1968. Notes on the original affluent society. In Man the hunter, ed. Richard B. Lee and Irven Devore, 85–89. New York: Aldine.Google Scholar
  25. Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Soda, Ryoji. 2007. People on the move: Rural–urban interactions in Sarawak. Kyoto/Melbourne: Kyoto University Press/Trans Pacific Press.Google Scholar
  27. ———. 2017. Culture and acceptance of disasters: Supernatural factors as an explanation of riverbank erosion. Ngingit 9: 18–24.Google Scholar
  28. Soda, Ryoji, Yumi Kato, and Jason Hon. 2015. The diversity of small-scale oil palm cultivation in Sarawak, Malaysia. The Geographical Journal 182 (4): 353–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Steward, Julian H., and [and others]. 1956. The people of Puerto Rico: A study in social anthropology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  30. Swanson, Heather Anne, Nils Bubandt, and Anna Tsing. 2015. Less than one but more than many: Anthropocene as science fiction and scholarship-in-the-making. Environment and Society: Advances in Research 6 (1): 149–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Takeuchi, Yayoi, and Masaki Kobayashi. 2016. Combining field and molecular approaches to understand the regeneration processes of tropical tree species. In Proceedings of the symposium ‘Frontier in tropical forest research: Progress in joint projects between the Forest Department Sarawak and the Japan Research Consortium for Tropical Forests in Sarawak’, 38–45. Kuching: Forest Department Sarawak and Kyoto, Japan Research Consortium for Tropical Forests in Sarawak.Google Scholar
  32. Takeuchi, Yayoi, Ryoji Soda, Bibian Diway, Tinjan ak Kuda, Michiko Nakagawa, Hidetoshi Nagamasu, and Tohru Nakashizuka. 2017. Biodiversity conservation values of fragmented communally reserved forests, managed by indigenous people, in a human modified landscape in Borneo. PLoS One 12 (11): e0187273.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Taylor, D.M., D. Hortin, M.J.G. Parnwell, and T.K. Marsden. 1994. The degradation of rainforests in Sarawak, East Malaysia, and its implications for future management policies. Geoforum 25 (3): 351–369.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2005. Friction: An ethnography of global connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. ———. 2012. On nonscalability: The living world is not amenable to precision-nested scales. Common Knowledge 18 (3): 505–524.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. ———. 2015. The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Wolf, Eric R. 2001. Specific aspects of plantation systems in the new world. In Pathways of power: Building an anthropology of the modern world, ed. Eric R. Wolf with Sydel Silverman, 215–229. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Southeast Asian StudiesKyoto UniversityKyotoJapan
  2. 2.Graduate School of Literature and Human SciencesOsaka City UniversityOsakaJapan

Personalised recommendations