Policy Narratives, landholder engagement and oil palm expansion on the Malaysian and Indonesian frontiers

John McCarthy, Robert Cramb

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    Over recent decades a structural transformation has affected agriculture in the frontier areas of Malaysian Borneo and Outer Island Indonesia with the rapid conversion of agricultural lands, fallows, and formerly forested areas into oil palm. These frontiers have similar positions in the international political economy of oil palm and have complementary resource endowments. In both cases, state planners face the common challenges of finding a disciplined labour force, delivering land for estate development, maintaining local legitimacy, and dealing with local contestation. Yet there are significant differences in systems of governance and policy frameworks regarding land, shifting capacity of state actors to facilitate the transformation of these agrarian frontiers, and changing degrees of local, national and international contestation. Considering the generic and the specific elements at play in each case, this paper argues that analogous policy narratives have shaped the ways in which landholders have been engaged in the process of oil palm expansion in Malaysia and Indonesia. In both cases, with the shift from state-led to neoliberal governance approaches to agricultural development, the 'frontier' has been created and transformed through policy narratives that facilitate the conversion of whole landscapes into oil palm. This has been achieved by obscuring indigenous forms of agriculture and land tenure, while creating reserves of available 'state' or 'idle' customary land, and counterpoising smallholder 'marginality' and 'backwardness' to the modernity of contemporary estate agriculture.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)112-123
    JournalThe Geographical Journal
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2009


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